It's fall 2009, and I'm standing in Andy Blankenbuehler's midtown office where he, Lin-Manuel Miranda and others are working on their next show, Bring It On: The Musical. Already it's clear that Miranda/Blankenbuehler collaborations are just daring enough to be groundbreaking. Blankenbuehler hands me a note scribbled on a page from the script.
In that moment, I realize I've found my place in the dance world—as a writer, telling the stories of the artistic greats.
It's an ongoing question for large and small companies alike: How can we increase ticket sales? Tickets are the primary product dance troupes are selling. But what if there were other untapped avenues to make money, and even expand your audience in the process?
Some companies are exploring the possibilities. L.A. Dance Project recently launched the subscription-based ladanceworkout.com, offering streaming workout videos led by company members. Groups of all sizes and even some individual dancers have launched merchandise lines bearing their logos. And, of course, there's the perpetually innovative Pilobolus, which has been in the creative-revenue game for years, with books, advertisements, corporate appearances and more. Companies told us what it takes to expand revenue streams beyond ticket sales:
Even as a teen, Vandana Hart knew she wasn't headed for a cookie-cutter dance career. "Growing up with a family that really cared about social change, pursuing dance as a standalone career—without linking it to something more—felt like I wasn't completely fulfilling my purpose," she says.
Linking dance to "something more" is just what she did: In her downtime from her role as a coordinator for UN Women's "safe cities" initiative, she has choreographed and taught dance around the world. Now, she produces a Netflix series called "We Speak Dance," in which she travels the globe to learn new dance styles and the deeply human stories behind them.
Every dancer has learned—probably the hard way—that healthy feet are the foundation of a productive and happy day in the studio. As dancers, our most important asset has to carry the weight (literally) of everything we do. So it's not surprising that most professional dancers have foot care down to an art.
Three dancers shared their foot-care products they can't live without.
One of the toughest moments in the ballet world is watching a life-changing performance—and then looking around to see that only half the seats were filled to witness it. The discussion about how ballet can stay relevant and build new audiences has been going on for decades. However, these debates often end in speculation about the relevance of the product, rather than placing the onus on the marketing and sales crew.
But recently, a few U.S. ballet companies have done the latter, leading to full houses on weeknights and proving that revenue growth is possible: In 2016, Boston Ballet saw record-breaking ticket revenue and had the highest attendance in more than a decade. Colorado Ballet has exceeded revenue goals the last four seasons, with the 2016–17 season being the most successful to date.
Your first year in a dance company can be a shocking transition. It's also a high-stakes one. "Everyone's looking at you to see what you can do, but also the kind of person you're going to be," says Philadanco founder Joan Myers Brown. How can you succeed when you're suddenly the least experienced person in the room?
Most corps members have one thing in common: little rest. When you're the backbone of the company, you're cast in almost every major ballet, and expected to give just as much to each character and peasant role as you do the rare soloist opportunities thrown your way. Recently, Dance Magazine followed Boston Ballet's Hannah Bettes and Lawrence Rines through a typical rehearsal day as they juggled a nonstop load of dance.
Bettes is an early riser, up by 7 to have a slow breakfast and watch the news. “I like to stay up to date," she says. “It makes me feel more productive." The company is known for its fashion, and most dancers put together separate street and studio outfits each day. Bettes says, “Lawrence has taught me a lot about fashion actually—he's taken me shopping. I think my style is 'hobo chic.' When I arrived, it was just 'hobo.' "
Bettes starts her day in the PT room so she can get occasional advice from the PT team while she warms ups with hip and shoulder stabilization exercises. Then she uses company class to focus on improving her technique. “Recently it's been all about shoulder and arm placement."
Hour-long rehearsal for Swan Lake, which opens later in the season.
Bettes eats her lunch early, since she has a coaching session during the company break. Her typical lunch includes a peanut butter chocolate chip Zing Bar; a beet, kale and chicken dish; and a small lentil salad with cherries and hazelnuts.
Bettes runs downstairs to the costume shop for a hairpiece fitting for Gaîté Parisienne and grabs an extra pair of pointe shoes from her cubby in the shoe room.
Her one-on-one rehearsal is with Peter Stark, with whom she trained at the Patel Conservatory before he moved to Boston last year to head up the men's program and become the associate director of Boston Ballet II. Bettes is preparing for the Helsinki International Ballet Competition. “Competitions give dancers that little extra push," Stark says. As Bettes runs through Aurora's Act I variation, he calls out simple cues that evidence their history together: things like “fingers," “audience, audience" and “chin down."
Bettes uses her five-minute break to switch gears by marking through choreography on her own before a run-through of portions of Onegin, which the company is performing later in the week.
“I probably go out to dinner with friends every other night," says Bettes. “It's where the majority of my salary goes."
Rines wakes up with just enough time to shower, eat and walk the 10 minutes to the studio for pre-class exercises.
Loose in his lower back and hips, Rines warms up for the day by strengthening his rotators and core. “That way, instead of using my bones and ligaments at the barre, my muscles are ready to work," he says. He uses company class to prepare for the day ahead. On tough rehearsal days, he might practice steps from his rep in the back of the room towards the end of class. On lighter ones, he'll push full-force to make sure he gets in a good workout.
Pushing the limits of extension in William Forsythe's The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude.
Rehearsals start with a full-out run of the intense The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, which opens in two weeks. Rines is known for excelling in neoclassical rep.
Next is a rehearsal for Balanchine's Kammermusik No. 2. Rines manages the quick transitions between one-hour rehearsal blocks by mentally compartmentalizing each ballet. “I don't think ahead, because that would drive me crazy," he says. “I take it like the chapters of a book—I walk in and say, 'What am I doing now?' "
Rines runs out to grab lunch (which changes daily, but he stays away from anything too heavy).
Rines uses his break for a quick visit to the PT room for maintenance on a prior calf issue. The treatment includes massage and an exercise on the Pilates chair equipment.
Onegin rehearsal. Tomorrow the dancers will switch over to their theater schedule, beginning their day at noon and finishing with a 7:30 pm show.
In Gaîté Parisienne, Rines is learning three different roles and must stay on top of his "live in the moment, don't anticipate" approach to mental multitasking.
Rines believes after-work time is essential to maintaining a balanced life. “I like to keep myself social—I get angry at myself when friends want to do something and I'm like, 'No, I'm tired,' " he says. “You can't let ballet run your whole life."
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Misa Kuranaga had just arrived in Taipei, and was already eager to get in a rehearsal. At the following night's last-minute gala engagement she would dance Don Quixote and Balanchine's Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux. But at that point, she still hadn't met her partner.
“He has a great reputation," Kuranaga says of New York City Ballet principal Joaquin De Luz, “so I thought, Okay, let's do this. I wouldn't take such a crazy risk if I didn't know his name."
Gone are the days of comfortable career partnerships in ballet, of one-track dancers, of ballerinas who rely on a company to build their fan base. Kuranaga, whose killer work ethic and lyrical lines have long made her a fan favorite, has come to embody the future of ballet—a world of dancers who are independent and endlessly versatile. Dancers who supplement full-time company lives with part-time commercial gigs, and fill their vacations with guest appearances spanning the globe. “Being a dancer is almost a superhuman commitment, and Misa seems to understand that," says Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen. “She has always been a wonderful dancer—but she's matured and become a true ballerina."
Growing up in Osaka, Japan, Kuranaga won early ballet success in competitions, then started her career as a San Francisco Ballet apprentice. But one year and a bad case of culture shock later, she wasn't rehired. She faced a decision: to leave ballet behind or to start over. Kuranaga chose to go back to school, enrolling at the School of American Ballet. By the end of the year, she received multiple job offers and chose Boston Ballet, earning her first principal role in La Sylphide only one year later.
She quickly built a reputation as a workhorse, spending hours in the studio alone. “I haven't seen anybody work as hard as her—in every class, every rehearsal," says American Ballet Theatre principal Herman Cornejo, a favorite partner of Kuranaga's at the Vail International Dance Festival. Her determination led to steady promotions: second soloist in 2005, soloist in 2007 and principal in 2009.
“When I got to principal, that was actually my start," says Kuranaga. “You have more freedom to express yourself." Having spent years in search of “perfect" technique, she now faced the challenge of figuring out who she was—and communicating that from the stage. Rather than adopting a flashy persona, she was simply herself: the always-striving, never fully satisfied, vulnerable but determined ballerina. “She is a very honest artist, that's what makes her so pure," says Nissinen. “She's very sincere, in life and onstage."
Company life has now become her artistic safe space. “I'm getting to a point that I don't have to feel nervous about every single thing anymore," she says. That comfort has given her the security to relax and deepen her artistry. “Only she knows her weaknesses," says Cornejo. “Sitting in the audience, I would never know."
Today, Kuranaga's fame reaches far beyond Boston. She brings her characteristic honesty to her tens of thousands of followers on social media, which she approaches as a public diary, whether she's feeling silly in rehearsal, challenged by altitude sickness or inspired by a new partner. “I used to hate to post videos on YouTube, because I didn't feel like I should be promoting myself—I felt like somebody else should do it," she says. “But now, promoting myself makes me feel good. It's a wonderful way to be independent." That self-promotion has earned her notable side gigs, including advertising campaigns for Freed of London, Japanese skin-care line SK-II and Italian jewelry company Bulgari. Earlier this year, Bulgari chose Kuranaga as one of 10 inspiring Japanese women from a variety of professions, and after completing a series of photo and video shoots over the summer, this month Kuranaga will attend a red carpet event in Tokyo where one of the 10 women will win an achievement award.
It's just the latest stop on a never-ending schedule of galas, festivals and events around the world, from Vail to Taipei to Havana. “I'm seeking inspiration," she says. “That's why I love guesting—because I grow. And then when I go back to Boston I train myself differently."
For now, the work is what fuels her. The thrilling challenges like meeting a new partner right before a performance or dancing at high altitudes remind her that even now at the pinnacle of her career there's still more to learn. “It's hard, but once you've done it, it becomes your confidence," she says. “Then you're like 'At sea level I can do anything.' "
Partnering training is one of the most nuanced parts of dance education. And yet, so much of it is entirely focused on male students. Beyond the basic principles—like holding your core and avoiding slippery leotards—young women often have little direction other than performing steps they already know with the help of a male dancer. But they have just as much to learn about becoming a good partner. Communication is key—but there are also some mistakes that your counterpart may not think to mention.
How building a side business within the dance world can transform your career
Allison DeBona with artÉmotion Summer Intensive students. Photo by Alexis Ziemski, Courtesy DeBona.
Early during her career at Pennsylvania Ballet, Abigail Mentzer discovered a new creative outlet: sewing. “I needed something outside the studio to stimulate my brain in a different way,” she says. “I was taking ballet too seriously. Once I let go, I enjoyed it more.” But her sewing soon became more than an outlet. Today, her custom-designed dance skirts have blossomed into a full-grown business with an office, three administrative employees and a sewing team she manages remotely while performing on tour with The Phantom of the Opera.
Mentzer’s not alone in the desire for a secondary outlet within the dance world. Many dancers find opportunities to flex their creative and managerial muscles, building businesses that lay the groundwork for post-performance careers. “Knowing I’m capable of doing something else gives me confidence that once I’m done dancing I won’t be lost,” Mentzer says. Not only does entrepreneurship prepare dancers for the future—the sense of empowerment it brings can add depth to your artistry now.
Explore the Possibilities
Like Mentzer, New York City Ballet soloist Craig Hall’s photography business grew out of a hobby. “I realized that there was a side of ballet that so many people don’t get to see—the whole studio setting, the rehearsals, the downtime, the prep time,” says Hall. As he honed his eye on Instagram and started uploading images to the photography website EyeEm.com, people began asking to purchase his work—and as simple as that, a business was born.
For Ballet West first-soloist Allison DeBona, who co-founded the artÉmotion Summer Intensive last year in collaboration with Cleveland’s Ballet in the City, where she had previously taught master classes, entrepreneurship grew out of a love for teaching combined with strong ideas about what she wanted to see in dance education. “It’s about building children up to succeed,” she says. “What they learn from dancing will make them successful at anything.”
Learn the Trade
Dancers are already equipped with the basic skills of entrepreneurship: discipline, drive and a willingness to take risks. For DeBona, this was all the foundation she needed to launch a summer intensive from scratch. “I’m sort of bullheaded—I just kind of learned along the way,” she says. “We didn’t have any money. The only advertising was on my personal social media accounts—but we ended up with 70 kids.”
The key is networking—and knowing when to ask for help. For Mentzer, as demand exceeded what she was able to sew herself, she had to learn the all-new role of managing a business. “I realized there are no stupid questions,” she says, “and that people are really eager to help. The ballet world can be cutthroat, and I was expecting the rest of the world to be that way—but it wasn’t.” Some of her most helpful contacts were PAB board members, who connected her with advisors and lawyers who could explain the complex paperwork of hiring employees and setting up an office. While on tour, she takes advantage of the opportunity to meet with boutique owners around the country.
Find Your Balance
Launching a business while maintaining a performing career is a careful balance. “I’m on my computer all morning and evening,” says DeBona. “I feel stressed at times, but I’ve never felt overwhelmed.”
For Mentzer, balance comes from learning to delegate to her employees. “I do everything remotely,” she says. “If I have two days off, sometimes I’ll go back to Philly to meet anyone new that I’ve hired while on the road. It’s not easy.” The hardest part, she says, is keeping a steady routine. “I take class or work out in the morning, and then work on my computer for a few hours in the afternoon before going to the theater,” she says. “Seeing people wear my skirts is what keeps me going.”
Hall’s approach is to keep dance his first priority. “I would like my second business to become bigger, but right now I need to focus on being a performer,” he says. “Photography is downtime physically, but not downtime creatively.” Rather than scheduling time with his camera, he follows his inspiration. Hall always has his camera in his bag and often snaps behind-the-scenes portraits during spare moments. When he’s on the subway, which has become one of his favorite places to create portraits, he might watch for unique people.
Enjoy the Rewards
Any dancer will tell you—the balancing act is worth it. “Our art isn’t tangible,” says Mentzer. “You rehearse and then you perform and it’s gone. After spending a few hours sewing, I have something to show for my efforts.”
DeBona believes the outside work has made her a better dancer. “Dancing is more what I like to do and not a means to survive,” she says. “It’s wild what you’re capable of when you’re passionate.”
Every anatomical gift comes with a downside. Here’s how to strengthen your body so you can dance to your fullest potential.
Flexibility meets strength: American Ballet Theatre’s Catherine Hurlin. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT.
If you are lucky enough to have any of the desired “perfect dancer-body” traits—like high arches, a bendy back, hyperextended legs or long lines—it’s fair to say that your peers are envious. But what they may not realize is that these blessings come with serious challenges. You often need to work harder to build extra strength. Otherwise you won’t be able to harness the power of those gifts, and you could do serious damage to your body.
The Gift: High Arches
Beyond being aesthetically pleasing, flexible feet and high arches allow dancers to better articulate their feet and find an easier balance on pointe. But that comes with less stability in pointe shoes, which can lead to injury.
Dancers with very high arches should have a PT examine their feet in pointe shoes to make sure they are tight enough to provide support. For dancers with bendy feet, a loose shoe tends to put too much pressure
on the second and third metatarsals. You might need an extra piece of elastic to extend the shoe’s vamp and keep your foot from falling out.
Annette Karim, a Pasadena-based physical therapist and ballet teacher, says dancers with high arches are also vulnerable to injuries in the mid-foot. They form when the wrong part of the foot absorbs the shock of a jump.
Countering this starts with making sure the tripod of the foot—the first metatarsal, fifth metatarsal and heel—is fully on the floor while dancing, says Karim. Support your turnout from your deep hip rotators to avoid rolling in.
The Gift: Hyperextended Knees
They help create gorgeous lines, but hyperextended knees require extra care. “A hyperextended leg is weaker than a line that’s straight from hip to knee to ankle,” says Ana Marie Forsythe, who teaches Horton technique at The Ailey School. Dancers often push too far beyond the knee, which strains the joint and throws off your center of gravity. That imbalance trickles to other parts of the body, making many movements more difficult to achieve.
To combat this, focus on maintaining correct leg alignment, using the quadriceps and building core strength. Also pay attention to how you stand in casual situations—and never lock the knees back. To find your own anatomically correct leg alignment, Forsythe suggests sitting on the floor with the legs stretched out in front of you and feet flexed. If your heels pop up, you’ve hyperextended your legs. At the same time, the knees should not feel bent, but the legs should feel stretched long with quads extended.
Then, translate this feeling to your standing position. “You want to feel lengthening and stretching,” says Dalia Rawson, director of the Silicon Valley Ballet School. “Make sure to think about the leg grounding down into the floor while also lengthening up. It will help you find a solid base.”
The Gift: Long Limbs
Long lines are like the holy grail of dance—but they can also make dancers feel uncoordinated, which stems from a lack of control. Rawson says if this is an issue, it can be beneficial to take a step back and work on simplified barre exercises, especially if you’re going through a growth spurt.
For strengthening, Karim recommends strategic bodywork that concentrates on the kinetic chains of the body, the muscular connections between the extremities. Try this: Grab a Thera-Band with your right hand and stand on the other end of the band with your left foot. With the band slightly in front of your body, pull it upward on a diagonal,
feeling the connection between the opposite sides of your body. Then, try the same exercise with your other hand and foot, noting the difference.
Also, practice modified planks. Unlike single-plane strength training, these coordinate whole-chain partnerships between muscle groups: On your elbows with your right leg in a turned-out arabesque, move to a side plank on your left arm, transitioning your right leg to passé. Then, développé to the side before moving back into passé and then into front or back attitude, reaching your top arm in the opposite direction of the working leg.
The Gift: Hypermobile Back
A flexible back is one of the most eye-catching traits a dancer can have—but also one of the most vulnerable to injury. “We get a lot of dancers with L-6, L-5 fractures,” says Karim. “That can happen if you don’t strengthen and support through the full spine.” Apart from sudden injuries, chronic lower back pain is common.
The answer here lies in building strength not only in the back, but also in the abdominals, including the lower abs, plus the psoas and external obliques. But strength is nothing without good alignment of the rib cage and shoulder blades. To find it, stand straight, legs in parallel, with your back against a wall. Slide down into a small squat, breathing and bracing your abdomen to make sure your lower back remains against the wall. Pull the shoulders back so you have good posture, and close the rib cage. Try to retain this feeling of supported length while standing at the barre.
As a long-limbed powerhouse, yet soulful soubrette, Maria Baranova defies “type.” At 16, she signed her first contract with Hamburg Ballet. At 19, she became a principal at Finnish National Ballet. This season, with a persistent glimmer still in her eyes, she has joined Boston Ballet as a soloist, where she’s eager to test the limits of her artistry.
The Neumeier-trained Baranova sparkles in his works, like Préludes CV, which she danced at Finnish National Ballet. Photo by Stanislav Belyaevsky, Courtesy Boston Ballet.
Company: Boston Ballet
Hometown: Helsinki, Finland
Training: Helsinki Dance Institute, School of the Hamburg Ballet—John Neumeier
Accolades: Notable prizes from the Prix de Lausanne, Helsinki International Ballet Competition and Erik Bruhn Prize, among others
Career prep at competitions: “They are great practice to control yourself—when you are nervous and you only have that one chance,” says Baranova. “I learned how to focus myself.”
Her most meaningful role: The title role in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon in 2012 at Finnish National Ballet. “I had spent all summer preparing, but it still didn’t feel honest,” she says. “One week before the performance, my partner Friedemann Vogel, a principal with Stuttgart Ballet, came to rehearse. He started very young as a principal, too, and knew how hard it was. He taught me how to create in myself this character. When you find this incredible chemistry with a partner, it can open you and drive you into the story.”
Her path to Massachusetts: When Boston Ballet toured to Finland in 2012, Baranova fell in love with its broad repertoire. Last year when BB’s resident choreographer Jorma Elo set A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Finnish National, Baranova connected with artistic director Mikko Nissinen, who is also from Finland. In August, she became the first Finnish dancer he has hired for the company.
On adjusting to company life in the U.S.: ”The working rhythm is different,” she says. “In Europe, you rehearse one ballet and then perform, then rehearse another. Here, we prepare many ballets for three months, and then start to perform. There’s a lot of homework.”
What Nissinen is saying: “She is a powerful dancer—with lots of spunk and speed. Now I want to see her go deeper into neoclassical repertoire and tackle things that are not as natural for her.”
Her dream roles: “Whatever I’m dancing at the moment is my favorite,” she says. “But I like to keep the dreams to myself. I’m looking forward to everything.” n
Breakfast Philosophy: “Mornings have always been important to me. I can remember watching my mom busy in the kitchen, talking about how it would be a great day because we were sitting down together and eating good food. It's a tradition, but it's also legit—as an athlete, it certainly helps health-wise."
When: “I'm up at 6, because my baby's up. Around 7 or 7:30, my husband, son and I all have breakfast before I go to the studios for our 9:45 class. It's such a lovely time together before we start the day."
Her Go-Tos: “We always have fruit, like pineapple or berries or melon—whatever's seasonal. They're packed with vitamins and just feel fresh before a hard day at work. And protein—eggs or yogurt. Or sometimes oatmeal."
To Drink: “I always have some orange juice, even if it's just a few sips."
Victoria Jaiani's Sunny Side Up Eggs in Pepper
“This is my favorite breakfast. The first time we tried it was in Vienna. It's yummy, brings good memories, and you're getting vegetables and protein—all the good stuff."
• 1 bell pepper, sliced into 1/2" circles
• 1 egg per pepper slice
• salt and pepper to taste
• 1 oz. feta and a few olives
1. Slice a bell pepper into a circle, and place it on a hot, greased pan and crack an egg inside of it.
2. Season with salt and pepper and cook sunny side up until the egg white is cooked through but the yolk is still runny.
3. Serve with feta cheese and olives on
Photo by Erin Baiano for Dance Spirit.
Beyoncé's lead dancer and dance captain
Breakfast Philosophy: “I'm not the biggest morning person—but I always eat something before I dance, even if I'm not hungry, because as soon as we start I'll be starving."
When: “Around an hour or so after I get up—about 10:30 or 11."
Her Go-To: “I make a lot of smoothies. They satisfy me but leave me feeling light."
If She's On Set: “I'll do an egg white omelet with vegetables and maybe a piece of toast."
Ashley Everett's Green Smoothie
“When I was growing up, my dad used to always cook french toast and waffles and pancakes, but it was hard for my body to process all that and it would weigh me down. Smoothies have been really helpful, because they're liquid but really filling with all these nutrients in them."
• a handful of kale or spinach
• 1 banana
• 1 apple (green)
• 1/2 an avocado
• 1 orange (or orange juice)
• a splash of almond milk
• optional: cucumber or other veggies
Blend in a high-power blender until smooth, and enjoy!
Sturm performing In Your Arms. Photo by Carol Rosegg, Courtesy In Your Arms.
Breakfast Philosophy: “I usually get tossed around a lot in rehearsals, so I have to make sure I have energy but won't feel sick."
When: “Breakfast tends to be the last thing I do as I'm getting ready, but I try to eat at least an hour before I dance."
Her Go-To: “I'll top an English muffin with ricotta cheese, avocado and red pepper flakes. It's perfect for energy in the morning. You get protein, fiber, carbs—everything you really need to sustain energy."
If Her Boyfriend's Cooking: “He'll make me an omelet—they're his specialty—with two or two and a half eggs, onion, tomato and sometimes avocado."
To Drink: “I have flavored coffee, like hazelnut with almond milk."
Paul Taylor Dance Company
Khobdeh in Brandenburgs. Photo by Paul B. Goode, courtesy PTDC.
Breakfast Philosophy: “I find food to be almost ritualistic—eating and creating the space to eat so that I can really enjoy it."
When: “On rehearsal days, I'll wake up, have coffee and go to the gym. I don't like to dance on a full stomach, so I break my fast after rehearsal around noon."
Her Go-Tos: “I like Siggi's yogurt because it's high in protein and has a good ratio of carbs to fat. I'll add everything I can possibly fit into that cup—banana, berries, chia seeds, maybe peanut butter. Or I'll do a rice cake with peanut butter and top that with chia seeds or fresh fruit. Sometimes I'll start with a raspberry chia kombucha."
If She's Performing: “Even though I'm not hungry when I wake up, I'll eat early in the morning so that my body has time to digest before I dance. I'll have protein for muscle maintenance—egg whites with spinach, cheddar, salt and pepper, and green leaves on the side with a little bit of oil and vinegar, or a smoothie with berries, banana and yogurt or milk."
To Drink: “Coffee when I wake up, with a little bit of whole milk."
Photo by Gadi Dagon, courtesy Batsheva
Batsheva Dance Company
Breakfast Philosophy: “Plain and simple does the job for me in the morning. Especially if I'm in a rush, which is usually the case."
When: “Around 9 am, before class
His Go-To: “When I was in high school
I would commute to Manhattan, and my dad taught me how to make a quick and easy omelet, so the habit has stuck with me: Most mornings I'll make a two- or three-egg omelet with pepper, onion and tomato."
If He's in a Rush: “I'll have a bowl of Cheerios and pick up a salmon, lettuce and cream cheese sandwich on the way to the studio and have it after class at 11:30."
To Drink: “I make a pretty large mug of coffee at the studio after class."
Kremlin Ballet Theatre
Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe.
Breakfast Philosophy: “I used to skip breakfast to avoid the feeling of being weighed down. I learned the hard way that was a bad idea."
Her Go-To: “After I wake up, I drink water and a special blend of Russian herb tea for cleansing and hormonal stability. Then I'll have two of my own energy bars, Prima Bar Minis. Each has 10 grams of protein, 9 grams of carbs and 6 grams of natural sugars."
When: “My breakfast is usually on the go—I like to work out right after I wake up. If it's a light workout day, I'll eat after the gym and before I head to class. If it's a 'push it' kind of workout day, then I have one Prima Bar Mini to fuel me through my session, and one after."B
To Drink: “I drink coffee with lemon. When I'm in the States I enjoy having coffee with almond or coconut milk, but unfortunately that's not available in Russia. Lemon is healthy, tasty, and now I prefer my coffee like this. It's kind of like a coffee lemonade." n
Ashley Rivers, a writer and dancer in Boston, once read that Ginger Rogers ate two eggs and toast for breakfast, so that's what she's eaten ever since.
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.”
Why they exist, and when you can make exceptions.
Wearing pointe shoes at barre helps prepare your muscles for center. Here, class at Houston Ballet Academy. Photo by Jaime Lagdameo, courtesy Houston Ballet.
Imagine this: You’ve spent your whole life working to keep your hips perfectly square in arabesque. But one day you take class with a new teacher, and she not only says it’s okay to open your hip—but that you should. You begin to move with more freedom, and are amazed by the length of your line. But you also wonder, What about all my teachers who said this is wrong? Were they wrong?
In an art form where rules are set to maintain technique, style and dancers’ safety, it can be confusing to hear opposing ideas from different teachers. But the reasonings behind these debated principles aren’t usually black and white. It’s up to you to learn when to follow them—and when to break away.
1) The heels should always touch the ground in demi-plié.
Nearly every teacher will tell you that the heels must touch the floor in plié. It allows you to access more power, while lengthening the Achilles tendon and protecting the ankles. If a dancer develops the habit of not fully relaxing into the floor, she’s more prone to joint injuries and shin splints.
But watch professional dancers closely and you’ll see that sometimes it just doesn’t happen. “Mr. Balanchine’s choreography was all about moving big and fast, and it’s just the reality that you’re moving from position to position so quickly that the heels don’t come down,” says Darleen Callaghan, director at Miami City Ballet School. It’s no coincidence that Balanchine choreography is typically reserved for advanced dancers, whose ankles are already well developed, and who have the necessary technical base to support the joints when landing and transitioning quickly.
The bottom line: Embrace your plié, striving to get the heels down. But it’s okay if certain rep calls for something a little different.
2) Don’t wear pointe shoes at the barre.
Teachers argue that wearing ballet slippers at the barre helps dancers articulate and develop the small muscles of the feet. “When you wear pointe shoes at the barre you’re missing lots of little steps, especially rolling through pointe and feeling all five toes on the floor,” says Stanislav Issaev, faculty member at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC.
But there are positives for wearing pointe shoes, too. “It strengthens the feet, abdominals, hamstrings,” says Shelly Power, director at Houston Ballet Academy. “It’s a whole different ballgame when you have pointe shoes on in the center—wearing them at the barre is getting that muscle control ready.”
The bottom line: Think about the rehearsal you have to prepare for, and what would benefit you most. Regardless of what you choose, warm up your feet before you start barre.
3) Turnout comes solely from the hips.
Forcing turnout—pushing your feet into an unnatural fifth position—is dangerous for the ankles and knees. But in reality, a small amount of rotation should come from the lower legs. A paper published by the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science (IADMS) says that “on average, 60 percent of turnout is created by outward rotation of the hip. Twenty to 30 percent of turnout may then emanate from the ankle, with the remaining percentage created by the tibia and knee joint.”
Teachers tell students to turn out only from the hips because dancers can easily get carried away and cram their feet into unsafe positions. At the same time, only thinking about hip rotation doesn’t allow you to realize your maximum potential. “Turnout is outside of the comfort zone, and sometimes people think that is forcing,” says Issaev.
The bottom line: Think of turnout as starting from the hips, rather than living there exclusively. “Rotation begins in the hip socket, but extends down the femur into the knee, shin and foot,” says Callaghan. “It engages a lot more than the gluteal muscles. It is a total rotation of the leg, supported by the musculature, especially the inner thigh and back of the leg.”
To help engage turnout muscles, Power recommends floor barre, which gives dancers the feeling of full-leg turnout, without any danger of using the floor to tweak the joints.
4) Don’t open your hips in arabesque.
Most teachers will agree that you should strive for squareness in all positions because it’s ultimately the most correct. “You have to make sure that the supporting leg is really strong before you open that hip,” says Callaghan. “But if you’ve got an upper-level student who has a strong standing leg, strong core and everything is well established, then they can begin to open up that beautiful arabesque line.”
Even Vaganova teachers who praise squareness say there is an acceptable degree of hip opening based on your body type. “It would be great if everyone was built like Zakharova, but most of us have limits and you have to work through them,” says Issaev. “It’s little compromises, a little bit here, a little bit there.”
The bottom line: Once you’ve got a solid, square base, allow yourself enough freedom so you can move a little bigger and achieve a correct, but aesthetically pleasing, line.
Set yourself up for success.
Reviewing last year's high and low points helps you create new goals. Here: Ballet at Point Park. Photo courtesy Point Park.
Most people make resolutions at the turn of the New Year. But for dancers, September, the beginning of a training and performance season, is a chance to start fresh. Take this time to reset your mind and body. How you begin 2015–16 will set the tone for the rest of the year.
Ease Your Way In
The sudden intensity of the beginning of the dance year is often a big cause of injury. The best way to prevent it is to spend the last two weeks of summer break working on strength and alignment through Pilates or Gyrotonic and cardio, says Annette Karim, a Los Angeles–based dance teacher, physical therapist and orthopaedic clinical specialist. Meanwhile, start your dance regimen with one-third of the number of dance classes you’ll be taking. “And take a lower level to work on fundamentals,” says Karim. “It’s nice to get a fresh view on the simple things.”
Check in with your body and address anything that feels “off.” Karim recommends seeing a physical therapist for a pre-season screening. The PT can give you exercises that will combat weak or uneven muscle strength to help ward off injury as the year becomes more rigorous. And they can help you break down technical goals, like finally nailing that triple turn, by identifying anything physical that’s holding you back.
Get Your Head In the Game
Now is the perfect time to set new goals. Start by reviewing last year’s high and low points. Don’t dwell on past disappointments, but ask yourself if the experiences reveal actions you can take to improve. Rubén Graciani, chair of dance and associate director of the Conservatory of Performing Arts at Point Park University, has his students write an essay at the beginning of each semester, evaluating where they feel their training is and what they’d like to accomplish.
Your goals for the year ahead “should be something that you can control, like being more focused during class or having a good school-work-life balance.
That’s more effective than an outcome, like getting a certain role,” says Dr. Sharon Chirban, a Boston-based dance psychologist. “Being more engaged during class might mean showing up 15 minutes early, making sure your nutrition is good or keeping a notebook where you write down anything that you’re stressed about before class, so you can leave it behind.”
Finally, make goals that are several years out. “Long-range dreams, like joining a company or dancing on Broadway, help you to be clear about the choices you’re making in your training, like whether you need to get into more contemporary classes,” says Graciani.
Keep It Going—All Year Long
Setting aside time to regularly reflect on your work and meet with teachers and mentors will help you stay accountable past the fall quarter. “Teachers create a syllabus for the year. Dancers can do the same,” says Karim. “If my homework was to do one exercise every day before class, did I do that? Did I get enough water and food each day? Did I work on spotting?”
Training journals can help you track your progress. They also help you identify when you’re being too critical. “Be really conscious of that negative self-talk,” says Interlochen Arts Academy teacher Rachel James. “Remember that if you were talking to someone else about their work, you would be encouraging.”
Embrace your achievements throughout the year—even the small ones. “Dancers change in tiny increments and can sometimes get very critical about not already being where they want to be,” says Chirban. “It takes a lot of mental work just to let yourself be where you are.”
Don’t Make These All-Too-Common Season-Starter Mistakes
Jumping in too fast, then overtraining to make up for lost time: “Some dancers think more is better. So they’ll try to take three pointe classes in a row, and they get hurt,” says PT Annette Karim. Increase activity gradually to keep your body safe.
Becoming complacent based on last year’s triumphs: “Some students rely on past success, assuming that since you got a solo part last year, you’re on this trajectory and it’s going to stay that way,” says Point Park chair of dance Rubén Graciani. “Last year’s success was the result of a lot of hard work, but it requires more to keep going.”
Neglecting sleep, nutrition and downtime. “Day three is when that lactic acid kicks in,” says Interlochen’s Rachel James. “When you’re sore, you’ve got to take care of yourself.” The beginning of the year is the time to live on your foam roller.
Worrying about things you can’t control. Many outside factors—worries about casting, technique levels and if teachers are noticing you—can distract you from your goals. “It creates stress and takes the fun out of dancing,” says psychologist Sharon Chirban. Focus on yourself, not others’ progress, and remember why you love to dance. —AR
On leaving the Mariinsky and starring in High Strung
In High Strung, Kampa plays a ballet dancer on scholarship at a prestigious New York City school. Photo courtesy Riviera Films.
There’s something about Keenan Kampa that sets her apart from the average ballerina. Both onstage and off, she is unfiltered, vulnerable and real. After becoming the first American to join the Mariinsky Ballet in 2012, she was almost immediately cast in principal roles, bringing a firestorm of criticism and sniping from some of the company’s Russian fans. Now, she’s left her coveted spot at the Mariinsky behind and is starring in the long-awaited dance film High Strung.
What initially brought you back to the U.S.?
I moved back to have hip surgery in January 2014. I’d had stress fractures in my foot for about three months, and was compensating a lot. In Russia, I had trouble saying “no.” There is no union there, and I worked so much, at times 11 hours a day, every day. I was planning to go back after I recovered, but at the last minute, I decided to stay in L.A. I wasn’t happy in Russia, and I missed my family.
How did you land the lead in High Strung?
NBC came to Russia for the Olympics, and they did a feature on me as an American dancer. High Strung’s director saw it and set up a phone call. Once I got off crutches from my hip surgery, I went to L.A. and read, but I still couldn’t dance. I eventually sent video samples from a class I was giving myself.
What was most challenging for you?
The dance sequences. Ballet is an art form that shouldn’t be seen from some angles. When you’re filming, you have so many cameras on you. I got really insecure, worried that they were filming something that wasn’t flattering.
What was it like seeing yourself on screen?
I wanted to bury myself in a hole. There are moments when you think you look so ugly or stupid. I can tell the days when I first started acting versus those days toward the end.
What have you been doing since?
I’m working on a couple of acting projects. I put together a gala for the Lejeune Foundation in France this summer, which raises money for genetic research and has a clinic for kids with Down syndrome and other conditions.
Do you ever miss company life?
People are quick to assume that the life of a ballet dancer is glamorous, but the daily grind is hard to keep up. If you’re constantly getting criticized, it takes every ounce of joy out of ballet. Now, I’m meeting incredible people with acting, but I’m still able to fall back in love with ballet each day. It’s not a job anymore, but a passion.
What does the future look like?
I’d love to see how successful I could be with acting. Doing the film was new and exciting and challenging. But there’s more to be done with dance and ballet. I’m waiting to see if I miss company life.
Juilliard grad Michele Carter helped secure her job with BODYTRAFFIC through face-to-face networking. Photo by Jim Webber, Courtesy BODYTRAFFIC.
In college, a dancer’s work is scheduled almost to the minute. You train intensely, discuss goals with advisors and put all that you’ve learned to practice. But when you graduate, the structure is gone. There’s little certainty of what the next year—or month—will hold.
When Beka Burnham graduated from The Boston Conservatory’s musical theater program in 2014, she “kind of felt like a slacker,” even though she was actively auditioning. “You have to battle the anxiety,” she says, “and know that your job is different from a normal person’s—that it doesn’t mean you’re not on the right track.” The reality is that it can take months, even years, of auditioning to sign a contract. That jobless time can be terrifying, but it doesn’t have to derail your career. Creating a plan to keep up with your technique and stay positive will help guide you until you land a job.
The first to-do is establishing some kind of routine. A central part of that is finding a dance studio where you can train consistently and receive feedback, says Melissa Lowe, a dance professor and the director of Student Services and Advising at the University of Arizona. “Dancers are some of the most disciplined and organized people on the planet. But they’re used to being attached to somebody who’s looking after them,” says Lowe. “As soon as you remove yourself from that structure, your self-direction can really be challenged.”
Finding a “home studio” will help you establish routine. Above: Class at Broadway Dance Center. Photo by April Cook, Courtesy BDC
That said, few graduates have the funds to take three classes a day. But ideally, you should train six days a week in some form. “Class becomes not a duty but a luxury,” says Michele Carter, who graduated from The Juilliard School in 2014 and moved back to her hometown near Los Angeles. She took ballet twice a week, and supplemented that by giving herself class at the studio where she grew up training. Many studios also have work-exchange programs.
Tailor your training to auditions you’re targeting. “About 60 percent of the classes should mimic movement that you will do in an audition,” says Megan Richardson, a clinical specialist at New York University’s Harkness Center for Dance Injuries. “The other 40 percent can supplement.” Even if you’re only auditioning for ballet companies, for instance, there should still be variety in your training. “At auditions, you never know what’s going to happen,” she adds.
Don’t neglect cross-training. Cardio, specifically high-intensity interval training (short bursts of high-energy effort during a sustained workout), best mimics the demands of an audition. Try incorporating four minutes of high-intensity work—physical enough that you can’t talk during it—into your regular workout, then recover and repeat. Apps like HIIT Timer help keep track of your exercises. In the days before an audition, replace HIIT workouts with something restorative, like yoga or Pilates.
Keep Your Head Up
Graduating without a job can come with high levels of anxiety. To ground yourself, start by identifying elements of college life that made you feel safe. “Was it the people, the classes or living on your own?” says Nadine Kaslow, resident psychologist at Atlanta Ballet. “Then ask, ‘How can I create some of that?’ ”
Don’t wait until you land your dream job to start building a fulfilling life. Kaslow recommends setting up a routine that consists of more than dance. Explore other artistic outlets, see shows and do any activities that help you figure out what you value. “Those areas that you now have time for can enhance your dancing,” says Carter. When it comes to supporting yourself through a non-dance job, assess whether you’d thrive in something dance-related, like teaching, or something less physical, like an administrative position.
Of course, self-doubt will creep in. “I want people to be realistic, but not overly worried or anxious,” says Kaslow. It can be especially hard as fellow graduates and friends get job offers. Remember that the first big contract comes at a different time for everyone, and that your peers’ successes don’t undermine your own. If anything, they connect you to a greater dance network.
Maximize the Job Search
Auditions are the most obvious way to book a job. But you can waste a lot of time and energy if you don’t have a strategy. Going after every opportunity can lead to burnout; one or two auditions a week may be an ideal number. But don’t limit yourself to only the jobs that seem perfect for you. Burnham almost skipped a Wicked audition because she didn’t believe she’d be chosen. To her surprise, she ended up booking its national tour.
There are plenty of other resources that can help you with your job hunt. A good place to start is your college’s local alumni association, which may offer workshops, classes and career counseling. For Carter, connecting with Juilliard alumni was invaluable. “Even if they’re just three years ahead of you, they know exactly where you’ve come from and where you’re trying to get to,” she says.
And you’ve heard it before: Networking is vital. Stay in touch with teachers who have contacts at companies. Get to know choreographers through regular classes. Attend shows of companies you’re interested in and reach out to congratulate the directors. After hearing promising feedback from BODYTRAFFIC, Carter kept in touch by sending an updated video reel, attending classes and workshops and seeing performances. “I tried to have as much face-to-face interaction as possible,” she says. “E-mail and phone are good, but if a director can get your essence, that’s definitely a better thing.” At the end of the summer, BODYTRAFFIC offered her a contract.
The job may not come quickly, but that doesn’t mean it never will. “It’s okay not to have your next step completely planned out,” says Carter. “It just means that there are a lot of opportunities you can explore.”
Many U.S. dancers dream of dancing abroad—of spending time experiencing cities and companies that, to us, seem “exotic.” But at the same time, dancers from around the world fantasize about joining our hometown troupes. What is it that draws them here?
photo by Lucas Chilczuk for DanceMedia LLC
Corps de ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet
Originally from Havana, Cuba
Growing up at Cuba’s National Ballet School, Mayara Pineiro knew very little about the ballet scene in America. She’d heard about Cuban dancers joining top U.S. companies, but mainly, she dreamed of leaving Cuba. Her family was very poor—her single mother struggled to support Pineiro and her siblings. Pineiro, who had the opportunity to travel abroad to dance at festivals and competitions, saw a different future for herself.
In 2009, when her school left for a Canadian tour, Pineiro decided she would not return. “I always wanted to be in the U.S. and to dance here,” she says, “but I didn’t expect anything.” Just before her tour group left for the airport in Niagara Falls, she excused herself to go to the bathroom. There, she recorded a video message for her mother, before leaving her luggage and everything she owned and crossing the bridge into the U.S. side of the city.
Although American law offers asylum to all Cuban citizens as soon as they set foot on American soil, Pineiro was still a minor—which meant she could not defect, and could not claim asylum, without a parent’s permission. The stakes were high: In Cuba, defecting is a serious offense, and those who do, or who try unsuccessfully, are severely looked down upon socially and may have a hard time finding employment. For 17 days, Pineiro waited at a detention center until her mother could send a recorded video message offering her permission.
Finally, with immigration papers in hand, Pineiro made her way to Orlando, where an uncle lived. “I surprised him—he didn’t know anything,” she says. “I called him and said, ‘I’m here! I need your help.’ ” He gladly took her in, but the first six months were tough. “I believed I wasn’t going to dance again, because I couldn’t afford it,” she says. Just when she had nearly given up, the Ballet Academy of Central Florida and the Art of Classical Ballet in Pompano Beach offered her free training, helping her to get back in shape and audition for companies.
From there, her career became a decidedly international one. Pineiro’s first contract came from National Opera of Bucharest, in Romania, where she expanded her classical roots. The next year, she was a guest artist with Balletto del Sud, in Italy, and got a feel for touring with a small company. But she wanted to be closer to her family in Florida, so she joined Milwaukee Ballet for two years before Angel Corella invited her to join Pennsylvania Ballet last fall.
Pineiro’s career has given her a taste of the differences in dance culture from one country to the next. For instance, she performed The Nutcracker in March in Romania, where the ballet has no holiday connections. She says that in no country has she spent as much time on technique as was the norm in Cuba, where the training is thoroughly classical. But she appreciates U.S. companies’ benefits, like health insurance and the abundance of pointe shoes available—in Romania she needed to make two pairs last a whole season (Gaynor Mindens were required).
However, her strongest impression is of the similarities that she finds. “Wherever you go, you’re in the studio working every day,” she says. Ballet’s steps, and much of the choreography, are the same. “And it’s the same thing, to perform.”
Now that she’s back in the States, she plans to stay. “I feel a freedom here, you know?” she says. “I’m so happy in this company—Angel Corella brings amazing positive energy into the studio every day.” Pineiro loves the openness and friendliness, as well as the international nature of the company. “There are people from all over the world,” she says, “so we translate and learn from each other—we’re like a team.”
photo by Lucas Chilczuk for DanceMedia LLC
Corps de ballet, American Ballet Theatre
Originally from Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan
Growing up in Japan, Mai Aihara set her sights early on American Ballet Theatre. She’d seen photos of the dancers and watched videos of performances, and, to her, ABT was the pinnacle. But it wasn’t until her first visit to New York City at 15 for Youth America Grand Prix that she got a taste of the U.S. dance scene. “Everything was so vibrant and exciting,” she says. She remembers being impressed by the enthusiasm of the audience cheering for contestants, which was very different from the quieter audiences she was used to in Japan.
After placing as a semifinalist at the 2010 Prix de Lausanne, she moved to Stuttgart, Germany, to study at the John Cranko Schule. She was shocked by how much taller and longer-limbed the dancers were. The stages in Europe also seemed so vast—as a petite dancer, she wondered if her own lines would be long and clean enough. Nonetheless, she got her professional start as an apprentice at Dresden Semperoper Ballet, where she was able to meet and dance the work of luminaries like Jirí Kylián. And she learned how to “move big,” eventually coming to terms with her own smaller frame.
Yet she still dreamed of dancing more classical ballets, and in the spring of 2013 she landed an audition—and a corps contract—at ABT. Even though her days are longer than they were in Germany, she still can’t get over dancing at the Metropolitan Opera House. “When I was a child I could only see it in magazines. I am very honored to stand on this stage,” she says. “It’s like a dream.”
photo by Lucas Chilczuk for DanceMedia LLC
Dancer with Trisha Brown Dance Company
Originally from Red Cliffs, Australia
As a student at Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne, Stuart Shugg found that there was an intangible quality about some teachers and choreographers that attracted him. “I remember going to performances and wondering what it was,” he says. “There was a certain use of weight, gravity and momentum in their bodies.” He eventually realized they all had one thing in common: They were from New York City.
In 2010, while on tour in New York, Shugg met Carolyn Lucas, associate artistic director of Trisha Brown Dance Company (at that time Brown’s choreographic assistant). He’d been a fan of Trisha Brown from his first glimpse: “Her work just made sense to me,” he says. “There’s a very shrewd, undeniable fact that the body is dealing with gravity all the time, and there’s kind of a truth, a physics.” Shugg soon returned to New York to hang out with the company for three months, determined to learn everything he could. Brown offered him an apprenticeship, which soon turned into a company position.
Coming from a small country town in Australia, Shugg admits the transition into New York’s fast-paced culture was a sharp adjustment. “Even trying to order coffee here, oh, my god, you can’t take your time and say, ‘I think I’ll have, um.’ Everybody is going somewhere and everyone is pressed for time. Australia is so laid-back and we have a lot of sun and just a completely different way of living.”
The full-bodied artistic atmosphere makes the move worth it. “In Australia, the dance community is so small and everyone making work is your friend, so it’s difficult to be critical,” he says. “Here, there’s a real openness just to put things out there and to talk about them. The sheer size of the dance scene can be tough, but that’s also why so much has come out of it.”
When you first moved here, what was the most surprising part of dancing in the U.S.?
Elena D'Amario with Ian Spring, photo by Lois Greenfield, courtesy Parsons.
The respect for each other’s art. It’s still a competitive field, like in Italy, but there’s a base of healthy positivity here, and a real dance community. When there was a blizzard the night of one of our shows, the dancers from Ailey came, so it was sold out! Now that’s support.”
—Elena d’Amario, Parsons Dance,
originally from Pescara, Italy
“The accessibility: No matter what time of day, there’s a class available. And there is so much variety; you can really expose yourself to as much as possible.”
—Lara Spence, Nimbus Dance Works, originally from Cape Town, South Africa
“My first thought when I moved here was, Wow, they do so many tendus at barre! I wonder why? I couldn’t believe how long barre was (and still is!).”
—Nathalia Arja, Miami City Ballet,
originally from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
“Hearing ‘Take 5’ during rehearsals. In Korea, I rarely had a full day of rehearsal. Physically, I almost died when I first came here. Those five minutes felt like five seconds.” —Hyonjun Rhee, Tulsa Ballet,
originally from Seoul, South Korea
Nathalia Arja with Kleber Rebello, Photo by Daniel Azoulay courtesy MCB
—Stephanie Van Dooren-Eshkenazi, Buglisi Dance Theatre, originally from Amsterdam, the Netherlands
“The ability to dance with individual expression. In Japan, the emphasis was placed on discipline and perfection of technique.”
originally from Ehime, Japan
Stephanie Van Dooren-Eshkenazi with Jason Jordan, photo by Nancy Long, courtesy Buglisi
“Speaking onstage was terrifying for me because English is not my first language. But it helped me understand American humor.”
—Michel Rodriguez Cintra, Lucky Plush Productions, originally from Havana, Cuba
—Jerome Tisserand, Pacific Northwest Ballet,
originally from Lyon, France
“The way the crowd reacts. Different cultures show their appreciation in different ways. In Brazil, that means being very vocal during a performance. In the U.S., that means listening quietly. That was an adjustment for me.”
—Augusto Cezar, Nashville Ballet,
originally from São Paulo, Brazil
“What’s amazing is that you just have to have a creative idea and a will, and you can potentially have your own dance company here. It’s the true ‘American dream.’ ”
—Asya Zlatina, Koresh Dance Company,
originally from Moscow, Russia
Jerome Tisserand, photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB.
“How fast the footwork is in pointe class.”
—Carolina Tavarez, Ballet Arizona, originally from Santiago, Dominican Republic
Ashley Rivers is a Boston-based arts writer.
2015 Bridge Project choreographer Coleman Pester's The Architecture of Being. Photo by Tim Summers, Courtesy Velocity.
When Alice Gosti graduated from the University of Washington, she knew she wanted to be a choreographer. So, fresh out of college, she started a company with three of her peers. But Gosti had trouble breaking into Seattle’s dance scene. Though she successfully self-produced shows and took her company on tour to Italy, she found that each step—from finding performance venues to structuring rehearsals—was much more complicated than she’d imagined it would be.
It wasn’t until she participated in Velocity Dance Center’s Bridge Project, a month-long mentorship that culminates in a fully produced performance, that she found the structure and feedback she’d been missing. “In college, you take for granted that you have beautiful studios and are part of a system,” she says. Velocity gave her the stability and time she needed to find her artistic voice.
College and other advanced training programs teach aspiring choreographers invaluable composition skills. But many artists feel lost when it’s time to shape their talents into a career. Participating in a choreographic mentorship program gives them a chance to have professionals look at their work, while learning about marketing, grant writing and the other foundational skills they need to successfully navigate the industry.
Who They're For
Mentorship programs run through major dance studios are usually reserved for green choreographers. Participants might be recent college graduates or established professional dancers who are considering a second career. Choreographers’ needs usually fall into one of two categories, says Lizz Roman, a mentor in ODC’s Pilot Program: those who want help learning how to self-produce and those who could use a refresher course in composition.
Most mentorships require an application consisting of a project proposal, resume and application fee. Once accepted, programs typically last one to three months, closing with a concert or informal showing. Tuition tends to be minimal because the schools subsidize the cost. At the Dance Complex in Cambridge, Massachusetts, aMaSSiT participants pay $90 for the three-months, which includes eight hours of studio time for personal rehearsals; ODC’s 11-week Pilot Program costs $100 and artists can book studio space at a 50 percent discount. The groups are usually small, with around 5–12 artists, and choreographers are expected to devote 10–15 hours per week to meetings and rehearsals. Participants may have access to dancers from the affiliated school, but sometimes must find their own.
More Than Comp 101
One of the greatest draws of these programs is the abundance of feedback from mentors and fellow participants. At the Dance Complex, choreographers meet with the program’s four mentors—last year’s included Brian Feigenbaum, Dance Complex executive director Peter DiMuro, and Diane Arvanites and Tommy Neblett of Prometheus Dance—every other Sunday night to explore a choreographic concept through lectures and exercises. Then they show their works-in-progress, giving and receiving feedback from their leaders and peers. “Having multiple mentors allowed me to hear about the many different ways to look at my own work,” says choreographer Colleen Walsh, who participated in the program last year. “Outside of those meetings, there’s kind of an open door policy. You can e-mail the mentors and invite them into your rehearsals as needed.”
These programs are designed to challenge choreographers mentally and creatively. “The question that my mentors Tonya Lockyer and Amy O’Neal had for me was whether I was going far enough, pushing the boundaries I was interested in, or if I was being a little safe,” says Gosti. “It’s hard to hear. But it’s something that I still think of: Am I too comfortable in what I’m creating?”
Mentorship programs also teach artists how to manage the business side of dance. During ODC’s Pilot Program, participants attend meetings with ODC School director Kimi Okada to learn how to produce a show by putting together their end-of-program performance, from marketing to organization. In fact, the whole experience is as much about learning the ins and outs of being a choreographer as it is about choreography itself. Roman remembers one artist who called her late one night wanting to fire one of his dancers. After a conversation about how to respectfully handle the situation, he ended up working things out.
For Gosti, the Bridge Project was a chance to test out her choreography and her directorial skill set before launching into bigger projects. “I had established a strong language with the three dancers in my company, but I had no idea if I was able to translate it to an audience. The Bridge Project was the perfect format to see if my ideas could relate.” By the end, she had gained knowledge, plus a renewed confidence in her work. “It became so much more clear what my intent as an artist is.”
Build A Network
In addition to the immediate benefits—knowledge of the business, good dancemaking skills and a polished piece—mentorship programs help choreographers make valuable connections. Not only do participants build relationships with established artists, but they meet peers who are working toward similar goals. And sometimes their work is seen by an affiliated dance presenter. For instance, after Alice Gosti completed Velocity Dance Center’s Bridge Project, she was invited to join its Made in Seattle program, which commissions works by choreographers. Her success in that led to current role as Velocity’s Artist in Residence.
Some of the ideas from last year's Heart and Lights have been reworked for the show. New York City will still be the central theme, and special effects like the three-story Statue of Liberty puppet and the choreographed LED backdrop will remain. But the storyline has changed, with a new script by playwright Joshua Harmon. The dance numbers will celebrate one iconic New York landmark after another, as an old-fashioned tour guide leads his new techie boss through the city in an effort to save his job. “It's a complete reimagining," says Carlyle. “We're using some of the same scenic elements and technology from last year, but as far as I'm concerned, it's a completely new show."
Adding to the list of big names, Mia Michaels has choreographed a scene. “To open the show with a number by Mia Michaels just says, 'All bets are off,' " says Carlyle. “It says, 'Look out, here we go, this is not going to be a traditional Rockettes show.' " Laura Benanti, a Broadway actress and cast member of ABC's “Nashville," will star alongside Derek Hough, and Whoopi Goldberg will narrate, lending her voice to the Statue of Liberty. Noticeably absent is Linda Haberman, who had been director/choreographer of the Rockettes since 2006 but left after Heart and Lights' cancellation.
Beyond Michaels' contemporary dance, audiences can expect a variety of choreography that expands the Rockettes' image, from tap to robust jazz. A couple scenes have been preserved and revised from last year's show, including the Fosse-inspired “Electricity," a dance that was widely promoted leading up to Heart and Lights' scheduled opening. But by and large, this is Carlyle's creation. “I tried to really challenge the dancers," he says. “They put on their knee pads, and their shoulder pads, and their elbow pads—and they went for it."