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.
A statement released yesterday by New York City Ballet and School of American Ballet reported that an independent investigation was unable to corroborate allegations of harassment and abuse against former ballet master in chief Peter Martins, according to The New York Times. This marks the end of a two-month inquiry jointly launched by the two organizations in December following an anonymous letter detailing instances of harassment and violence.
The statement also included new policies for both the company and school to create safer, more respectful environments for the dancers, including hiring an independent vendor to handle employee complaints anonymously. These changes are being made despite the independent investigation, handled by outside counsel Barbara Hoey, purportedly finding no evidence of abuse.
2017 felt like we were living the Upside Down of the popular Netflix series "Stranger Things." From Donald Trump becoming president, to the sexual harassment scandals that ricocheted into the ballet world, everything we thought we knew was turned on its head.
Yet while the deconstruction of institutional paradigms is frightening, it also presents an unprecedented opportunity for redesign.
Ballet, much like our political parties, seems to be stuck in an antiquated format that's long overdue for a makeover. With the world changing at lightning speed, if ballet wants to survive it will have to undergo a radical reimagining. But what would that look like?
Yesterday The New York Times reported that New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet are jointly investigating sexual harassment claims involving Peter Martins. According to a statement from SAB, it "recently received an anonymous letter making general, nonspecific allegations of sexual harassment in the past by Peter Martins at both New York City Ballet and the school."
Martins, who serves as NYCB's ballet master in chief and SAB's chairman of faculty and artistic director will not be teaching his weekly class at the school as the investigation continues. He currently maintains his positions at both organizations.
While sexual harassment allegations have recently been made against a growing list of Hollywood heavy-hitters, politicians, news anchors and other men in positions of power, this is the first investigation this year of a major figure from the dance world.
Immediate reactions were varied, though emotionally charged. Here are a few of the many responses:
As dancers, we often talk about perfect feet, perfect turnout and the perfect execution of steps. We spend our days in diligent pursuit of the total mastery of our bodies. We seek to fully conquer space and time. We want our dance to be perfect, which is a powerful incarnation of our deeper human longing for personal perfection.
But in dance, as in life itself, there is no perfection in the sense of a state of flawlessness at which we can arrive. Our humanity keeps us from that.
However, there is always perfection in the sense of formation: the unending process of refinement. Incrementally progressing through sustained training and exploration is what gives the dance life its vitality. I believe that this process is for our good, because it provides us with the opportunity to cultivate devotional delight in the details of imperfect practice, to feed our need for discovery and to grow in humility.
New York City Ballet has an image problem. Despite having the moniker of one of the most diverse cities on the planet, the company regularly comes under fire for its lack of diversity. A perception of overbearing whiteness has plagued the institution, often acting as a cultural barrier for prospective students and audiences.
Over the last three years, the company's School of American Ballet and its diversity team have been working to change this. Since NYCB preserves its Balanchine legacy by keeping everything in house—dancers are hired almost exclusively from SAB, where they are trained by former members of the company—the school is a logical place to start transforming its image. And it's working. Presently, the children's division and intermediate/advanced division boasts 44% and 29% students of color, respectively.
While still in the corps of New York City Ballet, Jason Fowler was drawn to the role of répétiteur. "Ballet mistress Rosemary Dunleavy was my rock in the company," he says. Fowler loved the process: learning steps quickly and absorbing the choreographer's intentions. He knew early on he wanted to nurture dancers through the rehearsal period one day. So it comes as little surprise that 20 years later, Fowler is a primary stager of Christopher Wheeldon's ballets around the globe.
Fowler first met Wheeldon as a student at the School of American Ballet in 1993, where he danced in the workshop performance of Wheeldon's Danses Bohemiennes. He was promoted to NYCB soloist in 2006, and performed with Wheeldon's company, Morphoses, on the side. Wheeldon first asked him to teach and rehearse one of his ballets, There Where She Loved, on a Morphoses tour to Vail International Dance Festival in 2008.
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Imagine being a student at the School of American Ballet, looking up to the dancers at New York City Ballet and hoping to one day join their ranks. Then imagine teaching your choreography to those dancers, and watching them perform it at the company's fall fashion gala.
Should you attend an intensive connected to a company? It depends on your stage of training.
Houston Ballet Academy Summer Intensive. Photo by Jaime Lagdameo, courtesy HB.
A summer intensive can be a chance to be taught by artistic directors, to learn repertoire that you dream of performing and maybe even land a contract. But with so many options and only a handful of summers, a dancer must be strategic in choosing where to attend.
Of course, there are high-profile company schools where dancers can get to know a potential future employer. But there are also top-notch independent programs not affiliated with companies whose students go on to highly successful careers. Which will best further your goals? Should you declare loyalty to your dream company and spend every summer at its school? Or should you focus on building versatility (and broader employability) at independent programs? The answers depend on two factors: where you are in your training, and where you want to go.
Build a Foundation
A dancer’s summer intensive choices can—and should—differ based on her age and level. “You have to experience different things to know where you belong—that’s what summers are for,” says Shelly Power, director at Houston Ballet Academy. “But sooner or later you’re going to have to decide where you want to place your focus.”
Partnering class at CPYB. Photo by Bruce Thornton, courtesy CPYB.
For younger dancers going to an intensive for the first time, the focus should be on quality of training, says Kay Mazzo, co-chairman of faculty at the School of American Ballet, which is affiliated with New York City Ballet. She recommends that younger dancers stick to one intensive for a couple of years for consistency of training.
Once dancers reach their mid-teens, they can start to explore. “They’re trying to find where they fit best,” Power says. The goal is to discover where you belong on the ballet spectrum before focusing on a potential future company during the last years of training.
Find Your Fit
When you’re testing different techniques and paths in ballet, an independent program might be right for you. Intensives at Next Generation Ballet at the Patel Conservatory in Florida, Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, Kaatsbaan International Dance Center or Chautauqua Institution in New York, to name a few, offer diverse training and performance opportunities and are a chance to network with less pressure than a company school. “The biggest benefit of independent programs is just that—they’re independent,” says CPYB school principal Alecia Good-Boresow. “When students come here, their focus is just on getting the most out of their training. They’re not worrying about ‘Are they going to choose me? Am I good enough?’ ”
Students at these programs may have the chance to experiment with a variety of styles. “A lot of students come here because they don’t know what path they want to take, and we provide a lot of opportunities—classical ballet, contemporary, musical theater, acting, character and mime,” says Philip Neal, artistic director of Next Generation Ballet. “We throw it all out there—a lot of the kids don’t know what it is they’re looking for until they have the opportunity to try it.” At many independent programs, students are taught by guest faculty from companies around the world. “They’re taking from so many different teachers that they see what they like and what feels good on them,” says Good-Boresow. “It gives them insight into where they fit—or where they don’t.”
SAB Summer Course. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy SAB.
Teachers can also help students target future career options. “We see ourselves as a stepping stone to company schools,” says Neal, who’s placed students in high-profile schools and companies like the Royal Ballet School and Boston Ballet. Each independent program has a different emphasis, so pay attention to where alumni typically go on to perform. CPYB students, for instance, often join companies with Balanchine rep.
Pursue Your Dream Company
If you have one company in mind that stands out far above the others, audition for its summer intensive as soon as possible. “If you’ve zeroed in on some place you like, get your foot in the door—physically, literally,” says Mazzo. Use your first summer to test out whether the school is indeed what you’re looking for, and if it is, make a goal of joining the year-round program. “If you are unable to attend year-round, visit during the year to keep the relationship growing,” suggests Power. “Don’t just disappear.”
While teachers and faculty do appreciate seeing familiar faces year after year, there is danger in being too loyal to one school at the expense of diverse training and networking. If you’re dead-set on one company but after two years in the intensive you haven’t been asked to stay year-round, it may be time to reassess. “I think at that point a student needs to have a very honest and open conversation with the director or teachers about their potential at the school,” says Power. “Ask, ‘Am I a good fit?’ If you’ve gone to a summer program for four years and never experienced anything else, you’ve limited yourself.” Make sure that the interest is mutual.
Go Beyond What You Know
Philip Neal teaching class at Next Generation Ballet. Photo by Soho Images, courtesy NGB.
If you are already studying year-round at a company program, it might be tempting to stick around for the summer. However, that can undercut your options in the long term. Most school directors advise students to attend other programs to diversify their training and develop a Plan B. “In the end, NYCB can’t take everybody from our most advanced division,” says Mazzo. “That’s why we send our students off every summer to look at different schools and companies. Rather than saying, ‘I only want to dance for a certain company,’ it’s better to keep students’ minds open to ‘I want to find the place that is right for me.’ ”
There is no formula for achieving your career goal. In the end, as long as you’re getting great training and making the most of the networking opportunities you have, trust your experience to be your guide. “The more you know,” says Neal, “the sooner you can discover the right path for you.”