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.
To be honest, we never tire of watching non-dancers tackle a day in the life of the pros. From athletes to average Joes, these videos always give us a good laugh, and they remind the rest of the world that a whole lot of work goes into every dance performance you see. But often times, these dancer-for-a-day videos don't fully understand the importance of training (i.e., you can't just throw on a pair of pointe shoes and give it a go).
That's why we're especially loving this video by Refinery29 that actually gets it. Lucie Fink, host of the R29 YouTube series Lucie For Hire , got a private lesson from American Ballet Theatre principal Isabella Boylston, and it was endlessly entertaining.
"So why did you quit?"
It's a question I've been asked hundreds of times since I stopped dancing over a decade ago. My answer has changed over the years as my own understanding of what lead me to walk away from greatest love of my life has become clearer.
"I had some injures," I would mutter nervously for the first few years. This seemed like the answer people understood most. Then it became, "I was just not very happy." Finally, as I passed into my 30s, I began telling the uncomfortable truth: "I quit dancing because of untreated depression."
We'd love to know what it is that has Pina Bausch, Rudolf Nureyev and Gerard Violette so amused, or what Toer van Schayk (far right) is thinking here, but one thing's for certain: We're terribly envious of the journalist (second from right) who got to be there when this shot was taken in 1986.
It's the end of a long rehearsal day for the dancers of Abraham.In.Motion. They're reviewing phrases of a new work, Dearest Home. It's a pretty typical rehearsal scene. Some dancers cluster around a laptop trying to piece together steps learned long ago. Others review choreography together, working to figure out who remembered which arms correctly.
What isn't typical: The company's director and choreographer, Kyle Abraham, is nowhere to be seen.
That's because while the company is based in New York City full-time, Abraham spends most of his year teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he joined the faculty last September. It's an unconventional model for a single-choreographer–led troupe, almost functioning like a repertory company in which choreographers drop in for a week to set a piece, leaving it up to the rehearsal directors and dancers to keep the momentum going.
La Scala Ballet has a knack for snagging exceptional guest artists, and the company's rare West Coast appearance this weekend at Segerstrom Center for the Arts is no exception. Principal dancer étoile Roberto Bolle will partner both Misty Copeland and Marianela Nuñez in Giselle. And in an extra international twist, they'll be accompanied by the Mikhailovsky Orchestra for the engagement. July 28–30. scfta.org.
Serious dancers interested in musical theater face a difficult choice when applying to college: Should you major in dance or musical theater? "You can make a career following either pathway," says Lynne Formato, associate professor of performing arts at Elon University. If you choose to go the musical theater route, find a program that will challenge your dance technique: