Stuck in the Middle
Being a soloist has its perks, like bigger roles and a bigger paycheck. But it has a less glamorous side, too. Soloists take on corps roles, principal roles and everything in between. The rank comes with more pressure and a demanding schedule, which can take its toll mentally and physically. Though the promotion validates a dancer’s hard work and achievements, many find themselves stuck in the rank waiting for a promotion that may or may not come.
For Houston Ballet's Charles-Louis Yoshiyama, the soloist rank has been demanding but fruitful. PC Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy HB
“I know dancers have very strong feelings about it. And I see how it could be demoralizing,” says Pacific Northwest Ballet artistic director Peter Boal. Focusing on the work rather than the rank is the only way to take advantage of the promotion, and use it to move forward.
All Work, No Play
Being a soloist can be taxing because of the inconsistent workload. “If you’re one of the upperclassmen, it’s very rare that you ever have any time off,” says Ballet West first soloist Allison DeBona. She says it’s common to have to learn two different spots in the same ballet or be cast in every piece in a show. “Mentally you feel lost, and physically you feel broken.” Many soloists miss the camaraderie and support system of the corps de ballet they left.
Running on overdrive makes it difficult to find time to cross-train and stay injury-free. Houston Ballet’s Charles-Louis Yoshiyama, who was promoted to principal in 2016, sprained his ankle and broke his fifth metatarsal shortly after becoming a soloist. “The injury made me think quite a bit more about taking care of my body,” he says.
But having a lot on your plate doesn’t just make it hard to keep up physically. DeBona says that especially when she was a demi-soloist, one of the most frustrating things was not having as much time as a principal would to devote herself to bigger roles. Even now as a first soloist, she says, “I always feel like I’m at a disadvantage. Imagine a two-show day. A principal might dance in the afternoon and have the evening off. A soloist could be juggling a principal role during the day and another role at night.”
On the other hand, soloists can see slow periods where they’re barely cast in anything at all. “We do six programs a year, plus Nutcracker, and there could be a program that a dancer is not in,” says Boal. “That can mean a full two months off the stage. They’re always covering something if they’re not cast, but that can be hard.” It’s up to the dancer to take advantage of this downtime by devoting extra energy to daily class, understudying and cross-training.
Becoming an Artist
The soloist rank gives you the freedom to grow as an artist in new ways. “When you’re in the corps, you feel like you have to do things the way they’re shown to you. You’re afraid to show your artistry or musicality,” says DeBona. “It was liberating to let go of that.”
Yoshiyama says that his years as a soloist, though sometimes overwhelming, have been the most fruitful of his career. Part of that is because the promotion gives you a mental boost. “I was more motivated after the promotion because you’re looking forward to upcoming shows,” he says. “You feel pressure to keep up with your technique. You want to become a principal, and there are so many talented up-and-coming dancers.”
Ultimately, soloists are working towards a goal that no one can guarantee. “But you have to stay level-headed and remember why you’re actually dancing. You’re getting opportunities and enjoying yourself onstage,” says DeBona. “When you retire, that’s what you’re going to remember.”
The Perks of the Soloist Promotion
Better pay: Under AGMA guidelines, you’re guaranteed a salary boost.
Better dressing rooms: “At PNB, the corps is two floors below the stage, and the soloists and principals are on the stage level. It really matters when you’re running back and forth during Swan Lake,” says artistic director Peter Boal.
Better networking: Soloists are invited to more company events, like galas and board meetings, that make them feel like they’re an integral part of the company, says Houston Ballet’s Charles-Louis Yoshiyama.
Better gigs: It opens up doors in terms of guesting and teaching, says Boal.
From the minute my journey as a dancer began at age 4, there were no other options of what I might do with my life.
Sure, I tried other "after-school activities." I tried desperately to master The Phantom of the Opera with my squeaky violin rental—a headache for my parents who paid for private Suzuki method lessons at our house. Constantly attempting famous show tunes on my violin, the effort was completely futile. I actually remember thinking, 'Surely this sheet music is wrong, this sounds nothing like the Phantom of the Opera.'
I even tried my hand at gymnastics. But when my mom's brilliant bribery of $100 for my first mastery of a kip or a back handspring didn't produce any results, we quickly threw in the towel.
When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."
But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.
Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.
"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.
After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.
Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org
In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."
She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."
Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.
Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.
Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.
New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.
A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.
Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.
In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.
When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series
The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!
We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.
Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.
Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?
If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.
"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."
I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."
It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.