Technique My Way: Kathleen Breen Combes
Kathleen Breen Combes moves like silk across the stage. But although it appears effortless, the Boston Ballet principal is constantly at work, maintaining her strength and keeping injuries in check.
Because she is hypermobile, Combes says she has a tendency to pull muscles and overstretch ligaments. Currently, she is working around a labral tear in her left hip socket. While she hasn't yet resorted to surgery to mend the tear, she's figured out a mix of massage, physical therapy and warm-up exercises that ease the pain.
After the alarm goes off at 8:00 a.m., Combes eats breakfast before driving to work with her husband and fellow principal Yury Yanowsky. “I'll usually have an egg sandwich, or a muffin and granola bar or a banana," she says. The couple lives 30 minutes from the downtown Boston studios, and Combes likes to arrive at least 30 minutes early to warm up before a 9:45 class.
Combes starts every day by massaging and stretching her calves, which tend to get tight. She works her ankles with winging and sickling Thera-Band exercises to prevent sprains and warm up her toes. “I don't have very good feet," she laughs, “so stretching them before class is imperative."
She also pays special attention to her hips, stretching the front and back of her legs with lunges, deep pliés and extensions. Combes is known to lie on her back mid-class, circling her legs with frog-kick–like motions (bending one leg in, extending it to the side, reaching it forward away from her body and then bending it in again) to keep her joints loose, especially before ronds de jambe en l'air, fondus and grands battements.
Rehearsals typically run from 11:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. with an hour for lunch. To prepare for the afternoon session, Combes' warm-up changes depending on the role. Classical ballets, for instance, require an intense amount of core stability, Combes says. “I need to make sure I'm really on my leg. I do a lot of balances."
For neoclassical or contemporary work, Combes repeats a “cross-hemisphere" warm-up that she learned from Forsythe répétiteur Jill Johnson when she set The Second Detail on the company. It's an oppositional sequence that involves swinging your limbs across the body—for instance, your right arm reaches for your left shoulder, or your left arm reaches for your right hip or toes—while your legs move back and forth. “You work side to side," says Combes, “and it gets you so warm."
On the Menu
Combes eats a banana or granola bar after class, and following a three-hour rehearsal from 11:30 to 2:30, she has a break for lunch. She often chooses Caesar salads with chicken, or tomato mozzarella sandwiches. “I like something substantial to get me through three more hours of rehearsal," she says. “But I try to keep healthy." For dinner, Combes lets Yanowsky take the lead. “We like to grill," she says, “and we're big into steak and potatoes."
On a two-show day, Combes takes company class at 10:45 a.m. in the theater before the first afternoon run. But when she performs in the evenings only, she prefers to arrive in between the two shows, before the rest of the company returns for class. “I'll go through a big portion of my role onstage by myself in the empty theater," she says. “It gets me centered and I can think about anything that has been trouble."
Rest and Rejuvenation
She doesn't cross-train much during a performance season, but Combes hits the pool in the off-season, swimming laps, stretching and going through barre in the water with her husband. On days off, Combes enjoys reading, decorating their house and playing with their two dogs. “I mostly like to spend time with my family and enjoy life," she says. “What we do is so hard. It's nice to relax at home."
Combes grew up in a Pilates household: Her mother was an instructor, and Combes herself earned a mat certification at 19. Because dancers are very flexible, she finds they often “go to extremes that aren't necessary in Pilates." For example, in back extension exercises, “there's a tendency for dancers to really lift their backs up—but they let their ribs out." For best results, Combes says, “engage your core, keep your ribs together and use your back muscles properly."
Dancers are understandably obsessed with food. In both an aesthetic and athletic profession, you know you're judged on your body shape, but you need proper fuel to perform your best. Meanwhile, you're inundated with questionable diet advice.
"My 'favorite' was the ABC diet," says registered dietitian nutritionist Kristin Koskinen, who trained in dance seriously but was convinced her body type wouldn't allow her to pursue it professionally. "On the first day you eat only foods starting with the letter A, on the second day only B, and so on."
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
Yvonne Rainer's Parts of Some Sextets (AKA "the mattress dance") hasn't been revived since it premiered in 1965. Nor has Rainer had any wish to do it again, to ask performers to heave 10 mattresses around while carrying out 31 tasks that changed every 30 seconds. It was an unwieldy, difficult dance. (Even the title is unwieldy.) But Emily Coates, who has danced in Rainer's work for 20 years, became curious about this piece and was determined to see it again—and to dance in it. She will get her wish November 15–17, when the mattress dance will be performed as part of the Performa 19 Biennial.
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.