Career Advice

What Makes a Principal?

Artistic directors reveal how they decide who gets the top promotion.

Isabella Boylston was promoted to principal at ABT in 2014. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT

There is one question at the ballet that might provoke more curiosity than any other: Who will be promoted to the rank of principal dancer? The answer is at times gratifying, and, at others, totally baffling. One dancer may rise quickly, while another waits 10 years for their big break. We spoke to four major artistic directors to take the mystery out of what they look for when it’s time to make the big promotion.

Mikko Nissinen

Boston Ballet

We’ve started a five-year partnership with William Forsythe, so I’m very deliberately shaping the company right now. I need everybody to be somebody he is going to work well with. It’s not easy to ask the same people to do Sleeping Beauty and Forsythe. But that’s when we’re relevant. That’s a ballet company of the future.

I’m definitely not old-school, where you have to sit in the corps for eight years. I just promoted Seo Hye Han [who joined the corps in 2012] to principal because I saw how well she danced the whole season, whether it was Balanchine, The Nutcracker or Odette/Odile. A good job is one thing, but this art form is about brilliance. I want to be excited.

Lourdes Lopez

Miami City Ballet

Going from soloist to principal is about imagination, the ability to take a role and make it your own. You’re responding to the music and the steps; you’re able to dig deep, like an actor, and you’re comfortable with bringing that out.

PC Daniel Azoulay, Courtesy MCB

Mr. B used to say that dancers are like a garden of flowers. I find that some bloom right away and then die; some bloom late and stay for a long time. You can have a really talented dancer hurt themselves, and physically or emotionally they’re never quite the same. Or you give them bigger parts and they can’t deal. But by the time they get to principal level, they should understand how to work well. The 30-year-old is going to be a lot more conscious of that than the 17-year-old.

I do think about looks. You need a leggy Swan Lake, “Diamonds” pas de deux, adagio dancer. You also need someone with the speed, accuracy and technical brilliance for Kitri or Square Dance. You look for those types, but you don’t always get them.

Adam Sklute

Ballet West

Photo courtesy Ballet West

I think the biggest thing is, Can this person lead an entire show? Can they own the entire stage? And can they do it consistently and in many different roles? Some people, like Beckanne Sisk and Chase O’Connell, walk fresh out of school and have it. Most people grow into it.

When I arrived, Emily Adams was very quiet, and seemed to cling to the back of the studio. Over the years she started moving forward, not aggressively, but just owning her technique. Each assignment she was given she gave 1,000 percent of herself. All of a sudden everybody started noticing her. Audience members were asking me when I hired her.

I think when it takes a long time, it’s easier for the person to appreciate where they are in the work. You should always be asking, What is my next step? Whether that’s a new ballet or your 400th Sugar Plum, you can never go on automatic, and the most successful dancers recognize that. I need people who aren’t afraid to work hard and be vulnerable.

Angel Corella

Pennsylvania Ballet

PC Jim Lafferty

It sounds cheesy, but it’s like Spider-Man: With great talent comes great responsibility. It’s not just the capacity to turn and jump, but the way you turn, the way you jump. It’s about work ethic, how fast you learn, how musical you are, how open you are to new things, how willing you are to let people see who you are in a very raw way.

I want people who can transform onstage. For instance, new principal Lillian DiPiazza is a very sweet girl, but when she did Siren in Prodigal Son she came out as a femme fatale—she was such a force.

I was made a principal at 19, but I don’t know if I was completely mature. You have to be careful as an artistic director. If you promote someone too soon and they don’t have a strong sense of who they are, their accomplishments can go to their head. If someone waits too long, they lose hope, and they lose that spark.

At the end of the day we’re doing this for the audience, so yes, there’s an element of star power. What you cast, who you cast—it’s with the audience in mind. But you also have to guide them to new things, whether that’s ballets or dancers. 

Kristin Schwab is a writer in New York City.


Promoted to Principal

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Lindsi Dec and American Ballet Theatre’s Isabella Boylston talk about joining ballet’s highest rank.

Lindsi Dec in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.

How did getting promoted to principal feel?

Dec: I had been waiting for 12 years. I was shocked. I didn’t tell anybody until it was written down in an official contract.

Did you have a hunch that it was coming?

Boylston: I’d been doing several full-length ballets—Swan Lake, Don Q, Giselle. I certainly hoped, but you never know.

Did you suddenly feel more weight on your shoulders?

Boylston: Of course I wanted to live up to the title. But it’s really a vote of confidence from the director that you’ve demonstrated maturity and artistry.

Dec: The first couple of months, yes. After that you kind of get a grip on things.

What was your first time onstage as a principal like?

Boylston: It was Coppélia, and one of my worst performances ever. I was a basket case and so shaky onstage.

Did anything change about your daily life?

Boylston: It made my performance schedule lighter, actually. Before, I was doing all the soloist roles and several principal roles. It’s nice to have more energy.

Any unexpected perks?

Dec: We get a nicer paycheck! Sometimes we get out of rehearsal earlier. And Laura Tisserand and I share a dressing room suite on the stage level. The corps is down in the dungeon.

Did your relationship with other dancers change?

Boylston: No, I could feel so much love from my colleagues. There’s so much support for people who work their way up through ABT from the inside.

Dec: Not at all. We’re a big family, though sometimes dysfunctional like any other.

Now that you’re at the top, who do you look up to?

Boylston: Gillian Murphy. It’s inspiring to see how she continues to work.

Dec: I love Igone de Jongh at Dutch National Ballet. Another tall dancer!

Looking back, was there anything frustrating about your rise to principal?

Dec: There were lots of times when I thought maybe this isn’t the right company, that maybe people didn’t see me in that light. But I wouldn’t have traded my process for anything. It made me work that much harder. —KS

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