San Francisco Ballet's Tina LeBlanc blends technique, verve, classicism—and range.
At best, judging dancers by their national origin is a fool’s game. But who can resist playing it when the dancer is Tina LeBlanc? Watch her perform for 20 minutes and you will know why she is the quintessential American ballerina.
The purity of her line, the directness of her gesture, the clarity of her articulation, the vulnerability with which she permits the music to engulf her limbs, and the sheer naturalness of her demeanor—all betoken the guilelessness of this country at its finest. LeBlanc’s biography offers no contradiction. She was trained entirely on native soil, launched her professional career in association with one major American dance institution, the Joffrey Ballet, and has attained her glorious peak in another, the San Francisco Ballet, which LeBlanc does not hesitate to call “the best company in the country.” Except for raising a family, there has been nothing else: Her star has risen high in the sky and remains there, radiating a luster that remains undimmed even now in her late 30s.
LeBlanc, who has danced professionally for 24 years, has been a principal at SFB since 1992. She exalts everything from the Maryinsky classics to de Mille’s folksy Rodeo to Balanchine’s cut-crystal Square Dance to Forsythe’s edgy, daredevil excursions. She commands the noblest partners, the highest respect from colleagues, and after a period of uncertainty, on both her part and theirs, the most loving response from audiences.
So, in conversation, you might expect the voice of experience to dominate, a hint of “been there, danced it all” satisfaction, maybe a bit of weariness. Uh-uh. This is the same Tina LeBlanc who, between Swan Lake rehearsals, confides that, “I feel I didn’t mature till a couple of years ago.”
You comment on what seems likes LeBlanc’s preternatural concentration in performance, her coolness in the face of an awesome technical challenge. With a laugh, she tells you that “it’s an illusion.” So, when Jodie Gates, a former colleague at the Joffrey, recalls LeBlanc sitting backstage doing a crossword puzzle while waiting to dance Balanchine’s hellishly difficult Tarantella, you find it all too easy to believe it. “Oh, I know Jodie loves to tell that story,” LeBlanc says, “but puzzles were just a way of channeling my performance anxiety. I got nervous every time I went on. I still do.”
You wouldn’t suspect that from watching LeBlanc in rehearsal for SFB’s Rodeo, a ballet that, oddly, she never danced during her Joffrey days. Even at an early stage of preparation, this is one Cowgirl who can shrink into her skin after being rejected, yet still muster the inner strength to capture both her beau and the respect of an entire prairie town. Today, LeBlanc is having trouble with dancing on the side of her foot. There’s a whispered exchange with Joanna Berman, the retired SFB principal who’s coaching this revival. Smiles, shakes of the head, no scenes, no temperamental displays. The rehearsal resumes.
One might expect this kind of determination from a woman who recalls that, “I was 11 when I thought, ‘If dancing is what I’m going to do, I’d better start working because I only have a few years before I leave home.’ ” LeBlanc doesn’t know where her passion to dance came from, but it also ran among her siblings. Both older sister Laurie and kid sister Sherri enjoyed respectable careers, the latter at both New York City Ballet and SFB.
But LeBlanc, even while training under Marcia Dale Weary at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, saw only one company in her future: “ABT, because they did the classics and that’s what I was trained to do.” She went to the auditions at 15; the thought of rejection never entered her mind. “When my number wasn’t called, I thought it was a mistake. And when Patricia Wilde told me I was too short, I was devastated.” LeBlanc, who stands 5'1", faced her first reality check.
“There have been a few incidents when I’ve been considered too short, LeBlanc says. “Sometimes they were right. Sometimes, it wasn’t warranted. My height hasn’t held me back, but I haven’t gotten to do a few ballets I might have liked. [She cites Jerome Robbins’ In the Night, in which she eventually was cast.] Yes, occasionally, I get tired of being considered the small girl.”
After the ABT auditions, LeBlanc went home and entered a regional festival in York, Pennsylvania. Soon enough, a call came from Sally Brayley Bliss to join Joffrey II. Seventeen months later, in January 1984, she was invited into the senior company. LeBlanc wasted no time in attracting attention in a wide range of repertoire. “She was a dazzler, a little spitfire,” remembers Ashley Wheater, a Joffrey colleague who is now a ballet master at SFB. “But, there was an artist there, too.”
Because the Joffrey toured extensively in the ’80s, LeBlanc acquired a national following. Nobody who saw her and the late Edward Stierle in Saint-Léon’s La Vivandière pas de deux has ever forgotten that sublimely harmonious, ineffably exuberant pairing.
Eight years later, it was time for a change. LeBlanc’s husband, Marco Jerkunica, whom she had married at 21, wanted to leave New York. In addition, Robert Joffrey had died and Stierle was fatally ill. Gerald Arpino’s full control of the company was threatened. And there were artistic issues, too.
“The Joffrey was a great company to start with,” says LeBlanc. “They paid attention to details. But I was feeling smothered. When I went onstage, I didn’t know how much was me and how much was the coach. When someone coaching your Juliet tells you what count to breathe on, what you should be feeling…there was no sense that it doesn’t work on me or doesn’t feel good.”
LeBlanc liked the repertoire Helgi Tomasson was building in SFB and she was impressed by the standards on display during the company’s City Center season in 1991. When the Joffrey was on tour in Los Angeles, she called Tomasson, told him she was in the area and drove 400 miles to take class. Not only did he hire LeBlanc; two years later he also engaged David Palmer, her old partner at the Joffrey.
In the beginning, paradise on the Pacific proved elusive.
“The first year I came here, I felt lost,” says LeBlanc. “Helgi is very much an ‘I’ll step back and see how you handle this role’ kind of director. He had me learn everything to see where I would shine. Betcha didn’t know I even learned the Agon pas de deux.”
LeBlanc articulates the difference between working at The Joffrey and SFB. “I came from a company where they spent so much time taking things apart that they sometimes never ran the whole ballet until opening night. Then, I joined a company where, in my first rehearsal, I was running a pas de deux. I didn’t know what I looked like; I was just doing it. I realized I had to break it all down for myself.
“We have a great coaching staff here,” adds LeBlanc. “If you tell them you’re not comfortable, they will find the way that is right for you. Sometime in my second or third year, I found my own voice. As I learned, I became comfortable with the process.”
Still, something was missing. LeBlanc had been hailed for her classical pedigree and acclaimed for her speed and verve, but she still thirsted after the juicy Romantic roles. “They started with Swan Lake,” she recalls. “I struggled, pushing myself to that White Swan adagio.”
Sleeping Beauty presented another challenge. “At first, I didn’t see any character development in Aurora. I was overwhelmed with the technical aspect. I let it bog me down. A couple of years later,” LeBlanc says, “my approach was different. It was still a scary assignment, but I wasn’t overwhelmed.” By the time she tackled Giselle, technique and characterization had fused.
But if you ask LeBlanc about recent satisfactions, she cites Lar Lubovitch’s …smile with my heart. “I thought Lar would give me the bouncy number. But he chose me for the romantic duet.” And LeBlanc says she “demanded” to dance the slow, rapturous “Man I Love” duet in Balanchine’s Who Cares? “I got tired of being thought of as the turning girl.”
Tomasson sensed LeBlanc’s range long ago. “To see such depth come into Tina’s dancing in her maturity is wonderful. She has added another dimension,” he says. “The length of her line, her lyrical phrasing are beautiful to watch.”
In recent seasons, Tomasson has increasingly paired LeBlanc with Gonzalo Garcia, one of the SFB’s most exciting, if occasionally unruly, dancers. Fourteen years her junior, he calls their collaborations inspiring. “I have learned so much from Tina. She has taught me to focus my energy and not waste it. She tells me how to breathe, how to enjoy myself, how to approach it correctly, I found much of my Apollo through her.”
To all in SFB, LeBlanc often seems the most grounded person in the building. She attributes that quality to her marriage (“for a while, it was way up or way down, we were either on our honeymoon or ready for divorce, but we worked it out”), and to her two sons: Marinko, 8 (“He’s a competitive gymnast at the moment”), and Sasha, 3. Combining a career with a home life has, she says, enriched her enormously. The talk of the company is that whenever Tina takes family leave, she comes back dancing better than ever.
LeBlanc agrees. “Motherhood changes your perspective. You focus on what’s real—the home—and treat dancing like fun. I was so stressed after Marinko was born, with all that crying. But when I got back to the studio, it was my quiet time. Dancing, after all, is my side career.”
LeBlanc, who turns 40 in October, knows she can’t avoid the inevitable forever. “I have been thinking about retirement lately,” she says. “My body still feels pretty good. The telling factor will be when I stop enjoying it, when I feel dancing is no longer worth the effort. It will be something inner, a moment when it will be too hard to pull it out of myself. But,” says this most polished of artists, “dancing has never been about being perfect, anyway.”
Allan Ulrich is Dance Magazine’s senior editor.
When Thomas Forster isn't in the gym doing his own workout, he's often coaching his colleagues.
Two years ago, the American Ballet Theatre soloist got a personal training certification from the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Now he trains fellow ABT members and teaches the ABT Studio Company a strength and conditioning class alongside fellow ABT soloist Roman Zhurbin.
He shared six of his top tips for getting into top shape.
No matter how much anti–Valentine's Day sentiment I'm feeling in a given year, there's something about dancer couples that still makes me swoon. Here's a collection of wonderful posts from this year, but be warned: Continued scrolling is likely to give you a severe case of the warm fuzzies.
When Rennie Harris first heard that Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater had tapped him to create a new hour-long work, and to become the company's first artist in residence, he laughed.
"I'm a street dance choreographer. I do street dance on street dancers," he says. "I've never set an hour-long piece on any other company outside my own, and definitely not on a modern dance company."
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When Chase Brock signed on to choreograph a new musical at a theater in New Jersey in 2015, he couldn't have predicted that four years later, he would be receiving fan art featuring his Chihuahua because of it. Nor could he have he imagined that the show—Be More Chill, based on the young adult novel by Ned Vizzini—would be heading to Broadway with one of the most enthusiastic teenage fan bases the Great White Way has ever seen.
It's no longer just Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and the few pointe-clad male character parts, like in Cinderella or Alexei Ratmansky's The Bright Stream. Some male dancers are starting to experiment with pointe shoes to strengthen their feet or expand their artistic possibilities. Michelle Dorrance even challenged the men in her cast at American Ballet Theatre to perform on pointe last season (although only Tyler Maloney ended up actually doing it onstage).
The one problem? Pointe shoes have traditionally only been designed for women. Until now.
Camille Sturdivant, a former member of the Blue Valley Northwest High School dance team is suing the school district, alleging that she was barred from performing in a dance because her skin was "too dark."
The suit states that during Sturdivant's senior year, the Dazzlers' choreographer, Kevin Murakami, would not allow her to perform in a contemporary dance because he said her skin would clash with the costumes, and that she would steal focus from the other dancers because of her skin color.
You wander through the grocery aisles, sizing up the newest trends on the shelves. Although you're eager to try a new energy bar, you question a strange ingredient and decide to leave it behind. Your afternoons are consumed with research as you sort through endless stories about "detox" miracles.
What started as an innocent attempt to eat healthier has turned into a time-consuming ritual with little room for error, and an underlying fear surrounding your food choices.
Aside from a solid warm-up, most dancers have something else they just have to do before performing. Whether it's putting on the right eyelashes before the left or giving a certain handshake before a second-act entrance, our backstage habits give us the comfort of familiar, consistent choices in an art form with so many variables.
Some call them superstitions, others call them rituals. Either way, these tiny moments become part of our work—and sometimes even end up being the most treasured part of performing.
Raise your hand if you've ever gotten sucked down an informational rabbit hole on the internet. (Come on, we know it's not just us.) Now, allow us to direct you to this new project from Google Arts & Culture. To celebrate Black History Month, they've put together a newly curated collection of images, videos and stories that spotlights black history and culture in America specifically through the lens of dance—and it's pretty much our new favorite way to pass the time online.
If you're anything like us, your Instagram feed is chock-full of gorgeous dance photos and videos. But you know what makes us fall in love with an artist even more? When they take a break from curating perfect posts and get real about their missteps. These performers' ability to move past mistakes, and even laugh them off, is one reason why they're so successful.
Every time you fall out of a pirouette, just remember: The stars—and literally every. single. dancer.—have been there, too. (Even Misty Copeland.)
Dancers today have an overwhelming array of options at their fingertips: New fitness tools, recovery trends, workouts and more that claim to improve performance, speed up recovery or enhance training.
But which of these actually meet the unique demands of dancers? In our new series, "We Tried It," we're going to find out, sampling new health and fitness trends to see if they're dancer-approved.
First up: Brrrn, the cold temperature fitness studio (the first and only of its kind, they claim) located in Manhattan.
Throughout your dancing life, you've heard the same corrections over and over. The reason for the repetition? Dancers tend to make the same errors, sometimes with catastrophic results. Dance Magazine spoke to eight teachers about what they perceive to be the worst habits—the ones that will destroy a dancer's technique—and what can be done to reverse the damage.
To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.
Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.
Misaligning the Spine
Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.
Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.
Clenching the Toes
Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.
Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.
Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension
Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.
But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."
Using Unnecessary Tension
“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.
Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."
Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.
Pinching Your Shoulder Blades
Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."
Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."
Getting Stuck in a Rut
While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.
Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."
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:
Clad in her signature loose black T-shirt and baggy gym shorts, Emma Portner is standing in a cavernous industrial space in downtown Los Angeles. A glass box—big enough to fit five dancers with only a little room to maneuver inside—sits in the middle. The five performers, Portner included, are standing inside it, side by side, palms on the glass.
"Question," Portner asks. "Are we looking at our hands?"
She steps out to watch the others try the phrase, and adds a few more steps. Quick, staccato movement, legs kicking out, torsos swiveling around, fists hitting glass. "This is a puzzle," she says, almost to herself. "I'm not sure I'll like it." The statement, like so many, is punctured with a sweet, nervous laugh.
I write this letter knowing full well and first-hand the financial challenges of running an arts organization. I also write this letter on behalf of dancers auditioning for your companies. Lastly, I write this letter as a member of society at large and as someone who cares deeply about the culture we are leading and the climate we create in the performing arts.
In the February 1969 issue of Dance Magazine, we talked to Bob Fosse about taking Sweet Charity from stage to screen. Though he already had a string of Tony Awards for Best Choreography and had spent plenty of time on film sets as a choreographer, this adaptation marked his first time sitting in the director's chair for a motion picture.
"When I started out, I wanted to be a Fred Astaire," he told us, "and after that a Jerome Robbins. But then I realized there was always somebody a dancer or choreographer had to take orders from. So I decided I wanted to become a director, namely a George Abbott. But as I got older I dropped the hero-worship thing. I didn't want to emulate anyone. Just wanted to do the things I was capable of doing—and have some fun doing them. By this time I'm glad I didn't turn out to be an Astaire, a Robbins or an Abbott." He would go on to become an Academy Award–winning director, indelibly changing musical theater in the process.
If you've ever wondered where models get their moves, look just off-camera for Pat Boguslawski. As a movement director and creative consultant based in London, he works with top brands, fashion designers, magazines and film directors to elicit bold, photogenic movement for ad campaigns, runway shows and film. Boguslawski has collaborated with plenty of big-name talent—FKA Twigs, Hailey Baldwin, Victoria Beckham, Kim Kardashian—and draws on his diverse experience in hip hop, contemporary dance, acting and modeling.
Dance Magazine recently asked him about how he got this career, and what it takes to thrive in it.
Let's say that today you're having a terrible time following your class's choreography and are feeling ashamed—you're always stumbling a few beats behind. Do you:
1. Admit it's your fault because you didn't study the steps last night? Tonight you'll nail them down.
2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.
Shame is a natural emotion that everyone occasionally feels. If you answered #1, it may be appropriate—you earned it by not studying—and positive if it motivates you to do better in the future.
My hypermobility used to cause me a lot of trouble, but I've gained confidence and strength after reading about it in one of your columns. I now have a Pilates instructor who's retraining my body and helping me dance in a consistent way. Thank you!
—No Longer Anxious, Philadelphia, PA
George Balanchine famously wrote, that ballet "is a woman." Four of his most celebrated women—Allegra Kent, Gloria Govrin, Kay Mazzo and Merrill Ashley—appeared onstage at Jacques d'Amboise's National Dance Institute Monday evening to celebrate his legacy. The sold-out program, called "Balanchine's Ballerinas," included performances of excerpts from ballets closely associated with these women and a discussion, moderated by former New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan. Here are some highlights of the conversation, filled with affection, warmth and fond memories.