Sarah Steele: The Washington Ballet Apprentice's Willingness to Take Risks Landed Her a Leading Role
Photo by Theo Kossenas, courtesy The Washington Ballet
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.
Company: The Washington Ballet Age: 23 Hometown: New York City Training: Nunnbetter Dance Theatre (Bergenfield, New Jersey), Valentina Kozlova Dance Conservatory of New York Accolades: Gold at Tanzolymp International Dance Festival, silver at Boston International Ballet Competition
Early start: Steele asked for ballet lessons at 3 years old, but no one would take her that young. She started at 4, recalling, "As a little kid I was very focused and intense about ballet. There are a lot of pictures of me in a leotard and tights with a serious face."
Star student: Serious about her academics, too, Steele transferred to Professional Children's School in high school to keep up with her studies as she intensified her dance training with Kozlova. "I applied to Harvard my senior year. I hadn't thought about an Ivy League school at all until my counselor said, 'Go for it.' " When she got in—early decision—she deferred a year to dance with Tulsa Ballet II. After a semester at Harvard, she returned to Tulsa, then joined The Washington Ballet's Studio Company under Septime Webre.
"Sarah's ability to seize the moment— not set limits for herself, but say, 'I'm going to go for it and see what happens'—
has really paid off." —Julie Kent
Breakout moment: Being chosen as the lead astronaut in Stiefel's Frontier at the Kennedy Center gave Steele the chance to show off her range. "I was looking for technical proficiency, strength, the ability to sustain and convey different emotions in a seven-minute solo," Stiefel says. "Sarah had a certain amount of fearlessness, risk taking and bravery, which dancers need, and certainly astronauts possess inherently."
What artistic director Julie Kent says: "Sarah danced in all of our 35 Nutcrackers—and clearly excelled. There is that X factor, whether you call it the right stuff or star quality."
Offstage hobby: Steele is a passionate vegan and loves cooking. "I hope to be a good example but not pushy. Not eating animals makes me feel better and dance better."
Going for it: "I don't think about myself as fearless," Steele says, "but I believe 100 percent that sometimes you just have to go for it, even if you end up looking a little spastic or you fall." She feels that people will notice someone going all out, even if they make a mistake. "That's more compelling than the calculated, careful approach."
Tony Testa leads a rehearsal during his USC New Movement Residency. Photo by Mary Mallaney/Courtesy USC
The massive scale of choreographing an Olympic opening ceremony really has no equivalent. The hundreds of performers, the deeply historic rituals and the worldwide audience and significance make it a project like no other.
Just consider the timeline: For most live TV events like award shows, choreographers usually take a month or two to put everything together. For the Olympics, the process can take up to four years.
But this kind of challenge is exactly what Los Angeles choreographer Tony Testa is looking for. He's currently creating a submission to throw his hat in the ring to choreograph for Beijing's 2022 Winter Games.
In a studio high above Lincoln Center, Taylor Stanley is rehearsing a solo from Jerome Robbins' Opus 19/The Dreamer. As the pianist plays Prokofiev's plangent melody, Stanley begins to move, his arms forming crisp, clean lines while his upper body twists and melts from one position to the next.
All you see is intention and arrival, without a residue of superfluous movement. The ballet seems to depict a man searching for something, struggling against forces within himself. Stanley doesn't oversell the struggle—in fact he's quite low-key—but the clarity with which he executes the choreography draws you in.