Natasha Sheehan says competing gave her a crack at rep beyond her rank. Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy SFB

Why Do Pro Dancers Still Enter Competitions?

As a student, Katherine Barkman competed in several prestigious ballet competitions, and even won first place at the Youth America Grand Prix in Philadelphia. But at age 21, already a guest principal dancer with Ballet Manila, she decided to return to the competition stage as a professional. She found herself humbled by an experience at the 2017 Moscow International Ballet Competition.

"I was pretty intimidated, thinking, This is the big leagues, this is the Bolshoi Theatre," says Barkman, who was eliminated after the first round. "You are not just judged on how good you are for your age."

Competitions have long had a place in the training of young dancers, allowing them more opportunities to perform and learn under pressure. But even after you've secured a company contract, there are myriad benefits to putting yourself in front of judges.


Enhance a Slow Year

Simply joining a company does not mean you will be dancing the roles you want. There may be time spent understudying or standing in the corps. "Some dancers have times when they have not been cast well," says John Meehan, chair of the jury for the USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi. "They need a goal, and a competition can give them the incentive they need."

Katherine Barkman, here with Joseph Philips, won silver at USA IBC and Varna IBC this summer. Photo by Ron Fung, courtesy Barkman

Prove Yourself in a Principal Role

Competing can give you a chance to work on repertoire that would typically be beyond your rank. During her first season with San Francisco Ballet in 2016, artistic director Helgi Tomasson invited Natasha Sheehan to compete for the Erik Bruhn prize. The experience gave Sheehan, then 17, her first crack at Giselle, along with a contemporary pas de deux by Myles Thatcher. She won at Bruhn, and wound up reprising the contemporary piece at a gala the following season.

Get More Exposure

Competitions are a see-and-be-seen event, and a win can give you name recognition. "A competition can get your name out there, make you more known," says Sheehan. "Other directors gave me compliments, and it helped build some bridges." Even noncompeting partners get to be seen by several directors at once, which could lead to guesting and other gigs.

Broaden Your Dance Community

"A competition is a chance to get out of your dance bubble," says Meehan. The opportunity to see other styles and network with peers from around the world can give you a new perspective on your work.

Get More Feedback

"All dancers need mentors," says Lisa Macuja-Elizalde, artistic director of Ballet Manila and coach to Barkman. "No matter how experienced you are, you need someone looking at you when you rehearse or perform." A competition can be a way to get more input through additional coaching and mentoring.

Win R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Sure, you could win money—first place in Moscow comes with a $30,000 prize. But even if you don't medal, you can earn respect. For Barkman, the reward of overcoming the challenge in Moscow and then winning silver medals at USA IBC and Varna IBC this summer was personal. "I know some professionals might join a competition for money or to have a big career boom, but it is the event itself that inspires me," she says. "The months it takes to prepare, the networking, honing my abilities as a budding artist—it is all about pushing to step outside of my comfort zone to find more artistic growth."

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021