In Broadway's An American in Paris, Allison Walsh whirls through the streets of the City of Light with the aplomb of a veteran musical theater dancer. In The Lion King, Jaysin McCollum stalks the jungle with the presence required of a performer dedicated to the Great White Way. Though both are clearly at home on Broadway, it's not their natural habitat: Instead, they're former ballet dancers.
And they're not alone. Dance-centric shows like An American in Paris, On the Town, Finding Neverland and Fiddler on the Roof have made a comeback in the last 10 years, a happy return after several seasons in which smaller, more intimate musicals proved the norm. Now, classical ballet dancers are being hired for their technique, quick pick-up skills and in-depth partnering knowledge. “For On the Town, much of the dancing was ballet-based, so we were looking for great ballet training," says choreographer Joshua Bergasse. “Dancers with a ballet background understand body lines and partnering."
But, not everything gleaned in the ballet studio will help if you're hoping to switch out your pointe shoes for LaDucas. What does it take to make it on the Great White Way after a career in ballet?
“It's been beyond worth it to see my artistry grow in an unexpected way."—Jennifer Gruener. Photo by Justin Patterson Photography.
For many ballet dancers, there are a variety of perks. To start, because musicals continually open and close in New York City and around the country, different types of dancers are needed more often, and the chances of getting hired are better. For Jennifer Gruener, this larger volume of opportunities was attractive. After studying at Philadelphia Dance Theatre and The Rock School for Dance Education, a degree in dance from Indiana University garnered her only an unpaid trainee position. Taking her mother's advice, she journeyed to New York City, shifted her focus to musical theater and has embraced the diverse styles of dance available to her: She's performed with the Radio City Christmas Spectacular national tour, at regional theaters and, currently, in the ensemble of off-Broadway's Trip of Love.
Walsh, a 30-year-old ensemble member and lead understudy in AAiP previously performed with the Joffrey Ballet and BalletX. She saw AAiP as an opportunity to continue her career in a less physically demanding way: “I was at a point where I wanted to try something new before I retired," she says.
“We're smart and intuitive: That counts." —Allison Walsh. Photo by Ted Ely.
Finding Your Voice
When dancers make the leap, they're often surprised to find how vastly different the musical theater audition scene is—leaving many unprepared for their first stabs. Having to learn new dance styles, sing, and read lines and monologues can be daunting. “After we did ballet, Horton and choreography from the show, they asked if we could sing," remembers McCollum of The Lion King audition. “I didn't know I was supposed to bring music! I sang a cappella, which isn't appropriate."
Gruener adds: “When I started auditioning, I hated singing. I had to get over that—quickly. With casting now, it's important to be able to understudy roles: You must sing."
She started taking as many voice lessons as possible. “When I'm not good at something immediately, it's hard for me to stick with it. In auditions, I didn't always know what would come out of my mouth! But just like I kept working at ballet, I kept at the voice aspect, even though it was uncomfortable."
Walsh did the same: “Breathing for singing is so different than dancing. Just to sing and be comfortable in front of people is the biggest challenge," she says. “But if you're comfortable, the casting team can see you're someone they can work with." McCollum adds that he consulted his new cast mates to understand where to go for future auditions: Now he has a music book and monologue choices, and he goes to acting classes regularly.
“Go to every possible audition," says Gruener. “Get in the practice of it, largely so you can understand the process, see how many styles you have to pick up and start to understand what you're right for."
“I didn't know I was supposed to bring music to auditions!" —Jaysin McCollum. Photo by Rick Stockwell.
But take comfort: Your ballet base will hold you in good stead in many ways. “The strength and technique of ballet dancers is always helpful in the rehearsal room, and they speak that common language of ballet vocabulary that can make creating faster," says Bergasse. “I can say do eight counts of jeté turns and then fouettés, and a ballerina can execute it quickly without demonstration."
Walsh's attention to detail and ability to retain information has also allowed her to spend time as a dance captain for AAiP. “I learn quickly, I can help choreographers and I know how to communicate with other dancers because of my time in the ballet world," she says. “Actors often comment how quickly ballerinas learn and how eager we are to adapt. We're smart and intuitive: That counts."
But not all ballet studio protocol is helpful. “In ballet you don't necessarily talk to teachers or those you audition for. There's a sort of 'pedestal' situation," says Gruener. “But in musical theater, it helps to network." Gruener noticed that taking classes with teachers who she'd later see in auditions was a natural—and common—way to create connections, and chatting with them afterward was appropriate.
The vibe of musical theater auditions and rehearsals also shocks many former ballet dancers: They bustle with energy and chatting instead of quiet gravitas, and big personalities are much more apparent. It's important to find your own center of focus and relax. “I'm looking to see if the dancers can let loose. Not everyone can: They're not necessarily trained in that, and sometimes it's harder than you think to adapt," says Bergasse. “Try to be yourself, that person who loves dance and finds joy in it."
Bergasse notes that this more high-energy situation can be intimidating. But, trusting in your training and ability to adapt will help. “Sometimes the personalities in the musical theater world can be overwhelming," he says. “But, rather than be afraid of it, embrace it. In the end, we're all cut from the same dancer cloth."
For Gruener, trusting in this fact has paid off. “I think back and am always so happy I didn't get a job in ballet," she says, with a laugh. “Musical theater has allowed me to live in New York, go on tour to places I wouldn't have before and enjoy jazz and other styles I always loved. When I first moved here and wasn't getting jobs, I wondered if I made a mistake. But it's been beyond worth it to see my artistry and abilities grow in such a fun, unexpected way."
Lauren Kay is an NYC–based writer and dancer.
On a summer afternoon at The Ailey School's studios, a group of students go through a sequence of Horton exercises, radiating concentration and strength as they tilt to one side, arms outstretched and leg parallel to the ground. Later, in a studio down the hall, a theater dance class rehearses a lively medley of Broadway show tunes. With giant smiles and bouncy energy, students run through steps to "The Nicest Kids in Town" from Hairspray.
"You gotta really scream!" teacher Judine Somerville calls out as they mime their excitement. "This is live theater!" They segue into the audition number from A Chorus Line, "I Hope I Get It," their expressions becoming purposeful and slightly nervous. "Center stage is wherever I am," Somerville tells them when the music stops, making them repeat the words back to her. "Take that wherever you go."
Dance artists, as a rule, are a resilient bunch. But working in a studio in New York City without heat or electricity in the middle of winter? That's not just crazy; it's unhealthy, and too much to ask of anyone.
Unfortunately, Brooklyn Studios for Dance hasn't had heat since mid-November, making it impossible for classes or performances to take place in the community-oriented center.
So what's a studio to do? Throw a massive dance party, of course.
A newly launched initiative hopes to change the face of ballet, both onstage and behind the scenes. Called "The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet," the three-year initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."
As winter sets in, your muscles may feel tighter than they did in warmer weather. You're not imagining it: Cold weather can cause muscles to lose heat and contract, resulting in a more limited range of motion and muscle soreness or stiffness.
But dancers need their muscles to be supple and fresh, no matter the weather outside. Here's how to maintain your mobility during the colder months so your dancing isn't affected:
From the outside, it seemed like the worst of New York City Ballet's problems were behind them last winter, when ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired amid accusations of abuse and sexual harassment, and an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims.
But further troubles were revealed in August when a scandal broke that led to dancer Chase Finlay's abrupt resignation and the firing of fellow principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. All three were accused of "inappropriate communications" and violating "norms of conduct."
The artistic director sets the tone for a dance company and leads by example. But regardless of whether Martins, and George Balanchine before him, established a healthy organization, the issues at NYCB bespeak an industry-wide problem, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women. "From New York City Ballet to emerging artists, we've just done what's been handed down," she observes. "That has not necessarily led to great practices."
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For the past few months, the dance world has been holding its collective breath, waiting for New York City Ballet to announce who will take over the helm as artistic director.
Though former ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired over a year ago after accusations of sexual harassment and abuse (an internal investigation did not corroborate the accusations), the search for a new leader didn't begin until last May.
Nine months later, the new director's name could be released any day now. And we have some theories about who it might be:
Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.
If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.
Back in 2011, Yale University's dean of science was thinking about refreshing the program's offerings for non-majors when he happened upon a Pilobolus performance. A light bulb went off: Dance is full of physics.
That realization led to what has become an eight-year collaboration between particle physicist Sarah Demers and former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates, both professors at Yale who were brought together to co-teach a course called The Physics of Dance. Their partnership has involved everything from directing a short film to presenting a TedX Talk and performing a piece that Coates created, commissioned by Danspace Project. This month, they're publishing a book about what they've discovered by dialoging across two seemingly disparate disciplines.
Sebastian Abarbanell remembers being asked as an undergrad at Trinity Laban in London to perform wearing only a dance belt. "I said no," he says, "because I felt uncomfortable." Now a performer with Sidra Bell Dance New York, he's performed partially nude several times, without reservation. The difference? "It comes with more experience and maturing as a dancer," he says. "When you see a dancer living in their skin, you don't need to put anything else on them. When I said no in college, I wasn't in my skin yet."
Getting in your skin—and getting comfortable wearing only your skin onstage—requires a particular alchemy of vulnerability, agency, preparation and practice.
Birmingham Royal Ballet announced today that international star Carlos Acosta will be taking over as director in January of 2020. Current BRB director David Bintley will be stepping down this summer, at the end of the company's 2019 season, after a 24-year tenure. "It is a tremendous honor and privilege to have been appointed to lead Birmingham Royal Ballet," Acosta said in a statement.
Since retiring from The Royal Ballet in 2015, Acosta has focused much of his attention on his native Cuba, where he's proven his directorial abilities at the helm of Acosta Danza, the contemporary company that he founded in 2016. In 2017 Acosta also opened his first Dance Academy through his foundation, which provides free training to students. We don't yet know how Acosta will balance his time between his projects in Cuba and his new role at BRB.
My personal life has taken a nosedive since I broke up with my boyfriend. He's in the same show and is now dating one of my colleagues. It's heartbreaking to see them together, and I'm determined never to date a fellow dancer again. But it's challenging to find someone outside, as I practically live in the theater. Do you have any advice?
—Loveless, New York, NY
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
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.
Update: Additional perspectives have been added to this story as more responses have come in.
"Every time I see a little girl in a tutu or with her hair in a bun on her way to ballet class, all I can think is that she should run in the other direction," she said, "because no one will protect her, like no one protected me."
It was quite a statement, and it got us thinking. Of course, it's heartbreaking to imagine the experiences that Waterbury lists in the lawsuit, and it's easy to see why this would be her reaction.
But should aspiring ballet dancers really "run in the other direction"? Were her alleged experiences isolated incidences perpetuated by a tiny percentage of just one company—or are they indicative of major problems in today's ballet culture within and beyond NYCB's walls?
The inimitable Carol Channing, best known for her role as the titular Hello, Dolly!, passed away today at 97.
Though she became a three-time Tony winner, Channing was born in Seattle, far from the Great White Way, in 1921. After growing up in San Francisco, she attended the famed Bennington College, studying dance and drama. She later told the university, "What Bennington allows you to do is develop the thing you're going to do anyway, over everybody's dead body." For Channing, that meant decades of fiery, comical performances, bursting with energy.
Something's coming, I don't know when
But it's soon...maybe tonight?
Those iconic lyrics have basically been our #mood ever since we first heard a remake of the West Side Story film, directed by Steven Spielberg and choreographed by Justin Peck, was in the works. THE CASTING. THE CASTING WAS COMING.
Well, last night—after an extensive search process that focused on finding the best actors within the Puerto Rican/Latinx community—the WSS team finally revealed who'll be playing Maria, Anita, Bernardo, and Chino (joining Ansel Elgort, who was cast as Tony last fall). And you guys: It is a truly epic group.
Rehearsal is in full swing, and Leta Biasucci, Pacific Northwest Ballet's newest principal dancer, finds herself in unfamiliar territory. Biasucci is always game for a challenge, but choreographer Kyle Davis wants her to lift fellow dancer Clara Ruf Maldonado. Repeatedly. While she's known for her technical prowess, lifting another dancer off the floor is a bit daunting for Biasucci, who stands all of 5' 3". She eyes Maldonado skeptically, then breaks into a grin.
"It's absolutely given me a new appreciation for the partner standing behind me!" Biasucci says with a laugh.
Looking at Biasucci, 29, with her wide smile and eager curiosity, you think you see the quintessential extrovert. In reality, she's anything but. "I was an introverted kid," Biasucci says. "That's part of the reason I fell in love with dance—I didn't have to be talkative."
It's only one of the seeming contradictions in Biasucci's life: She's a short, muscular ballerina in a company known for its fleet of tall, long-legged women; she's also most comfortable with classical ballet, while taking on a growing repertoire of contemporary work.
Sergei Polunin, whose recent homophobic and sexist Instagram posts have sparked international outrage, will not be appearing with the Paris Opéra Ballet as previously announced.
POB artistic director Aurélie Dupont sent an internal email to company staff and dancers on Sunday, explaining that she did not share Polunin's values and that the Russian-based dancer would not be guesting with the company during the upcoming run of Rudolf Nureyev's Swan Lake in February.
Before spending a summer at Los Angeles Ballet School, Lillian Glasscock had never learned a Balanchine variation. "The stylistic differences, like preparing for a pirouette with a straight back leg, were at first very challenging," says Glasscock, 17. "But it soon got easier."
Los Angeles Ballet company members were in class daily, motivating and inspiring her. Trying out a new style and expanding her repertoire gave Glasscock more strength, and a better understanding of the varied demands of ballet companies today. Months later, the Balanchine variations she learned are now personal favorites.
While the early years of training are typically spent diligently working through the syllabus of a single ballet technique, when you start to prepare for a professional career, versatility is key. There isn't just one correct version of each step. And as ballet companies continue to diversify their repertoires, directors need dancers who can move fluidly between an array of styles.