Inspiration: Sharon Wehner

Sharon Wehner has been delighting audiences with her beautiful technique and dramatic, intense interpretations since 1995 at the Colorado Ballet. A California native, the 5-foot dynamo trained with the Studio Roxander Academy, San Francisco Ballet School, San Jose/Cleveland Ballet School and pre-professional company San Jose Dance Theatre. Described as energetic and riveting to watch, Wehner was promoted to Principal of Colorado Ballet in 1999. This spring she is dancing concurrently with the Oakland Ballet Company, with whom she just completed a successful run of their exciting premier program, Forwards!, which featured contemporary ballet and visual arts collaborations.

The repertory of the Colorado Ballet includes an enormous variety for a company of its size, including full-length classical standards, many full-length modern classics such as Peter Pan, Beauty and the Beast and Dracula, and an assortment of works by twentieth and twenty-first century choreographers like Tudor, Balanchine, de Mille, Forsythe, Wheeldon and Liang. These opportunities seem to have provided a superb palette for the Wehner to express herself and grow to become the capable artist that she is.

If you can’t make it to a performance of Colorado or Oakland, you can find beautiful shots of Ms. Wehner and other Colorado Ballet dancers in the 50th Anniversary Commemorative Book of the Colorado Ballet, available here.

The Truth About Company Auditions

Ballet is full of risks. Giselle lift, anyone? Hopefully most are calculated, as in, Yes, You learned to balance in retiré before trying to pirouette so you are less likely to fall on your tuckus. But some risks in ballet are not as easily controlled. For example: pursuing a professional career. Starting a professional dance career is very tough for most dancers. Most dancers do not win international competitions and go on to their dream company at 17. Most dancers are … average. Not average as in, “blah” – Average as in, pretty darn comparable to the thousands of other dancers that have made it far enough to realistically be prepared for company auditions. At that level nearly everyone has top technique and performance ability, making it very tough to stand out.

Auditioning for companies was the scariest part of my training, and I am not alone in that experience. But it was also extremely exciting and memorable. In fact, I probably should have kept a journal to share with my younger dancing sister before she began auditions. Well I never did, but another young dancer named Tara Gragg (pictured in Balanchine’s Rubies, above) created a blog diary about her auditions from this spring. Her goal is to move from an un-paid traineeship and subsequent apprenticeship with City Ballet of San Diego to the almighty Paid Contract. Tara writes about the excitement and stress of auditioning, the high rejection rates, her thoughts on the possibilities of living in various cities and the hard truths of decisions made by the companies. Check out her musings and follow her beautifully-crafted blog with the cute name, Gnarly Toeboots.

Gnarly Toeboots is now on the blogroll here at right. If you want to start reading it from the first post, click here. Also, I’d like you to take special note that even though this dancer trained locally for most of her career and earned a college degree, she is keeping up quite well with her audition peers, thanks to smart planning, good training and hard work.

Popcorn and Ballet!

Can’t make it to the Palias Garnier to see the Paris Opera? Head over to your local movie theater and you may be able to see Aurelie Dupont or José Martinez performing your favorite ballet! That’s right, everyone is buzzing about Emerging Pictures exciting arts project, Ballet in Cinema, which brings world-class ballets and companies into local movie theaters.

Check out the main page to search for a participating theater near you. Sadly, as much as I love the opera, any theater that is already working with the Metropolitan Opera’s program, The Met: Live in HD, will not enter a contract with Emerging Pictures. Considering that Emerging Pictures not only offers ballet but opera and Shakespeare too, I’m going to root for Emerging Pictures on this one. If your local theaters do not show Ballet in Cinema, you can suggest a theater to Emerging Pictures so they can try to get their contract into your region. You can also encourage your local movie theatre to consider showing Ballet in Cinema.

Have you been to an Emerging Pictures movie theater production? Tell us about it in the comments!

Inspirations for Late Beginners

Good teachers are careful to caution teen beginners and young dancers generally on the harsher realities of professional prospects combined with beginning “late”, as we very well should. But today I’d like to spend a moment to highlight some great late-beginner success stories of our day. (Female dancers often encounter a higher standard of technique in the professional world and require more years of preparation than men, so we’ll focus on ballerinas here. Also, when you read that a dancer began “formal” or “serious” training at a certain age, that usually indicates that they took recreational dance classes before that.)

Recently highlighted on Dancing With the Stars (a show that recently has recently done a nice job promoting classical dance and its relevance to modern entertainment), Patricia Zhou began serious dance training at about 13 years old. Now 17, Ms. Zhou has made a splash in the international competitions and climbed all the way to the professional ranks of her dream company, The Royal Ballet. Her extraordinary gifts coupled with dedication, hard work and luck have catapulted her into a world that her parents would have had her forego for academics, making the Zhou a testament to passion and perserverance. Enjoy this clip of her on national television:

Kristi Boone, soloist with ABT, also began at thirteen. She had natural facility for ballet’s demands and talks about her first experiences in this ad for Gaynor Minden.

Superstar principal of New York City Ballet Wendy Whelan didn’t start serious training until relatively late, though she did take dance as a youngster. You can listen to her talk about her training path here.

Vannesa Sah, of the tech-savvy pre-professional company Anaheim Ballet, didn’t begin ballet until college. She has some lovely words of encouragement and advice for late-starters here.

Recently retired darling of The Royal Ballet Darcy Bussell began her formal training at the school at White Lodge at 13. Bussell did have some prior dance training then. Her epic career has been an inspiration to aspiring ballerinas of all levels.

Carmen Corella,  Artistic Director and principal dancer with the recently founded Corella Ballet Castilla y León, began her training at around 13 as well. After a successful career reaching to a soloist position at ABT, Corella followed her brother, ABT principal Angel Corella to found their new company with a little help from another later beginner you may have heard of, Natalia Makarova.

Most recently seen in the national campaign for BlackBerry, Misty Copeland is not only a late beginner, having started at 13, but is also the first African-American in two decades to achieve soloist rank at American Ballet Theatre. She has also significantly helped broaden acceptable and appreciated body-types in professional ballet. Clearly Ms. Copeland has multiple broken barriers in the ballet community through her undeniable excellence.

Naturally, I am still going to caution you that a professional contract is a mighty goal even for a female dancer who began at a proper age for it! But like Vanessa Sah, you can certainly find a happy ending for your dance training if your goals are to learn how to express yourself enjoyably through movement in a challenging classical vocabulary. Or would that be a happy beginning?

Update: A reader has pointed out that Zhou’s own résumé indicates that she attended a summer program in 2005 (six years ago) and has taken many Cecchetti exams. I generally try to respect artists wishes to exclude training that they feel was not of a level sufficient to designate it as part of their education. While Zhou indicates that she attended summer dance camp in 2005, I would be suspect of any summer dance program with the word “camp” in it. In fact, the current program is advertised as less than two weeks of instruction.

Zhou does not mention any other ballet training on her resume before Kirov in 2007, so I have chosen to respect her implication that whatever took place before then was too low-quality to have influenced her career to any possible degree. In fact, in this article, Zhou discusses that she didn’t even know that Sleeping Beauty was a ballet, leaving one to wonder if her original school did more harm than anything. As you know, it is much harder to undo bad training than learn from scratch. That said, I do not know anything about her former school personally, so feel free to research it (named in that article) and decide for yourself. I’m also sorry to say that from what I have witnessed, Cecchetti exams in the US do not necessarily provide any indication of whether a student has learned ballet. I have seen many passing students who were wholly pedestrian. Read this post on BalletTalk to understand more about the risks of poor schools, even those who may talk of their Cecchetti exams. This is an important topic that probably deserves its own post, but that will have to wait for another day! The reader has brought a very important issue to the table, and I hope I have done the matter justice for the time being.

Ballet in Film: 15 Days of Dance – The Making of ‘Ghost Light’

If you have been choreographed on before, you are familiar with the artistic process that is undergone for ballet-making. But non-dancers and young dancers are rarely exposed to the choreographic process. In fact it is often such a private process that it is something of a mystery to many people. There certainly aren’t many films that include rehearsal footage, let alone actual choreography in action. This makes 15 Days of Dance, a film that documents Brian Reeder’s creation of Ghost Light for ABT II, an important film indeed.

I am pleased that producer/director Elliot Caplan used long shots for the majority of the film, which is in contrast to so many filmmakers’ preference to use close-up shots in dance movies that annoyingly obscure the complete choreographic picture. Given his history with Merce Cunningham, it just goes to show you what a difference is made in dance filmmaking when you have someone who really understands dance movement.

As much as I’d love to tell you to run out and purchase today’s Ballet in Film pick, at $239 for the abridged version (and more than $1000 for the complete set!) you might prefer to satisfy yourself with the free clips made available online. Priced for the art library or true balletomane, this clearly isn’t meant for the average dance enthusiast… or meagerly paid dancer!

Update: Here’s a great clip of Caplan discussing his editing choices and the backing of the University at Buffalo.

The Sensationalizing of Classical Ballet

The lingering effects of Darren Aronofsky’s dark creation, Black Swan, have become the bane of many dancers’ (and teachers’) conversations. Non-ballet goers now often react with shock when meeting a dancer or former dancer and may post outlandish questions about his or her lifestyle, thoughts and training. Though the majority of dancers only think of Black Swan as the imaginative fiction tale that it is, it has created an opportunity for dissatisfied dancers to capitalize on their unhappiness as one former student, “Hannah”, chose to do through Seventeen Magazine. (Check out School of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet director Melanie Doskocil’s thoughtful analysis of the article here with a link to Hannah’s article as well.)

Black Swan is not about ballet. It’s about a disturbed young woman with a dysfunctional life and the effects of those features as they play out against the backdrop of her career. Because ballet dancers often sacrifice typical teenaged pasttimes to reach their goals and are usually very focused, ballet became a target for the grand exaggeration the filmmakers wanted. Keep this in mind as you field questions from non-dancers and digest inflammatory articles.

There are happy and unhappy stories in all walks of life. Your ballet training has a lot to do with choices you make. If you look for a school that has the best interest of each student in mind, you will not find what Hannah described. And if you love ballet whether or not you want to go pro, you’ll dance instead of doing other things because you find that makes you happy – not because someone is making you or you have an obsessive disorder. The main character in Swan would probably have had just as tragic an end whether she made her living as a doctor, lawyer or pet groomer. Similarly, it is very likely that Hannah -due to her personality, emotional issues, upbringing or a combination – would have had the same issues that she experienced whether she was in ballet, football, piano or any other activity at an intense, pre-vocational level. Pre-professional training in any sport or art is not for everyone. If you find that it makes you miserable, you are probably best to move on or pursue it only recreationally – but that doesn’t mean that the sport or art is to blame.

Let’s talk about Hannah’s specific complaints, like exhaustion, dancing on serious injuries, excessive dieting, and abusive teachers. Unfortunately, these problems are not unique to ballet training, but they are not typical of ballet training either. A quality school, while selective or even competitive, will still nurture and safely train its students in a positive environment. That is not to say that there will not be stressors, but abusive language and encouragement of unsafe nutrition are insupportable and should never be accepted as “how things are” in ballet training. And no good school would allow or encourage a dancer to sacrifice a badly-injured limb for the sake of role promotion, though it sounds like the dancer here took it upon herself to make that bad decision. When you are injured, you do not have to “just suck it up” – You have understudies.

And I have to mention the feet thing – bruised toenails and blisters are usually the result of badly fitting pointe shoes and technique issues. (Click herehere and here to learn how to avoid that.) Occassional blisters, however, will not “deform” you.  I got as many blisters on my hands from having to sweep my driveway as a kid as I did on my feet from pointe shoes. Blisters are not fun, but if they caused deformity I wouldn’t be able to type this article.

As for the “cutthroat dancers” and “crushing competition”, there certainly are schools where animosity between students results from the school’s strict policy of ‘up or out’ systems, though that is far more common in the state-sponsored European schools. All I can say is, as a former student in a local school and later in national summer intensives, I only happy memories of my fellow students. We were intensely supportive and encouraging of each other, sometimes to a fault, because for those who really wanted to be there, we had a group of peers who we knew understood us.

Training to dance professionally is not all rainbows and hearts. It can definitely be very tough, but it’s certainly not a psychotic or masochistic practice unless you turn it into that for yourself. When ABT corps de ballet dancer Skylar Brandt was asked by The Rye Record about her training commitment as a younger teen, she said, “Socially, I have given up a lot of things other kids have, like parties, sleepovers and sports. There are just so many hours in the week, and to follow my dream, I have to be disciplined. It doesn’t bother me. I like doing ballet more than anything else.” And that’s exactly the point.

Inspiration: Nicole Ciapponi

At 16,* SFB corps de ballet dancer Nicole Ciapponi is only just beginning her professional career, but she captured the attention of dedicated ballet fans years ago. National attention initially revved up for a young teenaged Ciapponi when videos of her superb performances of demanding variations like second shade in La Bayadere, second peasant from Swan Lake’s pas de trois and a tough contemporary ballet piece set to Bach’s enrapturing Cello Suite No.1 in G were posted on YouTube.

Canadian-born Nichole was initially trained in Surrey, British Columbia, and in 2007 spent a year at the Goh Ballet Academy. At 15 in 2008, she moved to the Pacific Northwest Ballet School. Ms. Ciapponi accepted a traineeship with SFB the following fall, and was invited to join the corps de ballet in early 2010.

In addition to passing all RAD exams with distinction and earning the solo seal at 14, medal placements at international ballet competitions punctuated Nichole’s final training years. To name just a few, she won a silver at the Genee IBC, a top twelve distinction at Youth American Grand Prix in New York and a gold at the Dance World Cup. She was awarded full scholarships to all of her summer programs, which included Royal Winnipeg Ballet School, San Fransisco Ballet School and Pacific Northwest Ballet School.

Reviews for Ciapponi by Bay Area balletomanes have been very positive so far, particularly for her performance in William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. In an interview earlier this month with Geri Jeter of the California Literary Review, she called it her favorite ballet to work on this year and said, “It was truly amazing to have the opportunity to perform this piece and hope that I can perform it again in the near future.” So do we, Ms. Ciapponi, so do we!

*It is very possible that Ciapponi has turned 17 by the time of this post.

Ballet in Print: In the Company of Stars

In this lavish 125-photo collection, Gérard Uféras takes the reader on a journey to observe the spectacular beauty of the ubiquitious Opéra Garnier and the intimate world of the Paris Opera Ballet dancers. Uféras spent a year observing the POB, and In the Company of Stars is the result of his brief immersion in their focused world.

Originally a French publication, the English version of this book is currently on sale for about 25% off at Amazon.

Ballet in Film: Dancing Across Borders

Dancing Across Borders is the story of a young Cambodian dancer plucked from his home in a small fishing community to be trained at SAB. If you haven’t seen it yet … go watch it right now! This film is one of my new favorites, if only for the much-deserved coverage of Black Swan set coach Olga Kostritzky, one of the best teachers I ever had (as one of my level’s main teachers at the 2001 Rock SI), and for the extensive footage of Balanchine style and choreography, since there’s isn’t a ton of the stuff on DVD.

But there is much more to this film than footage of SAB teacher-gods like Ms. Olga, Jock Soto and Peter Boal. It is the story of Sokvannara “Sy” (pronounced “See”) Sar, a young man with a remarkable spirit who is plucked from his home country and thrust into the world of pre-professional ballet training by the hand of an intentionally benevolent (though perhaps difficult to like) New York socialite Anne Bass.\

This film might as well be dedicated to honor international ballet students everywhere, as it does an excellent job of talking openly – often through Sy’s own words – about the inevitable emotional consequences of being so far from your home, your family, your language and everything you’ve known. In this case, the scarring was exacerbated by Sy’s lack of control over his fate for the first few years of his training. Unlike some international students, he did not really choose to leave his country for ballet training, ballet chose him. He knew it was a chance to support his family that he couldn’t possibly turn down, though he neither spoke English nor had seen ballet before Bass brought him a ballet film and radically suggested that he leave everything he’d ever known for this bizarre, western pursuit.

Sy’s journey is simply fascinating. He was entered into the Professional Children’s School for academics but was not instantly accepted to SAB despite the pleas of Anne Bass to Peter Martins. Instead, Sy falls into the singularly capable hands of Ms. Olga, who takes on the task of molding the 16-year old Cambodian through private classes from basically a pedestrian into a SAB-level phenom. You’ll have to watch the film to find out what happens from there, but suffice it to say his future would include a little town called Varna.

Dancing Across Borders is available streaming on Netflix and can be purchased, along with t-shirts and posters, at the official site. Proceeds from the official shop go directly towards Nginn Karet Foundation for Cambodia’s “Give a Future to a Child of Angkor”, a program that helps children fulfill their dream to follow in the footsteps of dancers and musicians seen on Angkor Wat and other ancient Khmer temples. Please consider making a purchase from the Dancing Across Borders official shop.

Spoiler Alert! I noticed that the Washington Post article that I linked above mentions rather forebodingly that Sy quit PNB recently. I didn’t want you left hangin’ on where he is now so I did some searching, and it appears from Saint Louis Ballet’s facebook page that he will be joining them for the Spring 2011 season.

Dancers Wanted: Finding Professional Ballet & Dance Auditions

Day in and day out you take class, hear corrections, try to apply them, go to rehearsals, wear out practice clothes and shoes and basically invest countless hours and dollars into your dance education. What’s it all for? For some of you, it’s an excellent way to become physically proficient at a fun sport and art while developing a close group of friends. For others, it’s a stepping stone to your ultimate goal: a professional dance career.

For you special young vocational dancers, I thought you might like a heads up on one of the most vital and constant parts of a professional dancer’s life: Auditions! Auditions may be a part of your career for a very long time, if not all of it. It can be a constant struggle to keep on top of where they are, who’s holding them and what dancers are needed. So in addition to the RSS feeds (on the right) from Voice of Dance and Backstage, I have now added a special blogroll on the right-hand side of this site titled Auditions. Take a look by scrolling down and checking below the regular Blogroll.

On this list, you’ll see links to audition notices from all around the country and the world and links to official audition sites for major dance employers. It’s not all ballet – not every serious ballet dancer finds that there is a place for them or that they even want to be in ballet professionally – but there are plenty ballet auditions as well. I’ll post more in the future about how to enter the exciting but often seemingly scary world of professional dance and professional ballet. As a first step to great exposure in the dance industry, get to planning your SI auditions!

Update: Dance Magazine published a 2011 Jobs Guide in their March issue, and that link has been added to the Auditions list at right. Check it out for the latest company job openings!

Inspiration: Sarah Lane

Sarah Lane is one of my favorite dancers today. I had the pleasure of training at the Boston Ballet Summer Dance Program at the same time as Sarah in 2002, where her movement quality, pure line and effortless grace caught everyone’s attention. She had some of the most expansive movement, all placed on a lithe frame of only about 5’2″. Sarah was also as sweet and humble as they come, though she had plenty of bragging rights with a full scholarship to the program and a bronze medal from the Youth America Grand Prix.

Later that year, Sarah won the silver medal at the Jackson International Ballet Competition, the highest female junior medal awarded that year. In August 2003, she was accepted as an American Ballet Theatre apprentice. A promotion to corps de ballet followed in April 2004, and finally a promotion to soloist in 2007.

If you can’t make it to NYC to see Sarah perform, you can see her dancing as the body double for Natalie Portman in Black Swan. But don’t think Sarah was born with golden pointe shoes on – her early training was in a good quality but local-level school in Memphis, and when her training turned serious she sold telescopes at a Discovery Channel store to pay for her competition expenses!

Update: When I realized months back that some of my own students didn’t know that Lane performed the dancing shots for Black Swan, I explained that it was laughable to think that Portman could dance at that level. I didn’t think much of it, however, until reading this article and others about the lack of acknowledgement Lane received for her performance. (Even more forgotten than Lane, Kimberly Prosa assisted with some lighter dance scenes, and Maria Riccetto did the heavy lifting for Mila Kunis.) As a former dancer, I watched Black Swan in order to see Sarah dance. It didn’t really occur to me that no one else was envisioning Lane as they watched – a product of my own dancer tunnel vision. It was obvious to me when they shifted between the two, and I felt that Portman’s awkward beginner posture, paddle hands and sicked feet detracted from the film. Since she could not dance on pointe, however, these shots were few. I hope this unprofessional error will be corrected, but I would like to do my part to publicize Sarah’s superb performance.

Inspiration: Natalia Osipova

Happy New Year, dancers! You’ll be getting back to class soon and preparing for spring shows and recitals, so here’s some inspiration for your busy New Year. Remember that this year will be whatever you make of it!

Natalia Osipova graduated from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in 2004 and was given a position in the Bolshoi’s corp. While still a student, Natalia won the Grand Prix IBC in Luxemburg. As a young professional she was granted soloist roles from the start and won a bronze medal at the Moscow IBC at the end of her first pro year.

Noted for her exceptional allegro, Natalia was highly praised by critics for her attack and brilliance. She was becoming well-known while still just a member of the corps. Her steady ascent has been punctuated by prestigious awards and critically acclaimed debuts. Natalia was promoted to lead soloist in fall of 2008 and finally to principal in May of this year. Check out amazing action photos of Osipova and more inspiring details about her journey to stardom at her website.

Inspiration: Keenan Kampa

It’s impossible to not be inspired by Keenan Kampa. As the first American to graduate from the Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg, Keenan, 21, has just accepted a position in the corps de ballet of Boston Ballet.

With long yet muscular limbs, Keenan has a natural facility for ballet. Born in Washington, D.C., Keenan studied at The Conservatory Ballet in Reston, VA, and then on scholarship with American Ballet Theatre JKO School in NYC. At 17, she reached the semi-finals at the Prix de Lausanne. She was soon thereafter spotted at a Russian Maryinsky master class and received an invitation to the Vaganova School. Her professional debut is widely anticipated, but you can check out her graduation performance, rehearsals and graduation exams now on her family’s youtube channel, kampagirls.

Ballet in Film: Masha, A Portrait of Maria Kochetkova

A new film is in the works documenting 2002 Prix de Lausanne winner Maria Kochetkova, now principal dancer with San Fransisco Ballet, in rehearsals and performances of a brand new ballet. Maria trained at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy for eight years before joining the Royal Ballet and then the English National Ballet. Kochetkova graced the cover of this year’s April/May Pointe Magazine and has been awarded four International Ballet Competition gold medals in addition to one silver, one bronze and the jury prize.

You can view her personal website here. Pre-ordering of her DVD will be available at http://kck.st/b5LxPL, but here’s the beautiful trailer in the meantime. Check out her exquisite port de bras!

Inspiration: Carla Körbes

Carla Körbes is a principal dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle. Carla was born in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where she began her training with local teachers. Famed NYCB dancer Peter Boal encouraged her to go to the School of American Ballet after dancing with her at Ballet Vera Bublitz as a guest artist. Carla did so and for the 1997-1998 term was under the sponsorship of the legendary Alexandra Danilova.

Carla accepted an apprenticeship with NYCB in 1999, joined the corps de ballet in 2000 and was promoted to soloist in 2005.  Later that same year, she joined PNB as a soloist and was promoted to principal in 2006.

Carla has performed countless leading roles and received many high awards and honors. You might enjoy reading blog posts authored by Carla (at The Winger), which include loads of amazing photographs of her in rehearsal.