What does it take to "make it" in dance? It's no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn't enough to get you where you want to be.
So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.
Happy New Year! Whether or not resolutions are your thing, I always find that a bit of wisdom from the people I admire is a great way to start the year. Here are some favorite nuggets from eight dancers, choreographers and directors who have appeared in our pages over the last year.
Paloma Herrera's final performance of Giselle in 2015, like the rest of her 24-year career with American Ballet Theatre, was impeccable. The New York Times described her as "wonderfully musical, unexaggerated and unmannered," words that more or less encapsulate the quality of her dancing in a vast array of classical and contemporary works.
Now, just two years after her retirement and subsequent return to her native Argentina, she has a new role: director of her country's largest and most celebrated ballet company, the Ballet Estable del Teatro Colón. The company, founded in 1925, has around 100 dancers and a storied past—as well as a gorgeous home theater—but has been hobbled in recent years by meager seasons, labor strife and a crisis of confidence in its leadership.
Herrera's directorship was announced in a surprise press conference in February and she got to work right away. As she says, she has barely left the theater since.
So, what happened to the freedom you were looking forward to after your retirement?
I know! Where did it go? I'm in rehearsals and then, during my breaks, I'm in the office, and afterwards I stay late answering emails. I have no life! But I'm happy.
What happens to companies when their stars retire?
Paloma Herrera will dance her final performance with ABT on May 27. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy ABT.
Shouts of “Brava!” will accompany a number of ballerinas when they take their final bows this summer. American Ballet Theatre’s Paloma Herrera, Xiomara Reyes and Julie Kent will soon dance their final performances with the company: Herrera in the May 27 matinee performance of Giselle; Reyes in the same ballet that evening; and Kent in Romeo and Juliet on June 20. Carla Körbes will also retire, from Pacific Northwest Ballet, on June 7 (in a program to be announced).
Körbes, 33, has been a dynamic presence at PNB. “With Carla it’s not about the pirouettes, jumps, feet, extension—though that’s all there,” says artistic director Peter Boal. “It’s about these higher levels of humanity, a graciousness, a generosity—the rapport she develops with a corps de ballet around her and the partner she’s dancing with.”
When ballerinas retire, it has an impact on a company. Corps members emulate them. Choreographers tailor roles for them. They sell tickets. They create an esthetic and often mentor younger dancers. But as physics states, nature abhors a vacuum, and younger dancers rise to the occasion. “I think you’ll see a shift,” says Boal. “There are other PNB dancers with a fan base. There are choreographers who were very excited to create for Carla. When they got here, they discovered somebody else as well.” Boal has also hired back Noelani Pantastico, who will return as a principal this November.
At ABT, Herrera has established her own commanding charisma since joining as a brilliant 15-year-old prodigy in 1991, then later as a fully blossomed ballerina. Several reasons led to her decision to retire: a desire to leave the stage while still dancing with full-tilt energy; her enjoyment in teaching and coaching younger dancers; and “feeling kind of like a dinosaur” regarding the social media frenzy that now shapes ballet careers. In recalling former ABT stars who retired, she says: “It was a huge thing when Alessandra Ferri retired. I cried more when she retired than when I told Kevin McKenzie I was retiring. For me she’s always been a huge role model.”
Boal recognizes that although ballet companies try to delegate roles equitably among dancers, stars do emerge and those retirements can be heartbreaking. “But it can’t be a one-ballerina company, even though people gravitate to that.” Körbes assumed a sort of stardom that former PNB ballerina Patricia Barker had before. “Somebody does emerge in the public’s eye and the public appoints them prima ballerina,” he adds. “We certainly don’t.”
Herrera has no regrets about her 24-year career at ABT. After doing a farewell tour this fall in Argentina, she will turn 40 in December. “And then it will be a whole new life,” she says. “I’ve been part of an era—an incredible era. I enjoyed it. Now it’s a new generation.” —Joseph Carman
Artistry isn’t something you can build simply by showing up at the barre every morning. It’s a mysterious, elusive quality, one of the most difficult to master in dance. And yet it’s the ultimate goal of every dancer. So, how do you get it?
As we put together our first Artistry Issue, I reached out to a friend, Batsheva’s supremely quirky Ian Robinson. He’s the kind of dancer who disappears into roles as though he’s traveled to another world. I wanted to know how he does it—where does his artistry come from? “I think it has to do with being mindful about the way you see the world,” he told me. “Mindful about experiences, or habits, or weaknesses—and how you combine all that into your craft.” He thinks of his creativity like a muscle, and strengthens it by seeking out other kinds of art, by stepping outside, by paying attention to the idiosyncrasies of the people around him.
Photo: “Sometimes my approach to choreographing is like, ‘Mark, come in at the wrong time.’ ” —Doug Elkins. Deborah Lohse, Kyle Marshall and Mark Gindick rehearse Doug Elkins’ Hapless Bizarre.
Every dancer has to find their own way of working their creativity muscle. Throughout this issue, we asked a number of dance artists to share their tactics. For choreographer Doug Elkins, it’s about staying open to mistakes, seeing where “the mess-ups” might lead. In our “In Training” column, Helen Pickett talks about teaching students to dance in silence to help them dig deeper inside themselves for inspiration.
Ironically, the dancers who often have the biggest challenges developing their artistry are the ones who’ve earned acclaim for their preternatural abilities from the time they were students. Our cover story profiles one of the latest, Catherine Hurlin, who’s just joined American Ballet Theatre as an apprentice. The 18-year-old prodigy seems to have been born with charisma and stage presence. But how will she deepen her artistry now that she’s a professional? Naturally, we turned to former ABT prodigy Paloma Herrera, among others, for her advice: “It has to come from within yourself. You want to keep growing. 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.”
Editor in Chief
Photos from top: Kyle Froman; Nathan Sayers
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."