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.
I've been a fan of Jordan Isadore's for about a decade. His gorgeous, spine-contorting renditions of Christopher Williams' repertory are legendary, and for many years I had the privilege of making dances with him and producing his works through DanceNOW[NYC].
Over the last year or so, as he began winding down his performance career, Isadore began making odd, phenomenal objects: dribs of Labanotation scores rendered as hung mobiles, gorgeously crafted in stained glass and metal. The designs are stunning, imbued simultaneously with a hipster-nonsense contemporaneousness and reverence for dance history.
I spoke with Isadore about his retirement from the stage, and transition to crafting full time.
There's always that fateful day each year, usually in February or March, when ballet contracts are renewed. Dancers file into an office one by one, grab an envelope and sign their name on a nearby sheet of paper to signify the receipt of their fate. Inside that envelope is a contract for next season or a letter stating that their artistic contribution will no longer be needed. This yearly ritual is filled with anxiety and is usually followed by either celebratory frolicking or resumé writing.
Whenever I received my contract, I would throw up my hands joyfully knowing that I would get to spend one more year dancing. In 14 years at Boston Ballet, I never once looked at my pay rate when signing a contract. The thought of assessing my work through my salary never crossed my mind.
Watching Bohemian Rhapsody through the eyes of dancer, there's a certain element of the movie that's impossible to ignore: Rami Malek's physical performance of Freddie Mercury. The way he so completely embodies the nuances of the rock star is simply mind-blowing. We had to learn how he did it, so we called up Polly Bennett, the movement director who coached him through the entire process.
In a bit of serendipitous timing, while we were on the phone, she got a text from Malek that he had just been nominated for a Golden Globe. And during our chat, it became quite clear that she had obviously been a major part of that—more than we could have ever imagined.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Even if you haven't heard her name, you've almost certainly seen the work of commercial choreographer James Alsop. Though she's made award-winning dances for Beyoncé ("Run the World," anyone?) and worked with stars like Lady GaGa and Janelle Monae, Alsop's most recent project may be her most powerful: A moving music video for Everytown for Gun Safety, directed by Ezra Hurwitz and featuring students from the National Dance Institute.
We caught up with Alsop for our "Spotlight" series:
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Today, we are thrilled to announce the honorees of the 2018 Dance Magazine Awards. A tradition dating back to 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards celebrate the living legends who have made a lasting impact on dance. This year's honorees include:
Each year, The New York Times Magazine shines a spotlight on who they deem to be the best actors of the year in its Great Performers series. But, what we're wondering is, can they dance? Thankfully, the NYT Mag recruited none other than Justin Peck to put them to the test.
Peck choreographed and directed a series of 10 short dance films, placing megastars in everyday situations: riding the subway, getting out of bed in the morning, waiting at a doctor's office.
On busy performance days, international guest artist Joy Womack always makes time for one activity after class and rehearsals: a nap. "I like to feel well-rested when I need to be in the spotlight at night, not dragging at the end of the day," she says. "It helps me recover and refocus."
With her earbuds tuned to a guided meditation app, she can squeeze in a nap wherever she needs to. "One time I even took a nap on the floor of the tour bus in Siberia," she says. "Dancers can sleep anywhere."
Joy Womack prioritizes napping before a show. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe magazine.
As research has revealed the benefits of short daytime naps, power-napping advice has proliferated, and more dancers are choosing to include a nap in their pre-performance routines. Approaching napping strategically will help you get the most out of an afternoon snooze.
On Monday night, a memorial was held at Riverside Church to honor the life and achievements of Dance Theatre of Harlem co-founder Arthur Mitchell. With nearly three months to process and grieve (Mitchell passed away on September 19) the atmosphere was not that of mourning as much as reflection, reverence and admiration for who he was, what he built and what remains. (Watch the full livestream here.)
The church filled with family, artistic friends, fans and admirers. What was most gratifying was the volume of DTH alumni from the school, company and organization who traveled across the globe to pay their respects, from founding members to present dancers and students. The house of worship was filled with the sentiment of a family reunion. As Mitchell was sent home, it was a homecoming for many who have not shared air together in decades. What was palpable was the authentic bonds that Dance Theatre of Harlem and Mitchell fostered in all.
Fans of the sublime English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams were probably excited to see her image splashed across the company's website in a promotional image for an upcoming production of Swan Lake.
But those who took a closer look were met with a disappointing reality: Adams, who is the only black woman in the company, is not listed on the principal casting sheet for the production.
Gennadi Nedvigin is not the only early tenure director breaking out a new production of The Nutcracker this season.
We love The Nutcracker as much as the next person, but that perennial holiday classic isn't the only thing making its way onstage this month. Here are five alternatives that piqued our editors' curiosity.
It's become a colloquialism—or, we admit, a cliche—to say that dance can heal.
But with a new initiative launched by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock, doctors in the U.K. will soon be able to prescribe dance classes—along with art, music, sports, gardening and more—for patients suffering from conditions as various as dementia, lung problems and mental health issues.
A list of Clara alumnae from Radio City's Christmas Spectacular reads like a star-studded, international gala program: Tiler Peck and Brittany Pollack of New York City Ballet (and Broadway), Meaghan Grace Hinkis of The Royal Ballet, Whitney Jensen of Norwegian National Ballet and more. Madison Square Garden's casting requirements for the role are simple: The dancer should be 4' 10" and under, appear to be 14 years old or younger and have strong ballet technique and pointework.
The unspoken requisite? They need abundant tenacity at a very young age.
When it comes to flexibility, more isn't always better. Donna Flagg says that many of the dancers who show up at her Lastics Stretch Technique classes at studios like Broadway Dance Center and Steps on Broadway are already hypermobile.
"They're so loose," she says, "they just yank their legs as far as they can." That's not to say that hypermobile dancers shouldn't stretch—they just need to take extra care to keep their joints safe. Flagg recommends a few guidelines:
The Nutcracker is synonymous with American ballet. So when Gennadi Nedvigin took the helm at Atlanta Ballet in 2016, a new version of the holiday classic was one of his top priorities. This month, evidence of two years' worth of changes will appear when the company unwraps its latest version at Atlanta's Fox Theatre Dec. 8–24. Choreographed by Yuri Possokhov and produced on a larger-than-ever scale for Atlanta, the new ballet represents Nedvigin's big ambitions.
Ballet Hispánico returns to the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem with its full-length ballet, CARMEN.maquia. Spanish choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano has reenvisioned the story of Carmen to emphasize Don José, the man who falls in love with Carmen, suffers because of her infidelity, then murders her in a "fit of passion." Their duets are filled with all the sensuality, jealousy and violence you could wish for—in a totally contemporary dance language.
Sansano's previous piece for Ballet Hispánico, El Beso, bloomed with a thousand playful and witty ways of expressing desire. He has a knack for splicing humor into romance.
Not being able to attend the in-person audition at your top college can feel like the end of the world. But while it's true that going to the live audition is ideal, you can still make the best out of sending a video. Here are some of the perks:
What does it mean to be human? Well, many things. But if you were at the Dance Magazine Awards last night, you could argue that to be human is to dance. Speeches about the powerful humanity of our art form were backed up with performances by incredible dancers hailing from everywhere from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to Miami City Ballet.
Misty Copeland started off the celebration. A self-professed "Dance Magazine connoisseur from the age of 13," she not only spoke about how excited she was to be in a room full of dancers, but also—having just come from Dance Theatre of Harlem's memorial for Arthur Mitchell—what she saw as their duty: "We all in this room hold a responsibility to use this art for good," she said. "Dance unifies, so let's get to work."
That sentiment was repeated throughout the night.