A former dancer with Milwaukee Ballet Company, Candice Thompson received her MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University. She is a co-founder of DIYdancer, and currently based in Atlanta, GA.
Preparing pointe shoes is a highly personal process. Each pair requires seemingly contradictory qualities—that they be supportive yet soft, that they be strong yet quiet, that they show off the foot while providing enough structure for balances. So it's no surprise that the quest to get it right is an ongoing experiment.
Three professional ballet dancers shared the secrets of their own prep routines, mistakes and challenges with Dance Magazine.
In what seems to be a growing trend, regional companies are coming together to share stages and expand their audiences. These team-ups often go beyond split bills, with companies swapping choreographers and performing at least one joint work. While the logistics of co-presentations can be complicated—with more dancers to schedule, budgets to balance and creative visions to blend—the benefits can range from bigger box-office returns to lasting relationships for the artists.
Maria Kochetkova knows you can't have everything. So the international ballet star is prioritizing one thing: Freedom.
"The perfect company doesn't exist," she says. "For me, it is most important to have freedom as an artist. Our career is so short and I want to have opportunities that exist outside of companies. I want to know and learn everything about my craft from classical to contemporary."
From the angles of your feet to the size of your head, it can sometimes seem like there is no part of a dancer's body that is not under scrutiny. It's easy to get obsessed when you are constantly in front of a mirror, trying to fit a mold.
Yet the traditional ideals seem to be exploding every day. "The days of carbon-copy dancers are over," says BalletX dancer Caili Quan. "Only when you're confident in your own body can you start truly working with what you have."
While the striving may never end, there can be unexpected benefits to what you may think of as your "imperfections."
Before spending a summer at Los Angeles Ballet School, Lillian Glasscock had never learned a Balanchine variation. "The stylistic differences, like preparing for a pirouette with a straight back leg, were at first very challenging," says Glasscock, 17. "But it soon got easier."
Los Angeles Ballet company members were in class daily, motivating and inspiring her. Trying out a new style and expanding her repertoire gave Glasscock more strength, and a better understanding of the varied demands of ballet companies today. Months later, the Balanchine variations she learned are now personal favorites.
While the early years of training are typically spent diligently working through the syllabus of a single ballet technique, when you start to prepare for a professional career, versatility is key. There isn't just one correct version of each step. And as ballet companies continue to diversify their repertoires, directors need dancers who can move fluidly between an array of styles.
With over 68 new works in its 13-year history, BalletX is known for being an epicenter of creation. The company will outdo itself in its 2018–19 season, treating Philadelphia to seven new works, four of them by women. "We are interested in growing, not cutting costs," says artistic director Christine Cox. "The unknown adventure of new ballets means there is an unknown process and a different learning curve we get to work on every day."
For Ashley Wegmann, food is about fuel, but it is also about community. A few times a month, she joins a group of Atlanta Ballet dancers for a rotating party they call "Family Dinner."
"Someone hosts, and we all help prep and cook while snacking and drinking wine," says Wegmann. The group also hosts a big Thanksgiving dinner each year since the dancers are always busy rehearsing The Nutcracker, and most don't live close enough to family to travel home.
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As a student, Katherine Barkman competed in several prestigious ballet competitions, and even won first place at the Youth America Grand Prix in Philadelphia. But at age 21, already a guest principal dancer with Ballet Manila, she decided to return to the competition stage as a professional. She found herself humbled by an experience at the 2017 Moscow International Ballet Competition.
"I was pretty intimidated, thinking, This is the big leagues, this is the Bolshoi Theatre," says Barkman, who was eliminated after the first round. "You are not just judged on how good you are for your age."
Competitions have long had a place in the training of young dancers, allowing them more opportunities to perform and learn under pressure. But even after you've secured a company contract, there are myriad benefits to putting yourself in front of judges.
Samar Haddad King lives in Palestine but regularly choreographs on dancers in New York City for her company Yaa Samar! Dance Theatre. While technology has helped her bridge an ocean, she has also found it useful when checkpoints and road closures make travel between Israel and Palestine difficult—if not impossible—for her local company members. Choreographing remotely has allowed her to keep creating despite physical barriers.
Though few choreographers are working with such difficult geopolitics, many are finding that constrained rehearsal schedules and budgets require some amount of remote work. Video conferencing and smartphone apps make it possible to at least share the same screen space. But there are pros and cons to creating this way. Choreographers and dancers can be freed up for more opportunities. Yet almost all would still prefer to be in the same room, collaborating in real time.
Here's how some choreographers are making it happen:
Since its founding in 1999, more than 80,000 ballet dancers have participated in Youth America Grand Prix events. While more than 450 alumni are currently dancing in companies across the world, the vast majority—tens of thousands—never turn that professional corner. And these are just the statistics from one competition.
"You may have the best teacher in the world and the best work ethic and be so committed, and still not make it," says YAGP founder Larissa Saveliev. "I have seen so many extremely talented dancers end up not having enough motivation and mental strength, not having the right body type, not getting into the right company at the right time or getting injured at the wrong moment. You need so many factors, and some of these are out of your hands."
While there are more women making dance than ever before, the question still swirls: Do they have the same programming and mentoring opportunities as their male counterparts? This spring, Ballet West and the University of Southern California are choosing to tackle the question head-on, with performances and residencies that focus on female dancemakers.
How do we make ballet, a traditionally homogeneous art form, relevant to and reflective of an increasingly diverse and globalized era? While established companies are shifting slowly, Richard Siegal/Ballet of Difference, though less than 2 years old, has something of a head start. The guiding force of the company, which is based in Germany, is bringing differences together in the same room and, ultimately, on the same stage.
When a new director began transforming Atlanta Ballet a couple of years ago, longtime dancer Alessa Rogers decided to finally explore her dream of dancing in Europe. "I always had this wanderlust," she says. She wasn't set on a particular city or company, but thought learning French would be fun. She began her research that September, making note of repertoire and the number of dancers as well as which companies employed foreign, non–European Union dancers. "I saw that Ballet du Rhin was looking for dancers," says Rogers. "They also had a new director coming in, so I thought it could be an opportunity." After sending a video, Rogers traveled during her layoff week to take company class. She was offered a job on the spot.
Uprooting and moving out of the country, far away from your support system, language and customs, is not something to take lightly. While it can push you as an artist and be an exciting opportunity for personal growth, working as a dancer in a foreign country comes with its challenges. Lots of research and an adventurous spirit are required.
Update: Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo has released the following statement:
"Following Chase Johnsey's claims of harassment and discrimination by the management of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, and his subsequent resignation, the Board engaged an independent investigator to review these claims, including interviewing 24 witnesses that included current and former company members. On the issue of legal claims, the investigator did not find that any substantiated legal claims were presented. However, any assessment of an organization will reveal areas where things can be improved, and the Board has faith that Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and its management team will benefit from this process and will use this assessment to continue the company on a successful trajectory."
On January 1st, Chase Johnsey resigned from Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. In a YouTube video, he outlined allegations of harassment and humiliation over his celebrated 14-year tenure with the company, ranging from discrimination for appearing too feminine to being told that he could no longer perform with the company should he choose to undergo a gender transition.
While the company has issued a statement denying Johnsey's claims of harassment, discrimination and retaliation, they have also hired an independent, outside expert to investigate the allegations. We caught up with Johnsey by phone in Barcelona, where he has decamped with his husband.
When Roman Baca returned home from active duty in Iraq in 2007, he found himself having a tough time transitioning to civilian life. "I remember a couple of instances where I was mean and angry and depressed," says Baca. "My wife sat me down and said, 'You are not the same guy I knew before.' " She suggested Baca return to his roots in dance. "She asked me, 'If you could do anything in the world, what would you do?' " Ten years later, Baca seems to be well on his way to answering that question as a Fulbright Fellow in London, working to educate audiences about the realities of war through dance.