Unless you're in the Trocks or performing a character role, there aren't many opportunities for men to perform on pointe. But that doesn't mean pointe should be off-limits. In fact, it's a chance to strengthen your facility and boost your technique.
It Strengthens Your Ankles
“I think every dancer can benefit from a good pointe barre class for feet and ankle strengthening," says Jonathan Porretta, a Pacific Northwest Ballet principal who has taught at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet's summer program and Ballet Academy East. It makes your arches stronger and more flexible, and it can help with balance since it gives you a new awareness of where your weight is.
Jonathan Porretta, PC Angela Sterling
It Makes Your Whole Body Work Harder
“In flats you tend to forget where your feet are and you can sink into the shoe more easily," says Roberto Vega, who dances with Nashville Ballet 2. "On pointe, I pull up a lot more and I think about not rolling in." Matthew Poppe, who dances with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, has noticed increased hip and ankle flexibility from the stretching he does to maintain proper alignment on pointe. He credits the shoes with extending his line, as well; the extra length of the shoe's box is a constant reminder of how far his extension can go.
Luke Marchant and Cameron Hunter of The Australian Ballet preparing for The Dream. PC Lynette Wills.
It Helps You Feel Lifted
Megan Connelly, ballet mistress and rehabilitation specialist at The Australian Ballet, says the men who recently studied pointe to perform Bottom in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Dream “discovered a whole new 'lift' in their pelvis," which helped them with balance and stability. And David McAllister, TAB's artistic director, told the Sydney Morning Herald that he could see the strength they gained from pointe training in their jumps.
It Gives You A New Perspective
Having the experience of dancing on pointe can help you empathize with the women you're partnering—and choreographing on.
For this PNB principal, injury led the way to better health and a fuller awareness of her body.
Maria Chapman explodes across the stage—her legs stretching into three long jetés, one right after another. She powers through her solo in David Dawson’s A Million Kisses to my Skin, giving the extreme extensions and torso shifts full play. Kisses is about how good it feels to dance, and Chapman gets the point across, showing that every muscle and joint can contribute to the enjoyment. Piqué passé: Did you know how luscious a stretch that can be?
Two years ago, this Pacific Northwest Ballet principal couldn’t have done that passé. A fluke foot injury had her facing two surgeries; her doctor thought she would never dance again. Chapman was back onstage in 10 months.
“Proprioception was really key to my rehabilitation,” says Chapman. (Proprioception is the sense that tells you where your limbs are and how they’re moving in relation to the rest of your body.)
“Since I was on crutches for so long—six months,” continues Chapman, “I developed a real disconnect to my entire right leg, but especially my right foot. It didn’t even feel like it was part of my body. So I really needed to remember to love my foot and reincorporate it back into my body—to take it back.”
Chapman did proprioception exercises to reintegrate her foot, but in the process she tuned in to her entire body, gaining a connected quality that looks great onstage.
The Root of the Problem
Chapman started listening to her body when she was very young. At 15, while at the School of American Ballet, she struggled with a pinched fat pad in her knee, a relatively common injury in that joint. The “ice it/rest it” prescription wasn’t yielding long-term results. Chapman, however, realized that forcing her heels to touch in first position was causing the problem. “It makes my knees angry,” she says. Rather than fussing over a perfect first, she just stopped putting her heels together. Problem solved!
Chapman knows the price of not listening: In 2000, she was sidelined for a season. Her back had given her warnings, she says, but she pushed on—to the point where it spasmed nonstop. She recommends admitting when your body needs attention, rather than just plowing through. Take the time to figure out what’s going on. “I was doing a lot of movement from my back when I should have been using other parts of my body”—specifically her obliques, glutes, and hamstrings.
Fuel and Maintenance
Originally from Macon, Georgia, Chapman grew up eating “everything” cooked in bacon fat. Nowadays, her health-savvy, triathlete husband does much of the cooking for them both. At some point, her canister of bacon fat just…disappeared. She eats three full meals—and snacks. She chooses colorful foods, high in protein and calcium, low in sugar and salt. Nuts, yogurt, a sweet potato (or squash), and an avocado make a daily appearance. Water is key; she also drinks electrolytes and protein shakes. Before a performance? Clif Shot Bloks.
Chapman avoids popping pills like Advil, given their potential long-term-use effects on the kidneys. She opts instead for an occasional homeopathic painkiller. She finds relief for strains with Phiten strips. A hot bath with Epsom salts at night helps, as does massage twice a month.
“My body feels really good,” she says. “But I do take care of myself every minute of the day…making sure I’m doing things that I need to do—the way I need to do them.” Pre-class rituals include 15–20 minutes of cardio (swimming, running, or biking) and 30 minutes of strengthening exercises (including pelvic-floor strengtheners, core stabilizers, and plyometrics). Equipment includes a Bosu ball, Thera-Bands, and weights. Variety is key for Chapman, and she chooses exercises that make her feel good. She has a binder full of favorites. She also works with a trainer twice a week, sometimes on moves specifically created to tackle issues noticed in performance.
Chapman looks ahead to see what the day—and the week—will require of her. She plans for it, considers which morning exercises will help most, and tries to pace herself. She works hard but fights the temptation to work so hard that she might compromise the next day’s dancing. “That’s not what I’m going for,” she says. “The goal is to have the perfectly planned week, dancing the way I want to dance.”
When she started rehearsals for Kisses, Chapman realized this fast piece would take more than just ramping up stamina. “You need strength to move in that bigger range,” she says. She found exercises that would help her safely manage the ballet’s split-second changes in direction and its extreme, full-range flexibility. Her work resulted in performances of power, speed, clarity, grace, and joy—A Million Kisses, inside and out.
Rosie Gaynor writes about dance in Seattle.
In a rehearsal for Dawson’s A Million Kisses to my Skin. Photo © Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB.
Take Care of Your Entire Self—Even Your Toes
Chapman found that she was getting a lot of tightness underneath her foot because two toes were doing all the work. Here’s how she helps her other toes pull their weight.
• Put your foot flat on the floor.
• Wrap the thinnest gauge of exercise tubing around your big toe.
• Pull up on the tubing with your fingers so your toe comes up.
• Keeping the tension in the tubing, try to push your toe down.
• Repeat with each toe. “All the toes want to come up, too,” says Chapman. “The idea is to leave them down and just work the one toe. It’s actually hard!”
• Start with a few repetitions and work your way up to more.
Margaret Mullin unfurls a luxurious développé in the middle of a pas de deux. This brief moment of unhurried classical grace comes as a surprise amid the fast, fierce, contemporary angles of Jirí Kylián’s Sechs Tänze. Yet Mullin makes it feel all of a piece, and it becomes clear she not only understands classical and contemporary vocabulary, she can make them work together.
That suits Pacific Northwest Ballet artistic director Peter Boal, who cast the 22-year-old corps member in eight soloist roles last season. He points to her successes in such varied ballets as Sleeping Beauty (Bluebird), The Four Temperaments (demi-soloist), and Victor Quijada’s oozing Suspension of Disbelief (ensemble). “With Maggie, it’s all been surprises. I expected her to do well, and she did better than expected at many different turns.”
Mullin grew up in Tucson with her mother and grandmother. She took her first dance class at age 4. At 9, she moved to Ballet Arts, where she stayed through high school. She spent five summers at the PNB School, a year in its professional division, and joined PNB’s corps in 2009.
It was not a straight shot, however. Helping her were other students’ parents, who drove her to class when her mother was struck by a longterm illness, and her dance teachers Mary Beth Cabana and Chieko Imada. At 16, Mullin was sidelined by an ankle injury for nearly a year. She spent her downtime choreographing. The months off showed Mullin how committed she was to dancing. And she realized how crucial it is to know your body and take time as you learn. “Everyone gets injured; it’s just a part of what we do,” she says. “It’s important to not punish yourself for that.”
It’s easy to trace certain aspects of Mullin’s dancing to Ballet Arts, where the curriculum incorporated many styles. Variation classes—even for the little kids—emphasized artistry. Technique was not ignored, however. “Everything was very, very clean,” says Mullin.
The results were apparent even at the start of her 2008 apprenticeship, when she danced in Benjamin Millepied’s 3 Movements. She showed her strong stage presence, musicality, clean lines, and ability to fly across the stage. (“Her traveling is beautiful,” says Boal. “She lets the music help her jump.”)
Mullin works hard in class (even her tendus are a dramatic performance, strong feet slicing fast and clear). And she has performed challenging roles this spring, including Butterfly in Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Peasant Pas de Deux in Giselle. If Ballet Arts gave her what Mullin describes as “the raw material,” she says her years at PNB have been about “putting it into motion in the right way” with the help of Boal and the company’s ballet masters. Her control, refinement, and sophistication have increased so much so that Boal nominated her for a Princess Grace Award.
As for her interests outside of dance, Mullin says that she loves drawing, writing, and watching old movies. She also goes to lots of concerts with her boyfriend, who is a musician. Even at the symphony she catches herself choreographing in her head. Part of Ballet Arts’ curriculum, choreographing is something Mullin has continued to do at PNB for its annual choreographers’ showcase. Boal says this has helped her grow as an artist.
Watching Mullin set a piece on some poised Professional Division students, one can see how already she is passing down some of what she appreciates so deeply from teachers like Boal and PNB’s Elaine Bauer (who coached her on her Princess Grace Award submission). Bauer says that Mullin “has the fertile mind of an artist, taking the seed of an idea and making it grow before our eyes.” This bodes well for Mullin’s dream of someday dancing Juliette in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette. Character, motivation, and musicality are key in this role—a role made for those who understand both contemporary and classical. It could be a perfect fit.
Rosie Gaynor is a Seattle dance writer.
Mullin in Paul Gibson’s The Piano Dance. Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.
Strictly Seattle gives a workout for body and mind.
By the fifth day of Strictly Seattle, choreographer Michele Miller already sees improvement in her advanced students. She walks through the renovated, brick-walled studio at Velocity Dance Center, eyes and hands alert to the tiniest bit of tension in the students’ backs as they hang over from the hips. The 22 students in this modern technique class are working their way through Miller’s seamless warm-up—a floor-barre mash-up of modern, martial arts, gymnastics, Wii Fit, and Pilates. Watching it feels like a massage, but the students are working hard, and they haven’t even gotten to the killer ab series yet. Miller touches a back here, a hip bone there, so they can feel where to release. “Your hips are more square today,” she notes happily.
Velocity staffs this three-week intensive with the movers and shakers of Seattle’s modern dance scene (see “Seattle Takes Off,” p. 70). And the advanced students could be the next generation of movers and shakers themselves. Many are just finishing up college dance degrees and starting to look for work. At Strictly Seattle (which accepts students ages 16 and up), they have the chance to interact with nine different local artists in a challenging yet supportive environment. Working with faculty from a range of contemporary backgrounds, students explore multiple styles and philosophies. The common denominators? All classes emphasize risk-taking and artistic experimentation, while helping dancers tap directly into Seattle’s professional dance network.
A day at Strictly Seattle means almost seven hours in the studio. Last summer, the advanced students kicked off the morning with a technique class—modern one day, foundational ballet the next. “Our ballet has a very modern bent to it,” says executive director Kara O’Toole. Her smile widens as she adds, “Your ballet teacher has a mohawk.” Next, they explored creative process and improvisation with four contemporary choreographers: KT Niehoff, Beth Graczyk and Corrie Befort of Salt Horse, and Bebe Miller. In the afternoons, they split up into smaller groups to work with other choreographers, including the 2009 A.W.A.R.D. Show winner Amelia Reeber, on pieces they would perform at the end of the program. An hour-long lunch break gave them time to relax in the park behind Velocity or explore the hip surrounding neighborhood of Capitol Hill. (The studios are also busy at night, when Strictly Seattle offers evening classes for less advanced adult dancers.)
According to O’Toole, many of the faculty members are former program participants. “A lot of dancers who have built their careers in the community started with Strictly Seattle,” she says. “This was their first touchstone, where they met a bunch of choreographers and dancers.” As students get to know these innovative artists, those same artists are learning about the students, getting a sense of whether they might be a good match for future projects. Not everyone lands a job, but some do. For instance, choreographer Amy O’Neal—a major draw of the program for her high-energy, funk-influenced classes and sharp observations—hired two of her 2010 students for a February 2011 show.
For dancers who bring a healthy attitude, seven hours a day for three weeks can result in exponential growth. Graczyk says that many students she worked with “came in with a focus and readiness that enabled them to make great strides in a short time. They knew the value of their time, and you could see it in their willingness to take risks.” By the end, she says, they emerged “more articulate and powerful as performers.” Befort, who has taught at Strictly Seattle in the past, noted that the “rigor and variety of techniques” pushed dancers to test their own physical and intellectual boundaries.
While some students enroll in the Professional Session, an audition-only level that allows the most accomplished dancers to push themselves even further, the atmosphere at Strictly Seattle is inclusive. A 15-minute break on the first Friday morning of the program finds most of the advanced students resting in the largest of Velocity’s three studios, sunlight slanting in from the skylights and pooling on the wooden floor. The students chat in small groups in a loose circle; nobody’s back is turned on anyone. In the final balance, they are all mature dancers working on their craft, discovering what kind of artistic voice speaks to them—and what they have to share with other artists.
To borrow a phrase that the Salt Horse duo used during one class, the teachers at Strictly Seattle hope “you’ll find your specific curiosity.” This is perhaps the greatest reward of the program: In the process of meeting Seattle’s choreographers, you have an opportunity to meet yourself.
Rosie Gaynor is a freelance writer in Seattle.
Amy O'Neal (in black) teaches modern class at Strictly Seattle. Photo by Jennifer Richard, courtesy Velocity
It’s not just her elegant 5' 10" frame that makes Laura Gilbreath stand out. It’s her ability to subtly express the very soul of a movement—whether she’s conquering the stage in Ulysses Dove’s Red Angels or skimming above it as Clara in Kent Stowell’s Nutcracker. She sparkled as the Fairy of Purity in Sleeping Beauty last February: Her happy gaze, alive and natural, gave purpose to the steps; her dainty pointework matched the delicate score.
This 25-year-old Pacific Northwest Ballet corps dancer would soon have more to smile about when artistic director Peter Boal promoted her to soloist. “I would have happily done it sooner,” says Boal. The delay was due in part to balancing the budget and the company roster. He pointed to Gilbreath’s 2009 lead performance in Balanchine’s Diamonds. “She didn’t do that as a rising corps member. She didn’t do it as a talented soloist. She did it as an accomplished ballerina. Laura is one of those dancers where early on you could see the ballerina.”
Gilbreath’s sheer joy in dancing was recognized early. Not long after her older sister started taking a creative movement class, the teacher noticed the younger girl’s excitement through the waiting room window. She invited the 2-year-old into class. “Immediately I fell in love with it,” says Gilbreath.
Both girls outgrew the ballet offerings in Hammond, Louisiana, the small hometown Gilbreath still loves to visit. When they were 8 and 10 years old, they began training in Baton Rouge, 45 minutes away. Soon, they added classes in New Orleans. “Our mom had to be very dedicated to schlep us back and forth every day,” says Gilbreath. Some nights they didn’t get home until 10:00 p.m.
At age 11, Gilbreath followed her sister to summer sessions at the School of American Ballet. After five summers, Gilbreath joined the winter program, staying for two years. “Every day you got this outpouring of knowledge from dancers who had worked with Balanchine,” she recalls. “They were so eager to make you better dancers.”
Gilbreath credits SAB with helping her learn to dance faster. They urged her to dance not just from the knees down but to use her buttocks and legs to power that speed. (The resulting strength shows up in her adagio as well, where her control means there is no rushing.) And SAB teachers encouraged her not to hide her height. She remembers Susan Pilarre calling out: “Dance bigger! Use your body! Use your long legs!” This, says Gilbreath, proved the biggest turning point for her.
At 17, after two summers of PNB intensives, Gilbreath left SAB. She joined PNB’s Professional Division, and signed her apprentice contract that spring when she was 18. A year later, she joined the corps. Francia Russell was one of her first directors and coaches at PNB. “With Laura, your eye goes to her right away,” Russell says. “She’s completely there; every fiber of her being is there.” This was evident in Gilbreath’s poignant performances of the Waltz Girl in Serenade last April: Her emotions matched the music and movement nuance for nuance.
Both Russell and Boal use words like “beautiful,” “intelligent,” and “superb” to describe Gilbreath. She has a “wicked sense of humor,” says Boal. She has that ability to take you with her, says Russell. To new places, says Boal. Russell notes she possesses the crucial skill of listening, of being open to coaching. Boal praises her technique. It seems that Gilbreath has a good chance of achieving her ultimate goal, to be a principal dancer.
“There’s so much that I have to work on and want to work on,” she says. Increasing her strength tops her list, followed by improving individual steps—like right pirouettes, “because I’m a lefty and everything in ballet is done to the right.” She tries to take more risks, especially in class, where, says Boal, she’s always ready, never hanging back, always pushing herself. “I want to get to the point where I could do Odette,” says Gilbreath.
And before Odette? That’s anyone’s guess. “The range is so great,” says Boal. “You can’t pigeonhole her. She’s capable of so much.” Her rep this year has been that of a principal dancer: Clara in Nutcracker, Lilac Fairy in Sleeping Beauty, Choleric in Balanchine’s Four Temperaments, Kylián’s Petite Mort, and Rosalia in Robbins’ West Side Story Suite—a singing role! She made smaller parts count, too. She danced the first theme in Four Temperaments—its calm opening, its convoluted turns, and its precise grands battements—with a composed, neutral quality that was riveting. “Laura took a small part and made it a big part,” says Boal. “That’s what great dancers do.”
Rosie Gaynor is a Seattle dance writer.
Photo of Gilbreath in Balanchine's Serenade by Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB. Copyright The Balanchine Trust.