The Brave Ballerina

All photos by Richard Battye

Odds are, the first time you saw Alys Shee, she was doing fouettés. There’s a now-famous YouTube clip of her nailing dozens of them, peppering the string with musical triples and doubles.

Oh, and that video was taken when Alys was 13. Yup: At an age when most dancers are still adjusting to pointe shoes, Alys was mastering feats that make many principal dancers shake in their tutus. So you probably won’t be surprised to hear that today, at 18, Alys has already won multiple medals at prestigious competitions, including the junior gold at last year’s Helsinki International Ballet Competition; spent a year as a member of American Ballet Theatre’s second company; made guest appearances in leading roles in works like Don Quixote and Le Corsaire at ballet companies around the world; and, this past fall, joined the Birmingham Royal Ballet, where she’s a rising star.

Alys is blessed with a ballet-ready body—legs for days, luxurious extensions, an innate turning ability—but it’s not just her natural talents that have landed her on the dance world’s A-list. This is a girl who, rather than enrolling at a big ballet school, carved a unique training path. This is a girl who was savvy enough to have her own website before she was old enough to drive. This is a girl who has been as fearless about taking charge of her career as she was about those fouettés. Alys is, in other words, a girl on her way to becoming a thoroughly modern prima.

The Gutsy Student

Before she devoted herself to ballet, Alys tried “pretty much everything else”—from skating to Irish step dancing to tap. But when her aunt put her in ballet classes at a church in her hometown of Toronto, Canada, Alys knew she’d found her calling. “There was just something about it,” she says. “I was in love.”

By 9, she was training seriously at Toronto’s Academy of Ballet and Jazz, run by Nadia Veselova Tencer, who became a mentor. In theory, the natural next step would have been a move to Canada’s National Ballet School. But the NBS schedule conflicted with Alys’ academic classes. Since her parents didn’t want her to put school on the back burner, Alys decided to continue studying with Tencer.

That’s not to say she took things easy. “I’d go from 4 in the afternoon until 10 at night,” Alys remembers, “and I’d take all the different levels, from the beginner classes to the advanced ones.”

She also took as many classes as she could at another local studio, Dance Teq—which is where former Royal Winnipeg Ballet star Evelyn Hart first spotted her. “One of my friends was teaching at Dance Teq, and he pulled me into his class and said, ‘I think this little girl needs you,’ ” Hart says. “I saw this tiny 12-year-old, with huge eyes and a giant bun, doing everything as well as—if not better than—anyone else. I instantly had a soft spot for her.” Hart admired Alys’ courage. “She had no fear; she was just dancing,” Hart recalls. “And those beautiful long limbs—you took one look at her and thought, She has everything!” After the class, Hart talked to Alys’ mother about taking Alys on as a private student.

“Evelyn and I started with an hour and a half five days a week,” Alys says, “and then it was two hours, and then we added Saturday, and then it was three hours. Eventually we were just working until we felt we were done.” Hart’s advice provided the perfect counterpoint to the group classes Alys continued to take at the Academy of Ballet and Jazz. “The Academy gave me strong technique, and then Evelyn made sure I understood everything from within my own body,” Alys says.

The Stage Beast

Alys’ unconventional training program was doing wonders for her technique—but it didn’t give her many opportunities to perform. “I needed a way to get onstage and learn what that was like,” she says. “Also, I knew I wanted to eventually dance all over the world, in Europe and America—and to get visas to travel, I was going to need to have proof of my talent.” The solution to both problems? Ballet competitions, which gave her chances to perform and to earn the medals that would streamline the visa process.

And earn medals she did: junior silvers at the Moscow International Ballet Competition, Cape Town IBC and USA IBC, plus the grand prix at the Star of the 21st Century IBC and, to cap it all off, her Helsinki IBC junior gold. “She took to the stage like a duck to water,” Hart says. “She’s a stage beast.” Alys was also able to make many friends at competitions, despite the high-pressure, cutthroat environments. “From the time she was a young teen she had a good sense of who she was, so she could talk to people,” Hart says. “I call her my bunny—she’s this sweet thing who gets along with everyone.”

The International Explorer

Alys spent two summers at American Ballet Theatre’s NYC intensive, and eventually auditioned for second company ABT II. She earned a contract, and, at 15, began a whirlwind year in NYC. “There was a lot of emotional growth,” Alys says. “You’re figuring out that this isn’t school—you don’t have a teacher constantly correcting you. You learn not to rely on anyone else for success.”

Though she enjoyed her time at ABT, Alys was feeling the pull of Europe. “Everything is so close over there—you can hop on a train and see all these different companies.” She also wanted to flex her contemporary muscles. “European ballet companies have a lot of young choreographers who are working in a wide range of styles,” she says. “They’re cool and experimental.”

Alys had connections to Birmingham Royal Ballet—friends she’d made through an exchange between The Royal Ballet School and ABT II had joined the company. So she sent a YouTube clip to director David Bintley, who invited her to take class with the troupe. Assistant director Marion Tait was impressed by the teen’s abilities. “She was extraordinary,” Tait says. “And she was calm in class, not unnerved by the pressure.” The company offered Alys a contract.

Since joining, Alys has had moments in the spotlight—she was quickly cast as the Hungarian Princess in Swan Lake and the Winter Fairy in Cinderella—but she’s also had to figure out how to be the perfect second villager from the left. “The biggest learning curve for Alys was becoming a member of the corps de ballet,” Tait says. “Her first role was as one of 18 swans in Swan Lake, and she had trouble constantly looking in one direction and staying in line.” She doesn’t suffer, however, from the look-at-me syndrome that plagues many competition veterans. “She’s not flashy,” Tait says. “Your eye goes right to her—but she draws it in a subtle way.”

The Smart Dancer

Alys’ dream of traveling the world is coming true: She’s toured the U.K. with BRB, and she’s done lots of guesting on her own. She danced both her first Kitri (in Don Quixote) and her first Medora (in Le Corsaire) at South African Ballet Theatre. How does she land those guesting jobs? “It’s mostly connections I’ve made at competitions,” she says. “The Cape Town IBC director is connected with the South African Ballet Theatre, so that’s where those invitations come from. And once you start guesting, you meet more people who invite you to guest.”

It also didn’t hurt that Alys Shee was becoming a well-known name in the ballet world, thanks to her website, YouTube channel and use of social media, as well as several well-timed newspaper profiles. She claims she fell into it all accidentally—“The website was a school project!”—but Hart gives her more credit. “She called the Toronto Star when she was 12 to tell them she was going to ABT’s summer program, and it was a great opportunity for a story,” Hart says. “She was so smart about it.”

Regardless, today Alys fully understands the importance of branding yourself. “In Evelyn’s day, the only way to see a Russian ballerina was if she came to your city and performed,” she says. “Now everyone can see you online. It’s important for dancers to be aware of the influence of the internet.”

The Normal Kid

When she’s not living the ballet dream, Alys is a down-to-earth teenager, albeit a remarkably independent one. She lives on her own in Birmingham and spends a lot of time Skyping with her family and her boyfriend, a dancer with The National Ballet of Canada. “She’s a normal kid,” Hart says. “There’s this very mature artist, and then there’s this sweet young woman who loves to laugh—and looks great in a killer pair of heels.”

Alys recently finished up high school online and started online university courses. But when it comes to dance, her future is wide open. “I’ve never planned on being in a certain company or living in a certain place,” she says. “It’s just about working with people I admire, and growing along the way. That’s how I’ve always approached things.”

“Alys may have had an easier path if she’d followed the usual route, joined a big school and then its company,” Hart says. “But because she did it her way, she’s been to South Africa, Moscow and Helsinki; she’s performed in amazing venues and joined a great company. And my bunny’s done it all on her own.”

FAST FACTS

Birthday: July 4, 1994. “I was at intensives in NYC for four summers, so I got fireworks on my birthday four times!”

Most-played on her iPod: The Killers’ Hot Fuss album

Favorite movie: A Beautiful Mind

Favorite dance movie: “I used to be so in love
with Center Stage. My favorite character was Sascha Radetsky’s, of course!”

Must-see TV shows: “The Walking Dead,” “Dexter,” “The Big Bang Theory”

Favorite food: “That’s a toss-up between baked goods—cookies, brownies and cupcakes—and McDonald’s. My standard order is chicken nuggets, fries and a large Coke.”

Who would play her in a movie? “Angelina Jolie—but really because she’s one of the only actresses I know! I’m pretty out of it. To see her do ballet and get all Black Swan would be fun though.”

Non-dance hobby: “I love to bake. My specialty is chocolate chip banana bread.
I also like to make cookies for the whole company.”

Three ways to describe her dancing: “Graceful, musical, a work in progress”

Three words that describe her personality: “Loud, bubbly, sarcastic”

Her advice for DS readers: “Make sure you’re always true to yourself. Don’t do things because you’re told to do them, but because you believe in them. And stay healthy—no career is worth sacrificing your health.”

THOSE FABULOUS FOUETTÉS

Alys Shee’s YouTube fans aren’t the only ones bowled over by her turning talent. Count mentor Evelyn Hart as part of that group, too:

“I remember when we were working on the Black Swan pas de deux for a competition. I said, ‘Let’s leave the fouettés alone and focus on the artistic part for a while’—because when I was dancing, those fouettés were like Mount Everest. So we focused on the artistic side of it first. Then one day I said, ‘OK, let’s just take a look at the fouettés.’ And she got up and did 32 doubles, with no trouble at all. I was like: ‘OK, that’ll do!’ As a teacher,
there are some things you just don’t touch.”

Follow Alys where it all started—online!

Twitter: @pddprincess

YouTube: youtube.com/user/pddprincess

Her website: alysshee.com

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