The Boston Ballerinas

Boston Ballet sometimes gets overlooked when it comes to referencing iconic Bostonian things… What this historic New England town boasts in historic landmarks, American history, the ICA, Harvard Yard, their baseball team, and the home of the current season of Top Chef. What people forget about is their ballet company. While, New Yorkers and Bostonians have a long time rivalry, and with Boston Ballet recently making their appearance at Lincoln Center… Boston Ballet proves once again to be a standing rival against the New York Ballerinas. Not to mention ABT’s studly James Whiteside was a former principal with Boston Ballet. Now what people tend to forget is that currently, Boston Ballet boasts a roster of principals to die for. Of these principals, 9 of them I have seen dance live, and they are all mind blowing. While their men are fantastic, dynamic and to say the least were all prodigies… Their women might just be the most dynamic primas in the US.

Don’t get me wrong, there are stunning women in every company. And if this was the oscars and we were nominating for the best prima in the US, many women would dazzle us in the category. But, after a lot of thought and many hours on youtube, the women of Boston Ballet have won me over. Specifically, Kathleen Breen Combes, Lia Cirio, Ashley Ellis, Whitney Jensen and Misa Kuranaga and here is why.

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Ironically dancing the tall girl role in Rubies, she is only 5’4″ #legsfordays

Kathleen Breen Combes, she is has to be the epitome of a ballerina. Everything about her says BALLET. With legs for days, and pale skin, glowing eyes, makes her mesmorizing. She was already hailed as one of the great American Ballerinas, and I couldn’t give her enough praise. From soft romantic roles, to full length classics, to her technical rigor in Balanchine ballets. She possesses something charming that I think would inspire most young girls. As her ballet career has been followed closely from her 2003 win of The Lefkowitz Award for Special Achievement, which she won after being eliminated from the competition, to her time at Washington Ballet, to her contract with Boston Ballet and skyrocketing through the ranks, to her injury, she is everything. Standing at 5’4″ but looking 5’10” on stage, she is everything you think of a classical ballet dancer. 

Lia Cirio in Jose Martinez’s Resonance.
Lia Cirio in Jose Martinez’s Resonance.

Then there is Lia Cirio, who I think is the epitome of what a modern day ballerina is. With her fierce intensity, and ferocious attack, she gives me life. Her attention to detail, her performance quality and her well… those hyper extended legs make everything. With an arabesque for days, and her athletic physique it makes for a combination of modernity and classic ballet. While her acting skills are praised highly, her technical ability is flawless which makes for the perfect combination on stage. Her jump is for days, but matched with passion. Another ballerina with a high profiled career, Lia Cirio is definitely one who will not be forgotten. As she continually grows as an artist, pushing herself, it makes me excited for BB’s Swan Lake Reviews.

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Ken Browar & Deborah Ory for NYC Dance Project.

Ashley Ellis. Mmmm, my first memory of her was in Southern California, and I was training at South Bay Ballet. She had come to take class while still at American Ballet Theatre. Having watched videos of her, her reputation preceded her having won the Spotlight Awards. (Side note, Lia Cirio’s reputation was echoed everywhere at CPYB, but never saw her there but once, and not in class.) So, in class her beautiful legs extended into the air and I died a little. So, after stalking her while at American Ballet Theatre, I often wondered why she was never promoted… Then, she moved to Angel Corella’s company and was a soloist, but I feel like that wasn’t a fit for her. Then she came back to the states and flourished at Boston Ballet. I think everything about her dancing changed, and this new and different maturity came out in her dancing, and I fell in love all over again. She has this simple sincerity to her dancing that is ever so enchanting.

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Whitney Jensen… So young, so talented… We know her from well, everywhere. From her win of the hope award at the YAGP at 11, to her win at Varna… she was definitely one to watch and well… it paid off. From a very young age she showed control and constraint, as some young dancers get into the moment and whack everything… But she has always been in control. Known for her technical ability to turn… and turn, she is beyond exotic in the face but has come into her own. As she has grown at Boston Ballet her unique charisma has grown to be intoxicating, always leaving you wanting more.

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So, a while ago… a friend of mine was going to Harvard and said he had just saw the sleeping beauty and one of the faeries stole the spotlight. I assumed it was going to be Lilac, but when he said canary… I asked how could a 30 second variation steal prologue? He said her name is Something Kamamasdfadf something. Now, everyone knows her name. Finding the perfect partner in Jeffrey Cirio, Misa Kuranaga has grown to flourish in everything. From her graduation performance at School of American Ballet, to growing with Boston Ballet, she has become everything. With her luscious turn out, gracious technical ability, ridiculously precise musicality, and her understanding of character roles, she becomes a different dancer in every role all while giving us arabesque.

So, that sums up these dynamic women who I can’t give enough praise to. Merde as they take on Swan Lake!!

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Baby Ballerinas, and the costs of being one.

This one is for all of the parents who has a child starting out in ballet. (I have gotten a lot of e-mails asking a lot of really good questions, and I have been trying to individually reply but it has gotten to be too much. I am going to try lumping it all into one post, kind of.) So, your child is in ballet, and you don’t want to go all dance moms on your kid, or be that stage mom at the studio. Here is some advice, so you don’t overwhelm school owners, teachers, and your child. This is all my opinion once again, so here we go.

For children under the age of 5, there really is no reason to have your child in ballet class everyday. There is also no reason to have your child in private lessons unless your child has scoliosis or flat feet. Then private attention is needed, and you might want to consult with doctors for orthotics to help correct, and prevent long term problems. In addition, you should let your child do jazz, tap and hip hop for fun. Jazz teaches a young dancer tenacity, aka Tiler Peck is a good example. Hip hop teaches a dancer to be daring and good at free styling. Tap teaches a kid how to understand music, and the process of building and deconstructing music. This is also good because they will stretch a lot more, and flexibility in the back, hips and legs matters in the long run. There isn’t really a reason to have your kid in competition at that young of an age, unless you are in it for the fun of it all. With that being said, competition is expensive and you have be prepared to pay for all of that. More importantly, if your child wants to be a ballet dancer, it might just be more expensive than college… Well it is, and this is why.

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Children between 6-9 should be in ballet class at least once a day. This isn’t because we are crazy, it is about discipline, and the start of muscle memory and the shaping of the muscles. Children are growing like crazy and need sleep, so it isn’t smart to have to them in hour and half classes. One hour a day three-five days a week is a great start. They have to build an entire ballet vocabulary, know the etiquette of a ballet class, and most importantly they have to thrive in the environment. Discipline is built, and this is when you see kids really starting to excel. (Wait for it, the money hasn’t really started yet. So before you go out and buy your child a million cute leotards, and a pay for expensive dance bags… Wait.)

First Position's Aran Bell, now with ABT Studio Company at CPYB.
First Position’s Aran Bell, now with ABT Studio Company at CPYB with Ashley Miller.

Then, from the ages of 10-13 the real journey begins. Pointe shoes are introduced. And your child should be dancing at least four days a week in an hour and half class a day. On top of that, they should be training either in pre pointe or pointe at least twice a week. They should be cross training in yoga, pilates, and constantly stretching. If you don’t know a lot about pointe here it goes. Pointe shoes (Freed Classics) run about $70.00 a pair. Your child will probably go through a pair every month, maybe not at first, but it will start. This is when teachers will start to find and nit pick at your child and this is when private lessons are a good thing. Because starting now your child should be going away for summers. Yup, you should be sending your kid off to a summer program every summer, this means they will be gone between 4-7 weeks. What does this mean? Money. First auditions run between $25-35 dollars class.

Rachel Neville Photography, click the image to read her guide to audition photos. She is one of the best audition photographers based in NYC and beautifully elaborates on photos.
Rachel Neville Photography, click the image to read her guide to audition photos. She is one of the best audition photographers based in NYC and beautifully elaborates on photos.

Most kids audition between 4-8 places a season. Just like college, you have your first picks, back ups, and safety nets, of course hoping for scholarships. Audition photos will run you anywhere between 3-6 hundred dollars depending on where you are at, and who is taking the photo. Don’t be cheap, because a photo can make or break an acceptance, and can help get a scholarship. Teachers who are holding the auditions will see thousands of kids a season, and it isn’t till they are back at their office looking at audition pictures, waiting for that picture to remind them and think, “Oh that is the girl with the pretty feet from Atlanta.” Yup, so now your child has gotten into a summer program and it will cost you anywhere between 5-10k depending on the program, traveling expenses etc. 

So, lets do some math… Lowballing it, it will take you about $8,000 a summer to send your kid away. (That is including leotards, pointe shoes, tights, traveling expenses etc.) If your kid goes to a summer program at 12 or 13 and you are expected to go away every summer till 18, you are no looking at about $56,000 in just summer expenses. This isn’t including year round tuition, leotards, and pointe shoes for during the year. We aren’t done…

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Students and San Francisco Ballet School, photo by Erik Tomasson. Click the image above to visit SFB’s site.

From the ages of 15-18, your child should be at a pre-professional school attached or school associated with company. So, your home studio’s tuition was low, now multiply that by 4, and add room and board. Oh no, we are so not done. Now that your child is a pre-professional school, she will probably be going through pointe shoes a pair a week. Then, you now have to start saving for company auditions. Company auditions vary in price, most are free. But, the problem is getting to these companies. You can do the normal cattle calls in NYC, which you need pictures for, but the big expense will be traveling expenses (flights, hotel rooms, etc). Most companies only hold auditions in two or three cities outside of their own, unlike summer programs. This means your child will get to see the US and the World just by auditioning. 

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Daniela Aldrich, CPYB and SAB Alumna in George Balanchine’s the Nutcracker. Click the image above to go hear Daniela’s Story with Balancing Pointe or download the podcast.

This is also in the best case scenario that your child doesn’t need extra privates, your child gets injured and has to see a specialist, or they are having chronic pains and have to see a PT. 

Now, your kid is 18, but we still are done…

Most 18-20 year olds don’t even land full company contracts. Maybe paid apprenticeships, or small stipend second company jobs. For the next two years their income money will fluctuate and might still need help with bills. Since they aren’t in a school, dorms are usually not an option so you are looking at rent, utilities etc. And, well, we still aren’t done. This scenario, which was the normal scenario for a long time is changing, because more and more kids are making appearances at the YAGP and other international competitions. (See my guide to ballet competitions here.)

National Ballet of Canada's YOU Dance Apprentices . Miyoko Koyasu. Trygve Cumpston. Photos by Sian Richards.
National Ballet of Canada’s YOU Dance Apprentices . Miyoko Koyasu. Trygve Cumpston. Photos by Sian Richards. (Click Image above to got NBS)

So, before you go out and buy your child the most expensive dance bag, and tons of crazy leotards, thing of the long run, just in case. The plus side is, if your child is talented, and doesn’t get a job, he or she will easily get a scholarship to go to a dance college. Downside, ballet is extremely expensive in the US since it is not state supported, but this gives every dancer a fair shot at becoming a dancer, if money permits it. The opposing argument is that in most countries you only become a dancer if you are selected based off of body type.

These are the financial costs of ballet, this isn’t just the emotional, physical or mental costs of ballet. The stakes are high there too. And none of this guarantees your son or daughter a job in ballet. Unfortunately, no one is ever guaranteed anything in life, but there are ways to give your child a fighting chance in ballet.

Create a safe and healthy environment at home. This means finding the balance between ballet and “real life.” Dance isn’t everything and for most it will be a short lived career, so making friends, going to prom and seeing a movie is important. Additionally, the balance between rest, dance, and school is just as important.

Give your child the best education possible. This means finding the best schools in your area, even if that means you have to commute a little longer. Start saving in advance, just in case, and if your child doesn’t go to a summer program, you now have vacation money. 

Be educated, don’t be overbearing. It is more important for you to understand ballet than watch your child’s every move in class. Ballet technique is based on a slow process, that happens everyday, little by little. It isn’t like one private later they will have 32 double fouettés. Education will also help you have conversations with your child about ballet. For example companies, body types, natural facility, and possible careers. Just because VOGUE pushes SAB doesn’t mean everyone is meant to go to SAB. 

Students at Walnut Hill, click the image above to visit their school's site.
Students at Walnut Hill, click the image above to visit their school’s site.

Exposure. Making sure your child sees good ballet is important. Yes, youtube is great, but going to a ballet performance is even better. Videos highlight principals not the entire cast. Kids should see an entire company, so they understand all of the different parts of a company. Not everyone is going to be a prima… (article here)

Loving it. What makes or breaks a dancer in the adolescent years, if that phase isn’t awkward enough, imagine living through it in tights and leotard… Bodies change, mentalities change, and they will either fall deeply in love with ballet, or they will do it for the sake of doing it. It is most important to remind your child that if they don’t love it, they shouldn’t do it. Also, if they just love ballet but don’t want to become ballet dancers, then maybe it isn’t necessary to push your child to go to PNB or Royal Ballet School.

Finally, my last advice to all parents: GIVE YOUR KIDS A FIGHTING A CHANCE! So many dancers don’t end up becoming professionals because the lack of training, and the lack of support at home. Ballet takes 130% commitment, and if your child is willing to do all that, plus their chores, homework and family duties, then let your child have a chance in ballet. Find the best schools, the best teachers, and find a way to make it happen for your child. Drive the extra 30 minutes to the better school, talk to your child’s regular school to see if they can get out of PE since they are dancing 20+ hours a day, and if they can’t, get a doctor to sign a note saying they aren’t allowed to run… Fight for your child. They only get one body, so you have to do everything you can to protect it. Also yes, costs are high, but if your child is talented, there is always someway to work something out with a school to find a way for your child to dance.  

You know you are a ballet dancer if…

you know you are a ballet dancer if a ballet education

This isn’t your list of childhood dance problems, like missing prom, or missing football games to be at the studio. The fact that you stand turned out, or when picking up something from the ground you open into penche… Yes, that list I am sure is important, but the reality is, that list seems quite petty once you are a professional. Another funny list of random things we probably spend way too much time thinking about.

You know you are a ballet dancer if…

1. You have a tattoo in the most obscure place on your body. For some it may be right behind the ear, or on your ankle placed just so that your pointe ribbons hide it. Ooh, or the occasional male tattoo on your side, but low enough be hidden by a dance belt or tights. Or, you just are craving ink but for the sake of casting… you are waiting.

2. With the amount of money spent on pointe shoes, your closet could be full of Christian Louboutins… Or Monolos, or for those who are into the classic turn of shoe fashion: Jimmy Choos. Or, you equate the money you spend on regular items to the cost of pointe shoes. 

3. You don’t get a dating life. The majority of dates have to be squeezed in between rehearsals, performances, traveling and pilates. As a result, even though we say we are never going to date a dancer, you end up marrying your best friend in the company.

4. On your off time, or in between seasons you are traveling for other dancers’ weddings. And you think about putting on heels, and think that pointe shoes are more comfortable, or “why aren’t high heel arches higher to support my foot?”

5. When at the grocery store you aren’t counting calories, you are actually putting everything in your basket because everything sounds good after a long day dancing. 

6. The majority of your instagram photos are inside the studio, at the theatre, or traveling to a performance. 

7. When going on vacation you pick a place that has absolutely no ballet around, or if it does you go take a class, or see a performance.

8. Flipping through Pointe Magazine is like a Year Book, and you say, “Oh I went to school with her, or we did Boston Ballet’s Summer Program of 01′ together.”

9. Your friends are your family, and your real family stays in contact with you via facebook or skype. 

10. When people ask you if you could go back in time either say the Diaghilev Era or the Balanchine Era to work with the most brilliant artists of their time. 

And finally, you REALLY know you are a ballet dancer if.. 

It is no longer about turn out, extension and turns, but it is about contributing to history and passing down an visually oral tradition of art. Yeah, that was kind of deep. But, the reality is that you have made it, and yes you are working on the above, and hoping to be promoted, but you are now part of an art form that is passed down orally from teacher to dancer, and visually embraced by society. Regardless of how society views ballet as a whole, or what pop culture portrays ballet as, the real inner workings of ballet are yours to keep. Each step, each performance, each moment is something that can never be recreated or relived, just passed on to the next year of dancers.

There has to be something beautiful in the lack of longevity of a dance career, or else we wouldn’t do it. There is something more captivating in the studios and on the stage than the rest of the world, or else we would leave these spaces. And ballet has to be something greater than art because it is a life you live everyday.