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.

BalletScoop Visits Dance Advantage for a Guest Article!

If you aren’t familiar with Dance Advantage, you are in for a treat today. I just contributed a teacher’s article to DA about my favorite ballet movies – I hope you’ll check it out!

Nichelle Strzepek makes sure to keep great dance articles coming at Dance Advantage. There’s something for everyone – teachers, choreographers, students and professionals. Click around while you’re there and you’ll find technique tips, dance history, dance news, dance games and way more for students. I always keep a link to this great site on my blogroll for you guys. Enjoy!

Bolshoi Ballet to Hold Auditions

I never thought I would see this in my lifetime, but the Bolshoi Ballet is holding company auditions for the first time in its 235 year history. Invitation is required. To assist dancers, Youth American Grand Prix is now accepting submissions from YAGP alumni for recommendation consideration.

I think we can safely say that this is an unprecedented historical development in the dance world. Sincerest merde to all participants.

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.

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.

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.

Finding The Best College Dance Program for You

Dancing in a great college program gives you the opportunity to refine your dancing to a professional level through one major while preparing for a “back-up” career with a second major – or to continue doing what you love while pursuing your academics. But as a student making plans for dancing in college, you have more to think about than the average teen. What program is right for me? How tough will it be to find what I need from a college program? Can I find the same or better quality training than what I’ve had up to now? Are there programs that focus seriously enough on my dance genre that I can have a chance to turn pro after college? How do I begin researching good dance college programs?\

According to College Matchmaker, which provides links to and info on thousands of colleges, there are 254 four-year colleges in the U.S. with majors for ballet, dance or musical theater. That’s a lot to consider, especially if you don’t even know what you should be looking for. An excellent place to start your planning is by reading through Dance Advantage’s college guide. This section of the DA website provides invaluable information from how to decide what you are looking for in the first place to how to excel once you are there, plus a nice list of external articles and websites to get you well on your way creating and narrowing down your list of colleges.

There is a lot to be gained by pursuing a higher education while refining yourself as a dancer. If you are not sure whether to even continue dancing while in college or whether to skip college altogether and pursue a career in dance immediately, researching your options thoroughly before deciding can give you a more realistic picture so that you can fully assess all the pros and cons.

What makes the “best” college for you will depend on a variety of factors, including your goals in dance, whether you want to get to a pro level via college or go recreational, and what kind of college dance programs are available to you financially. If you have professional contract offers already and are considering accepting one, you should seriously research your options for pursuing your education in that city, though you may not opt for a dance program at all. During your research, don’t get too hung up on terminology for dance programs (B.A. vs. B.F.A, for example). Focus on the instructor quality, the program’s intensity, class offerings, performance opportunities, facilities and of course where the alumni are now. Good programs will require an audition.

Lastly, consider whether to treat your college education and your dance education as separate pursuits, just as you may have done during your high school years. If you have access to a superior dance school, there may not be a college program available to you that will surpass it, so that it is certainly worthwhile to consider enrolling in the dance conservatory or school to continue with dance while taking non-dance college courses. There is a wide variety of quality in U.S. college dance programs today, but for an idea of what to expect, check out this article from Dance Informa Magazine.

As you can tell, there are many, many options to consider even before you start examining college dance programs. But it’s not as daunting as it might seem! Take control of your college future by delving into the articles and links I’ve provided, and before you know it you’ll be well on your way to planning your college career.

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!!

Dear CBT: Choosing a Style of Ballet

Dear CBT,

My daughter, age 15,  was a long-time student of a highly-recognized, mixed-method (mostly Cecchetti) ballet teacher where she received wonderful training for 7 years. We recently moved, however, and placed her in a Vaganova program. Do you have any advice for someone studying Vaganova that would help her decide which way to go in the future?

Also there seems to be much less emphasis in this school on the proper physiology of the movements, the students having to just “do it” whereas in her previous ballet school there was always a how and a why to muscle movement and muscle control for the combinations. For example, she learned how to rotate her upper thighs for turnout, etc.  Here it’s just, “Turn out!”

Thank you.  Love your website, found it by accident.

Sincerely,

Devoted Dancer’s Parent

Dear DDP,

In the US, it is common to receive ballet training in a mix of styles. The ultimate goal is to have a versatile, able-bodied dancer with strong technique who can perform any ballet stage choreography. Various technique methods are only a “means to and end” of performing stage choreography, which is a separate concept than academic ballet work. All of the major methods of ballet technique will get the dancer there. Generally, dancers trained in methods that differ from a company they wish to join should have strong enough technique that they can assimilate their technique if and when they are hired. (The exception being New York City Ballet, who often only accepts SAB students.)

The advantage to focusing on one method of training is consistency for the body and reducing confusion for the student. Where one style might ask a dancer to place their foot behind the knee at the toe in a tour piqué en dedans, for example, another technique might demand it be crossed at the heel, placed in front of the knee or placed to the side of the knee. Each technique would call the other incorrect, but it is of little matter in which method a dancer is trained – the properly finished dancer in any method should be able to perform either version regardless of which one she was trained to do.

The caveat to all this is that when changing from one to the other, there are sometimes significant differences in movement style. From Balanchine to Vaganova, for example, your daughter may find that movements are a little bit slower and there is a lot more epaulment with softer, less flowery port de bras work. On the Cecchetti to Vaganova transfer, she will find that she will need to cultivate cleaner, longer lines.

My advise is to give it a year and see if “works” for her. (Does she enjoy the movement style? Is the training high quality?) But don’t worry too much about changing the method. There will be some adjusting to do, but that shouldn’t be anything a your daughter cannot handle. Vaganova is a strong, clean and dynamic method of ballet that will be very useful to your daughter. Many companies prefer it, and many others welcome it.

Regarding your second question, a good teacher will explain and instruct on the hows and the whys of movement. Having a successful professional career is not enough to make a really good teacher however (pedagogical training is also necessary), and it is possible that the school you have chosen is an example of that. Give them some months to display their best teaching methods, but I’d move on if this continues to be an issue.

I hope this helps. Thanks for reading BalletScoop!

Update: If you are interested in understanding more about the various methods of ballet technique, you might enjoy reading my prior posts on French, Vaganova, Cecchetti, Balanchine and other styles.