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.

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.

What’s in a (Ballet School) Name?

Whether it’s alphabet soup – SAB, ABT-JKO, SFB, PNB, BBS  – or one-name-celebrity-style – Kaatsban, Joffrey, Rock – major U.S.-based ballet schools often attract young auditionees by their name alone. But what is the actual worth of attending a big-name school? Will it help in your chances to dance professionally? Let’s do a reality check.

The most common misperception about ballet training that I encounter is the idea that attending at a “big-name” school will make or break whether the dancer will be able to secure a professional contract. This is simply not the case. But in order to understand why this is and what can make attending a famous school good, you first need to understand the process of auditioning for a professional ballet company.

The primary concern of most artistic directors when auditioning potential company members is the auditionees dancing ability, plain and simple. For serious consideration for a company position, you will usually need to get invited to a closed audition or a company class. The first step is to send an audition tape package, which may be very similar to an SI audition package, or to attend an open call. Whether you attend a cattle-call (open call) or send a DVD, the primary focus of the initial cut is your dance ability. More often than not, your résumé will just get a quick glance or perhaps not be reviewed at all before that cut.

Once you have auditioned live and in person, the AD (or more likely, the ballet master or mistress), will choose who they would like to speak to or see again. It is usually at this point that only those résumés will be reviewed with any real attention. What’s important to realize from this process is that the résumé is not something you want to count on for getting your foot in the door. The chances of it getting more than a passing glance in the initial stages are very, very small. (That said, your résumé is still an extremely important part of your audition package that should be planned carefully.)

So what’s the point of attending an expensive, famous school in a far-away city if it can’t guarantee you a job – or at least an audition? As you hopefully realized from the audition description, this is all about your dance ability. A high level of technique, artistry and quality of movement are what artistic directors want to see – and a big-name school just might get you there… or it might not.

You see, elite ballet schools across the country, whether big or small, have individualized strengths, features and areas of focus. One school might have small, mostly classical classes that focus on artistry and expression, while another school might have large classes where competition for attention and an apititude in a wide range of dance genres are required. A shy dancer that dreams of performing classic story ballets may not thrive at all in the latter school, but could potentially blossom and find her full potential in the former. The opposite might be true for an outgoing, naturally expressive dancer who is interested in exploring contemporary ballet or mixed-rep ballet companies.

Do you see where I’m going with this? It’s not at all about the name, it’s about the quality of instruction and finding the learning environment that will best accellerate your dance abilities. What you need at the end of the day is not some mythically ideal resume, it’s an ability to perform in class, auditions and on the stage very, very well. And the school that is going to help you do that is the school you should want to attend, regardless of how recognizable their name is.

In fact, name-recognition can and does prevent some young dancers from getting the best possible dance education. I’ve unfortunately seen more than one student pass on opportunities to train at smaller schools with great reputations for personal mentoring and instead jump on offers at glossy, national-level SIs or satellites. Sadly, these students quickly got lost in the crowd and came home challenged, but not as improved and inspired as they should have been.

There is another important caveat about the largest schools that is important to take into calculation. Whether intentionally or not, they will often take credit for a beautifully trained dancer who they did not truly create. That happens most often when an advanced dancer from a small-town school goes to a major school for a final year of finishing. (Remember Center Stage?) In these cases, the bigger school might indeed transform the dancer from a student into an artist (which the smaller school perhaps could not) but usually have nothing to do with the meat and potatoes of the dancer’s training. Recognizable names attract lots of auditionees, so that some schools are able to recruit dancers that are virtually fully trained and place them in their highest levels. (This is also a great testament to the quality of many smaller schools across the U.S.) Ask yourself how many of the advanced dancers were actually trained by the school’s lower classes.

Finally, for company schools, be sure you are not improperly associating the reputation of an affiliated company to the school. Certain companies only rarely hire from their own school, so that the company could be a completely unrelated picture of the school’s capabilities. You should also consider that a regional company’s school might provide more realistic opportunity for future employment than a national one.

Should all famous schools be avoided as expensive wastes of time? Of course not! Well-known schools have the very important benefit of attracting the very, very best staff. What’s important, though, is to take into consideration the many other factors that are important for good training. There are definitely U.S. schools that have built their huge reputations by simply offering only the highest quality training, however you still must be aware that not all programs are right for all dancers. Think carefully about what you need as a dancer, and then find out where to get it!

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.

Dance(212) is Back & Focused on Ballet!

A brand new series will soon be presented by Dance(212)! And this time they’ll be focusing exclusively on ballet students’ summer intensive experiences. Check out the preview here, and get ready to meet five exceptional and ambitious young dancers (including Hannah Miller, shown left) with talent and drive to spare. Tune in January 24 for the series premiere!

Getting Accepted: What Are “They” Looking For at SI Auditions?

Summer Intensive auditions are now in full swing, and I’ve gotten tons of great questions from you guys lately about what the SI adjudicators will be looking for! I know you all sometimes feel a lot of pressure about these auditions, but you should know that the adjudicators will make it as positive an experience as possible. Often, your audition fee will be a “master class” fee, and you will have the benefit of instruction and correction from exceptional teachers during the audition class.

I know what you’re really interested in, though, is the nitty-gritty of how your are being judged. Many factors are considered in your evaluation. I like to divide these factors into two categories: physical attributes and performance attributes.\

By physical attributes, I am referring to the body of the dancer. Dancing is a sport (and of course an art), and just like any sport you must have a body that is physically capable of doing the work required. Your adjudicators will be looking for dancers of a healthy weight who have a suitable physical facility for ballet. By facility, I mean dancers with:

  • Good rotation for turn-out
  • Long, flexible limbs
  • Supple muscularity
  • Balanced proportions
  • An overall good “look”

Of particular interest to auditioners might be:

  • Longer limbs combined with a shorter torso
  • A small head
  • High but strong and controlled arches
  • A touch of hyperextension in the knees

Of course, we can’t talk about ballet bodies without getting to the touchy question of weight. I am not going to sit here and tell you that SIs never accept underweight dancers. Sadly, some SIs might overlook an underweight dancer who is able to hobble through an audition, but these dancers generally do not make it far in ballet (or sometimes even that SI) due to their sheer inability to physically keep up. Without a proper muscular structure and proper food intake these dancers inevitably cannot perform as required. One of the saddest things I saw as an SI student was when dancers were sent home from a program for concerns of being underweight or unable to physically keep up. It goes without saying that being overweight will be similarly inhibiting, and that an athleticly slim figure is often preferred. So the most important thing is to be of a healthy athletic weight, and that means being neither over nor underweight.

Physical attributes are secondary to performance attributes, however, and these attributes include movement quality and the dancers ability to … dance! Performance attributes include:

  • Quality training commensurate with age
  • Good basic placement and core strength
  • Coordination
  • Musicality
  • Proper use of plie
  • Good lines
  • Strong and articulated feet
  • Quality port de bras
  • Extension appropriate for age
  • Strength on pointe, if appropriate
  • Ability to understand corrections
  • Ability to apply corrections
  • Ability to pick-up choreography quickly
  • Style and artistic expression
  • Great mental attitude
  • Passion for and enjoyment of dancing

You probably notice that the first ten items on this list are all related to technique. Remember that these adjudicators are not looking for perfection. In fact, up to the age of about 14, they are giving quite a bit of consideration to the dancer’s potential. If you are lacking in technique due to inadequate instruction for example, you can show through your ability to pick up corrections and choreography that you are very teachable and therefore perhaps an excellent candidate. As you get a bit older, however, adjudicators will be looking for a more finished product. By the age of 17 or 18, you will want to present yourself as a dancer who has most of her technique and movement quality at a professional level. They will want someone at that age to be working mostly on artistry with perhaps some technical fine-tuning remaining to be done.

Do not underestimate the importance of the last two items I’ve listed. Showing your love for dance through enthusiasm for learning and enjoyment of movement can and often does cause an adjudicator to give a student a second, third or even fourth look. Avoid the “deer in the headlights” look at all costs! Be present in the moment, attentive, focused mentally and with your eyes, and remember why you are there in the first place … because you love, love, love to dance!

Merde, ballerinas! May you all have an exciting and educational audition 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: 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.

2011 Summer Intensive Updates!

If you haven’t been regularly checking my recent post on the best SIs, click back over to look for newly added quality regional programs (at the bottom of the post) and additional updated info on individual programs.

Also, Pointe Magazine has posted online two good articles on preparing for this audition season. “Rejected” is one dancer’s story of turning a potentially crushing letter into a motivational tool, and “The August Advantage” is a look into summer intensive extension and add-on programs for advanced, vocational students.

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.

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.

The 2011 SI Audition Season is Here!

People, it’s time. Time to get prepared for the 2011 Summer Intensive audition season!! For serious dancers – whether aiming for a pro or college career out of high school, summer intensives with top schools are a vital part of thorough dance training. And top SIs do not admit students without an audition.

There are a lot of considerations that dance students and their families should discuss before an SI is chosen. We’ll get into those in another post. Focusing on the audition season itself, you need to know that even if you are 100% positive that you will not be able to attend an out-of-town summer intensive, it is still an absolute must for you to attend the summer intensive auditions that tour to your town. Why?

First off,  the more experience you have taking part in auditions, the better. Auditions are a way of life for dancers, and getting comfortable with the process is best accomplished by experience. You should consider auditions to be a vital part of your dance education.

Secondly, the audition results can give you an idea of how you are progressing. Are you good? How good? It can be nearly impossible to get a feel for your own talent and technique just from taking daily class at a small-town studio. Finding out what major schools are interested in you – and which ones aren’t – can help you understand how you are perceived and what kind of potential you are thought to have.

In addition, you will have a chance to be seen by top companies and schools who may recognize you next year if you are unable to attend the SI but do audition again. Often, SI schools send the same few people to the same cities, so that the Tulsa team, for example, will be fairly unchanged year after year. If you stood out at all, you may have made an enough of an impression with the adjudicators that they remember you from the prior year. You’d be surprised how often this happens and how much it can help with your training career.

For dancers located in areas without access to the very best schools, summer intensives can be their only access to opportunities to be trained by national master teachers, to be taught by professionals currently dancing with top companies, to meet other serious young dancers, to be seen by artistic directors and to devote a whole month or more of full 8-hour days to their dance training.

Summer is often the only time a young dancer has when time is not split between school, homework and other activities. Those dancers who do not take advantage of this time – even by attending just a local dance intensive – are not only wasting an opportunity to focus on dance without distraction; they are creating large developmental gaps between themselves and their many peers who do attend intensives.

These are just a few of the reasons that you should make SI auditions an annual part of your training process. In the next post, I will be providing links to audition tours and websites for the best of the best in SIs. Take a look, and start planning your 2011 audition schedule!