On The Rise: Laura Gilbreath
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.
Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo is on a mission to get Monaco dancing. F(Ê)AITES DE LA DANSE is a free outdoor festival taking over the Place du Casino on July 1 from 6 pm to the wee hours of the morning. Not only will there be lessons in styles ranging from ballroom to belly dancing and flamenco to African dance, but there will also be a giant barre (dozens of meters long) for warming up, a seven-hour dance marathon and a flash mob. Performances by Yamakasi (parkour), Le Patin Libre (contemporary skating) and Pokemon Crew (street dance) take place throughout the evening, culminating in a midnight performance of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo in a new work by Jean-Christophe Maillot. And for anyone still going at 2 am, Monte Carlo's Opera Garnier will host a deejayed dance party, while just outside a silent disco takes over the terraces. balletsdemontecarlo.com.
Summertime, and the living is...steamy. Studios can be hot. Outdoor festivals can be grueling—especially once those stage lights turn on. When the temperatures rise, movement feels harder and your body fatigues faster.
What's a dancer to do? Follow these steps to make the heat less taxing on your body so that it doesn't keep you from dancing your best.
Some careers come together so organically that the dancer barely has time to take stock of how she got to where she is. That's how it was for Betsy McBride, at least until 2015.
Born in Coppell, a suburb of Dallas, McBride began taking ballet at her local school at age 3. At 14, she attended a summer intensive at the school affiliated with Texas Ballet Theater. Within a few weeks, McBride was offered a year-round place at the school with the tantalizing prospect of being hired by the company. Which is exactly what happened just a few months later. And there she stayed, eventually performing some of the most desirable roles in TBT's repertoire: Juliet, Odette/Odile, Aurora, the glamorous soloist in Balanchine's "Rubies," the title character in Ronald Hynd's The Merry Widow.
If you've been keeping up with World of Dance, you're well aware that junior division competitor Eva Igo has established herself as a serious contender. Groomed on the competition scene, the 14-year-old Minnesota native traveled to Los Angeles with her mom, taking the stage alongside some of the industry's most established names in dance—and she's killing it.
"Growing up in competitions, I had experience with having judges in front of me, so that helped me deal with the pressure," Igo tells us on how she remained so poised during her performances for The Qualifiers and The Duels (she beat out hip-hop duo KynTay). "That experience really helped me know when to have my competitor mode on."
Completely blowing the judges away with her mix of technique, tricks and stage presence (judge Derek Hough declared it "Eva's world" after her Duel solo to the song "It's A Man's World"), Igo makes each performance look effortless. "When I'm learning the dance, I have a story in mind and I relate it back to my life," Igo explains on how she taps into the emotive side of her dancing. "Before I perform the dance, I'll really think about that and try to just take a breath while I'm on stage."
I have always felt a need to communicate and, even more importantly, to be understood. But as a child, I always hit an emotional wall when trying to speak.
Although my great-aunt Rose had no connection to dance, she intuitively saw that I needed an outlet, and recommended that I take a movement class. It was literally life-changing. I realized I could make myself understood without my needing to be verbal.
When you're training, it can feel like all you need to succeed in the dance world is artistic talent and drive. But once you make the leap into the professional world, you may find out just how much you don't know about making it as a dancer.
When I started my professional career, I soon realized that all the time and money my parents and I had invested in my training still hadn't fully prepared me to make it as a freelance dancer—especially one who had plenty of bills and student loans to pay. Only after years of trial and error, failures and mega-hustle did I start to figure out how to navigate professional dance life in a remotely sustainable way. Here are a few lessons I've learned along the way.
Live music is an essential part of any dance class. But aside from a polite "thank you" afterwards, dancers—and teachers—often don't give enough thought to the musician who's making the magic happen.
I worked as a dance musician for over three decades, and was fortunate to play for some of the field's greatest artists. I now teach musicians how to play for ballet, modern and contemporary dance in my Accompanying Movement class at the University of Michigan.
I train my students to know the ins and outs of dance classes of varying styles. In return, we sometimes wish our collaborative partners understood more about what we bring to the studio:
Dance Magazine reached out to us with the questions: Over the years, how has increased acceptance and visibility on concert-dance stages affected hip hop and its artists? And how has hip hop influenced concert dance?
Our response? Whoa! Acceptance? Visibility? Immediately we knew that any conscientious attempt to unpack these questions would easily exceed the maximum word count. But we also acknowledged that questions like these affect what we do as dancemakers and artist-citizens.
So we interviewed our colleague Nicole Klaymoon and mentor Rennie Harris to contribute to a conversation. We are all multilingual dance artists with our own unique voices in hip hop and street-dance theater. We are from different backgrounds and generations whose work is presented as concert dance and builds on the groundwork of Rennie Harris Puremovement.
Amy O'Neal's Opposing Forces. Photo by Bruce Clayton Tom, courtesy O'Neal