Magazine

More Than a Prodigy


When Tiler Peck was 3, her mother, a dance teacher in Bakersfield, California, taught her two two-minute dance routines which the toddler zipped through with flair. At 9 she started on pointe and a few months later danced Clara (on pointe) in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular in California. By 12 she had danced the Black Swan variation. Peck joined New York City Ballet's corps at 16 and performed Dewdrop in The Nutcracker later that year. Now 25, the former prodigy appears frequently on the NYCB stage as a principal dancer with an ascending career.

Right: Tiler Peck in Peter Martins' Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

Baby ballerinas have commanded the public's fascination ever since George Balanchine discovered Irina Baronova and Tamara Toumanova, both age 12, and Tatiana Riabouchinska, 14, students of former Imperial ballerinas Olga Preobrajenska and Mathilde Kschessinska. Balanchine engaged them as stars of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, and the publicity surrounding the prodigies helped revive interest in ballet in the 1930s after Sergei Diaghilev's death. Their careers served as a highbrow analog to the craze for child performers like Shirley Temple in Depression-era Hollywood.

Like young concert musicians, dancers start training very early. The exceptionally gifted quickly get noticed—musicality and certain physical traits appear early, and a child who has that constellation of abilities will stand out. Often, these youngsters end up in a ballet company by their mid-teens. Given the short shelf life of a dancer's career, there can be a temptation to exploit an artist before her career fades. And in a culture that celebrates youth above all (witness Justin Bieber), prodigies have remained popular.

Moving Beyond Typecasting

But not all early talent blossoms into the full fruits of artistry or yields a long career. Injuries, burnout, irregular growth patterns, fatigue or an inability to convert aptitude into adult brilliance have knocked many whiz kids off their paths to success. So why do some succeed while others falter?

Former prodigies who, like Peck, have made the transition have various answers. San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Sarah Van Patten joined her first ballet company, the Royal Danish Ballet, at 15 and was immediately cast by John Neumeier as the heroine in his Romeo and Juliet. She credits her strong early training, the emotional support she received and her all-around resiliency for her continued success. “You need the right people around you and the mental strength to withstand what it takes physically and emotionally to have a professional career," says Van Patten. She also credits SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson for the way he has helped shape her career. “You grow with the work you're given," says Van Patten, who has danced Giselle, Tatiana in Onegin and Neumeier's The Little Mermaid, among other roles.

Left: Sarah Van Patten in Serge Lifar's Suite en Blanc. Photo by Erik Tommason, Courtesy SFB.

Peck, in turn, cites her early eclectic training—in addition to private ballet lessons with Alla Khaniashvili, Peck studied jazz, contemporary, lyrical and tap—which she believes served her in a company where choreography is prioritized. “In jazz you go for everything," says Peck. “You don't worry about hurting yourself. A lot of other people in NYCB were afraid to try things." Peck also credits Suki Schorer, who taught her at School of American Ballet, and NYCB ballet master Susan Hendl with helping her develop the sophisticated use of her port de bras.

A critical turning point for Peck (and for others who questioned her esthetic maturity) came when Christopher Wheeldon featured her in Carousel (A Dance), partnered by Damian Woetzel, at 17. “I was always given 'turny, jumpy' roles," she says. “I knew in my heart I preferred the more lyrical numbers, so I was so happy when given the opportunity to dance a beautiful pas de deux. It was the first time I thought I could be a ballerina."

But along the way, Peck saw other gifted students falter, such as fellow SAB graduate Ashlee Knapp (chosen by Teen People magazine as one of “20 Teens Who Will Change the World"). “She was this huge prodigy who got injured," Peck says. “And it didn't end up working for Kathryn Morgan, a former soloist with NYCB. There's pressure that comes with being in a company, and people deal with it differently."

When the Spotlight Disappears

That pressure can take many forms. Few young talkabouts realize how completely the spotlight can vanish during their first years in the corps. For some, the newfound anonymity is too frustrating. But others who initially struggle with company life find their footing later. Having won a slew of honors, including the gold medal at the 2012 International Ballet Competition in Varna, Washington Ballet dancer Brooklyn Mack still rejects the title “prodigy." Although he didn't begin ballet lessons until age 12 with Radenko Pavlovich in Columbia, South Carolina, he had such natural coordination, ballon like a Wham-O Super Ball and the ability to absorb style and technique like a sponge, that he quickly caught up. But the biggest challenge in his first job as an apprentice with the Joffrey Ballet was the transition from student to professional, a period defined by marking time as a third cast understudy in the back of the studio and a general lack of attention from the artistic staff. “In a company they expect you to know how to do everything," he says. “Not a lot of time is invested individually. The people who get attention are the ones who are most accomplished already." For some wunderkinds, for whom attention means everything, that lack of guidance and coaching can sour into disillusionment with the profession.

Above: Brooklyn Mack partnering Maki Onuki in Christopher Wheeldon's There Where She Loved. Photo by Paul Wegner, Courtesy TWB.

For Van Patten, her life experience became the conduit for enriching her artistic expression, something she finds especially marked in her approach to Romeo and Juliet. “At 15, I didn't have much to pull from in the crypt scene," she says. “Now I have 15 years of dancing professionally and having family members pass and other things in my life happen." She recalls her naiveté when dancing Romeo and Juliet for the Queen of Denmark without a hint of nerves. “I had no idea what was going on. If I did that in my early 20s, I would be so nervous. You get into your 30s and gain a little perspective and realize that it's a performance, not heart surgery, and go on to the next one."

As for advice for baby ballerinas who want to last until 30 and beyond, Mack, now 27, advocates “finding your inspiration and self-motivation and never letting go of it for anything, no matter what is said to you, no matter the amount of attention you're getting."

Van Patten, in turn, stresses the commitment through the drudgery. “It's so important for you to be absolutely 100 percent passionately in love with ballet," she says. “It's way too hard if you aren't. It seems very glamorous when you're young, but you need to accept that there's a lot of physical and emotional pain that goes into it. It's very rewarding, but it takes so much work."


Charm and Charisma: Catherine Hurlin

Catherine Hurlin, now an 18-year-old apprentice with American Ballet Theatre, started training at 4 at Scarsdale Ballet Studio and later with Kelly Burke at Westchester Dance Academy, becoming a competition phenom. Her mother, Denise Roberts Hurlin, a former Paul Taylor dancer, now heads Dancers Responding to AIDS. Hurlin danced Clara in both the Radio City Christmas Spectacular and the premiere of Alexei Ratmansky's The Nutcracker for ABT. After training with Franco De Vita at ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School from age 11, she joined the ABT Studio Company. Her onstage charisma has made people take notice of her preternatural technique and artistry. Here she talks about the prodigy experience.

Left: Hurlin in the ABT studios. Photo by Jayme Thornton.

Did your mom teach or coach you as a student?

She's not a “Dance Mom." She's not the person who would correct me technically if she was watching a class. She has given me very good, professional advice on my career, like how I should act, what I should do.

Did ballet technique come easily to you?

High extensions, flexible feet, but that's from birth. Turning came naturally because in competition school you have to do all those crazy turns. What didn't come naturally was turning on pointe. That had to evolve. I still to this day think I don't have the talent that everybody else thinks I have. I still tell myself, “You have to work on that, you don't look good in that."

Did anyone ever use the word “prodigy" to describe you?

Maybe. I've gotten so many great opportunities at JKO with Franco De Vita. He made me who I am. I guess I have been very fortunate if people have called me a prodigy, but I don't really believe it.

Did doing those competitions give you a different approach to ballet?

I think that when you're only trained in ballet your whole life sometimes there is a tendency to just think about the technique and steps, especially when performing. I think that what the competition school taught me is you have to sell it, and you end up having lots of fun with it.

Have there been physical changes to your body as you've gone through your teen years that you had to adjust to?

I've had multiple growth spurts. I'm 5' 5" now. My legs have grown like weeds. When you grow, things get out of balance and you have to adjust to it, especially when you're turning.

Was it a big adjustment going from the ABT Studio Company to the main company?

In Studio Company I would always say I would just kill to sit down for a minute because you just keep going and going. Now that I'm an apprentice and third cast for every ballet, I'm sitting in the back and wishing I could get up and dance. I guess class is the only time I get to shine.

Has it been difficult convincing people that you're not a kid anymore, that you are now an adult professional?

If you're talking about people who aren't dancers and know me but I don't know them, they would say, “How is ABT? You're so good!" But if you're talking about people in the company, they treat me like an apprentice.

How would you like your career to look?

I think anybody's dream path is to become very successful and a principal dancer. I'm obviously one of those people. I also can still see myself as very happy in the corps, but I think that now just because I'm happy to be here—period.


Nuance and Poise: Paloma Herrera

At 14, Paloma Herrera was a finalist in the 1990 International Ballet Competition in Varna. Trained in Buenos Aires by Olga Ferri, a celebrated former ballerina of the Teatro Colón, Herrera became a child sensation when she joined ABT at 15, quickly performing lead roles in ballets such as Theme and Variations and Don Quixote. Now 38, she reflects on her beginnings as a prodigy and how she progressed from baby ballerina to mature artist.

Right: David Hallberg rehearses Ratmansky's On the Dnieper with Herrera. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.

Did you think you had special gifts as a child?

I thought I was a normal kid doing ballet. But my relationship with my teacher was very special. I never missed a class. From the beginning, I was very focused. I went on pointe at 9. At age 10, I was winning competitions in South America—open from young kids to age 40. I didn't even care about winning them. In my family, nobody's a dancer, nobody pushed me.

Were there challenges as your body changed as a teenager?

I think it comes with the territory. It's a huge adjustment from school to a company, and people start getting injured. I always felt lucky not to have big injuries.

Who were your most important mentors as a professional?

Irina Kolpakova was my coach when I joined ABT—Amor in Don Quixote was my first solo. She's been a huge inspiration to me ever since then. Kevin McKenzie is the other mentor. He trusted me from the very beginning. He took chances with me.

Was it difficult convincing people you weren't just a kid anymore?

I never really had to go through that process. I see that with people who do guestings and who dance all over the world and become famous. I wanted to stay at ABT. I'm in a company where you have to be an artist—that's why I've stayed so long. Some people say it was wrong to get in at 15. But I was able to grow up at ABT.

One thing that really helped was to have choreographers take a chance on me, like Twyla Tharp in How Near Heaven. It turned out to be a turning point for people who saw me as a prodigy who could only do classical stuff.

What advice would you have for baby ballerinas who want to mature into adulthood?

Nowadays, a lot of kids can do all the steps. That makes them a big deal. But it has to come from within yourself. You want to keep growing. It's not enough to just be special and have the attention. If you want the attention, that's all you're going to get. You're a prodigy and...that's the end. You have to really love what you do and always want to make it better. I'm always happy to be on the stage and working. That fulfills my soul.

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Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

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Let's say that today you're having a terrible time following your class's choreography and are feeling ashamed—you're always stumbling a few beats behind. Do you:

1. Admit it's your fault because you didn't study the steps last night? Tonight you'll nail them down.
2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.

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