What It's Like to Go from Stardom to the Corps de Ballet
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.
PC Ellen Appel, Courtesy TBT
As the 24-year-old brunette explains, "I wasn't even thinking about a career yet. It was all sort of a whirlwind, and I just went with it." She could have stayed where she was for the rest of her career, cycling through the classical roles and having new ones created for her by the company's artistic director, Ben Stevenson. "I grew up there—I was comfortable there," she says. But as time went on, she realized she was hungry for a change: a new company, a bigger city, longer seasons, opportunities to tour. "I was ready to go somewhere new and start over."
So early in 2015, she contacted American Ballet Theatre, hoping to arrange an audition. Though she was informed that there were no openings, she was invited to come to New York City to take class. She took them up on the offer, and made a good impression. By chance, a position opened up, and she was offered a contract. She made her debut with ABT as a nymph in The Sleeping Beauty toward the end of the 2015 Met season. (Encouraged by her success, her boyfriend, Simon Wexler, also auditioned and joined the corps a few months after her.)
McBride (left) in Ratmansky's Sleeping Beauty. PC John Grigaitis
But the decision came at a cost: She had to trade in her life as a leading dancer for a place in the corps. "I've definitely struggled with it at times. It's weird, I'm new here, but I'm not new to being a professional. So I just try to keep doing what I need to do and not focus on that too much."
Her clear-eyed approach has already helped cement her place in the company. She has been given some opportunities: a little swan in Swan Lake, Fairy Fleur de farine in Alexei Ratmansky's historically minded Sleeping Beauty, Columbine in his Nutcracker. And more chances seem to be in store: She's rehearsing the role of the lead gypsy in Don Quixote and recently started learning the choreography for Olga, the younger sister in John Cranko's Onegin.
PC Ellen Appel, Courtesy TBT
She realizes that nothing is automatic in a big company like ABT. She's fifth cast for Olga, which means she may not get to dance it for a while, if ever. As she puts it, "It's definitely a waiting game." Meanwhile, she's finding sustenance dancing in the corps. "It challenged me to go back to working with my peers and feeding off of each other. You feel that camaraderie and the ups and downs."
"Betsy is an extremely versatile dancer with a vibrant personality on the stage, and quick to learn," says Susan Jones, principal ballet mistress at ABT. "When she joined, it was as if she'd always been here."
Her adaptability was on display in a recent rehearsal of Ratmansky's new ballet Whipped Cream, in which she was creating the role of one of four "swirl girls." Even as she learned the complicated steps, she danced them full-out, with confidence.
It's easy to see why critics back in Texas used adjectives like "reckless" and "daring" to describe her dancing. And she's not timid about trying new things: "Sometimes Ratmansky asks us to do something that seems impossible. And then you realize, once you try it, that you can. It's been kind of a light bulb for me." It seems that with this move she's gotten even more than what she bargained for: a choreographer of international repute who can push her to new heights.
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.
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.
Efficient movement is easy to recognize—we all know when we see a dancer whose every action seems essential and unmannered. Understanding how to create this effect, however, is far more elusive. From a practical perspective, dancing with efficiency helps you to conserve your energy and minimize wear and tear on the body; from an artistic point of view, it allows you to make big impressions out of little moments, and lasting memories for those watching.
So much struggle and determination goes into your training that it can be difficult for early-career dancers to recalibrate their priorities toward simplicity and ease, says Laurel Jenkins, freelance performer and Trisha Brown Dance Company staging artist. "Your aesthetic might shift, and you might have to find new things beautiful." Mastering the art of effortless movement requires a new perspective and a smart strategy—on- and offstage.
As we approach Thanksgiving, there's much to be grateful for. Perhaps one of the most important things on your list is dance. Whether you're a full-time company member, an aspiring professional, an audience member, or you simply delight in dancing in your daydreams, this art form is a creative escape.
That's not to say that being a dancer is easy: Pursuing such a competitive career can be heartbreaking, especially when you're faced with rejection.
La Folía, a short dance film by director Adam Grannick that was recently released online, echoes these sentiments in under 12 minutes.
It took two years of intense nutrition counseling and psychotherapy to pull me out of being anorexic. My problem now is that I've gained too much weight from eating normally. Is there no middle ground? I can't fit into my clothes, but I don't want to go back to being sick.
—Former Anorexic, Weston, CT
Whatever your feelings about Wayne McGregor's heady, hyper-physical choreography, we can all probably agree on one thing: We'd really, really love to pick his brain. And tomorrow, Dance Umbrella, a UK-based dance festival, is giving everyone the chance to do exactly that.
"Women are often presented as soft, fragile little creatures in ballet," says Léonore Baulac. "We're not." The Paris Opéra Ballet's newest female étoile is discussing her unease at some of the 19th-century narratives she portrays. "It was real acting," she says with a laugh of La Sylphide. "James kills her by taking away her wings, yet she tells him not to worry and goes to die elsewhere onstage!"
Sitting in the canteen of the Palais Garnier, Baulac embodies some of ballet's contradictions in the 21st century. With her fair curls and dainty features, she could easily pass for a little girl's fantasy princess. As Juliet, she exuded a girlish ardor that felt entirely natural; her reservations notwithstanding, her Sylphide was committed and carefully Romantic in style.
Yet the 27-year-old is no ingénue. At Garnier that day, her sweater reads "I can't believe I still have to protest this s**t," a feminist slogan; last winter, Baulac proudly wore it over a Kitri tutu on Instagram. And her repertoire is as thoroughly modern as she is offstage. A versatile performer even by Parisian standards, she is equally at home in Nutcracker as she is in the works of Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.