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.
Showing choreography at a major venue in New York City is a goal and milestone for many dance artists. Yet when such an opportunity comes their way, choreographers frequently find themselves scrambling for time and technical resources to give their work that professional shine. What they end up performing may not have the polish they intended. "Far too often artists are arriving at their presenting house and the piece isn't ready," says Adrienne Willis, the executive and artistic director of Lumberyard Contemporary Performing Arts, an organization that helps dance artists develop new work.
Back when Lumberyard was known as the American Dance Institute and operated out of a strip mall in Rockville, Maryland, it pioneered its Incubator program to whip new pieces into shape, kind of like the "out-of-town" tryout model for theater. Several of the artists it supported ultimately brought their shows to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, one of New York City's most prestigious venues, which quickly recognized the positive influence of the Incubator on performances.
Since Thanksgiving is finally here, it's officially time to talk Nutcracker. With countless productions taking place between now and Christmas (and even some through the new year), we've been keeping tabs on Instagram to check in on rehearsals. Whether you're obsessed with all things Sugar Plum Fairy or the snow scene is more your speed, we've got your first look at the holiday classic.
We have a feeling even the Boston Ballet dancing bear couldn't keep up with second soloist Lawrence Rines' tricks in Russian.
For the past 3 years, choreographer Stephen Petronio has been reviving groundbreaking works of postmodern dance through his BLOODLINES project. This season, although his company will be performing a work by Merce Cunningham, his own choreography moves in a more luxurious direction. We stepped into the studio with Petronio and his dancers where they were busy creating a new work, Hardness 10, named for the categorization of diamonds.
'Tis the season to have some fun in the kitchen. If you want to get more creative than simply baking another pumpkin pie, try these Nutcracker-themed treats—created by and for dancers. These recipes from former Boston Ballet and Joffrey Ballet dancers were first published in Dance Magazine's December 1990 issue. Today, they're still guaranteed to turn any holiday party or dressing room into a true Land of the Sweets.
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
Everyone knows that training is the cornerstone of a successful career in dance. But as a dance educator, I also take comfort in the fact that high-quality dance training helps shape students into genuinely good people (in addition to creating future artists, which is a wonderful goal in itself.) These are the lessons dance teaches that help make students into better humans:
Improvement Takes Commitment Over Time
In my tap courses at Cal State University, sometimes students are shocked when they can't learn something quickly. In today's world, we're used to getting fast results. You need an answer—Google it. You need to talk to someone—text them. The cooking channel wants your dinner to be easy, the physical trainer wants your workout to be five minutes, Rosetta Stone can have you speaking Mandarin in an hour.
It's no secret that affording college is a challenge for many students. And for dancers, there are added complications, like the relative lack of merit scholarships that take artistic talent into consideration and the improbability of a stable salary to pay off loans post-graduation. But no matter your budget, a smart approach to the application process can help you focus less on money and more on your training.
According to Drexel University performing arts department head Miriam Giguere, figuring out the kind of financial assistance a school offers is just as important as navigating what kind of dance program you want. Here's how to incorporate finances into your decision-making process:
When dancers get injured, they often think they should eat less. The thought process goes something like, Since I'm not able to move as much as I usually do, I'm not burning enough calories to justify the portions I'm used to.
But the truth is, scaling back your meals could actually be detrimental to your healing process.
With her fearless demeanor onstage, it's easy to see how Washington Ballet apprentice Sarah Steele attracted the keen eye of former American Ballet Theatre stars Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel. Promoted mid-season from the studio company by artistic director Kent, Steele was cast by Stiefel as the lead in Frontier, his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, this past spring. For the space-themed piece, Steele donned a black-and-white "space suit" onstage, exhibiting dual qualities of strength and grace. Most evocative about Steele's dancing might be her innate intelligence—she was accepted to Harvard on early admission, and plans to resume her studies there in the future. But first, she'll dance.
Lots of college groups do stepping—a form of body percussion based on slapping, tapping and stomping—but Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company to do it. They are currently at New York City's New Victory Theater, presenting The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, a show based on the painting series by Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence about The Great Migration of the 1900s, when millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South and traveled by train to the North for a better life. The Great Migration transformed the demographics of the country, and Jacob Lawrence's paintings became famous for their bold color and evocative power.