Short Stature, Long Career
“Well, Baryshnikov is short.” I’ve been hearing that since age 10, when I moved to NYC from Israel to study at the School of American Ballet. Great! All I have to do is be as good as Mikhail Baryshnikov—why didn’t I think of that? I’m now 26 years old and 5' 5 1/2" tall (yes, the half makes a difference!). I’ve traveled the world as a professional ballet dancer and I recently founded my own company. Launching my career was a struggle—often because of my height. I realized that I had to stop thinking of being short as a limitation and start thinking of it as a challenge. Ever since changing my perspective, I’ve been facing that challenge head-on.
Soon after arriving at SAB I was cast as Marie’s brother, Fritz, in New York City Ballet’s The Nutcracker, and later as the Nutcracker Prince. I continued to play the Prince until I was 13 years old because I was still small enough. (Usually, boys outgrow the costume by 11 or 12.) I was happy to hold on to a featured role, but also beginning to realize that I wasn’t growing. Around this time, one of my teachers informed me that I was probably going to be too short to have a career in ballet, and if I wanted to quit, now might be a good time. I was shocked. Quitting ballet had never entered my mind. Dancing was my passion.
When I finished school at SAB, I was a good dancer, but I wasn’t Baryshnikov. I needed professional experience. However, landing an entry-level position in a company is not easy, especially for a male dancer of my height. When you’re three inches shorter than the other corps dancers, it looks better if you’re in front or alone. While my taller peers could get jobs in the corps de ballet and develop slowly, I had to be ready to take on soloist roles, such as the peasant pas de deux in Giselle. So what’s a short, inexperienced 18-year-old to do?
After tirelessly auditioning, I landed my first job: a 14-week contract with Sacramento Ballet for The Nutcracker and Giselle, their only repertory pieces with roles for a man of my size. When my time there ended, I landed a temporary gig with The Washington Ballet.
Then, from ages 19 to 25, I worked constantly, dancing with various companies. I had some incredible high points—my favorite was dancing Puck in Frederick Ashton’s The Dream with The Joffrey Ballet. Though my partner work was infrequent, there were times I was paired with a shorter girl, and I enjoyed that. But there was a trade-off: While my taller corps de ballet friends were getting weekly paychecks, I had no job security. My success was tempered by my constant search for work, which was frustrating. On days off, I relentlessly sent out videos and flew to open and company class auditions, often hearing, “You’re too short,” before the class even started. I would just shake my head and look sympathetically at the 5' 10" female dancer standing next to me with the opposite plight [see sidebar below]. Wasn’t my height on my resumé? Why did they waste my time and money and invite me to audition? If I felt that my height was the only issue, I would simply put my frustration aside and try to keep in touch with the company. Often, when the time was right, I would get a call and a job offer. After six years of bouncing around (I danced with 11 companies during that time period), I was exhausted. In my burnt-out state, I decided it was time for a change.
A Different Approach
In 2008, while continuing to perform as a freelance dancer, I started my project company, Avi Scher & Dancers, to take charge of my own career. I also wanted to make ballet accessible by creating high-quality works that could be presented in smaller venues for affordable ticket prices. I had always had the desire to choreograph, and when I made my first piece at 16 for SAB’s choreography workshop, I knew I had to pursue it. At 18, I created a piece for the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company, and shortly afterward made works for the annual showcases at the Miami City Ballet School and San Francisco Ballet School.
Avi Scher & Dancers has proved successful and liberating. As a choreographer, I’ve created pieces for many of my favorite dancers, such as American Ballet Theatre principal Marcelo Gomes. When casting my shows, I try not to look at height too much, but in reality, there’s no getting around it: Sometimes I can’t hire a man I like because he’s too short. But I’ve also tried to embrace dancers’ height differences, and recently created a duet called Touch designed for a tall woman and a small man. I’ve had three different casts perform this piece, one of which included Robert Colby Damon, a dancer shorter than myself, who performed with 5' 8" ballerina Victoria North.
In the end, thinking about Baryshnikov is actually quite helpful. After getting past the frustrations and, let’s be frank, bitterness about my height, I now realize that every dancer deals with challenges. The key is to use them as motivation to work as hard as possible. Being short forced me to take a difficult, unusual path, but because I never gave up, I’ve found unusually rewarding success.
Ballet West's Christiana Bennett with Michael Bearden in "Swan Lake." Photo by Ryan Galbraith.
By Katie Rolnick
Traditionally, ballerinas are petite, with the average height hovering around 5' 5". But at 5' 9", Ballet West principal Christiana Bennett breaks convention.
During Bennett’s teenage years, when she surpassed her peers in height, some teachers advised her against pursuing a ballet career. Bennett was prepared to go to college, but her love for ballet was reignited when she attended a summer program at Pacific Northwest Ballet—a company known for welcoming statuesque ballerinas, such as 5' 11" principal Ariana Lallone. PNB invited Bennett to stay and train with the company for a year; she took the offer and her body image changed. “I was surrounded by these amazing women who could do anything you asked them to,” she says. “Even though they were taller than me, you never heard, ‘You’re too tall.’ It gave me so much confidence.” After her year training with PNB, Bennett was offered a job with Ballet West.
Bennett says tall ballerinas are typically cast in “roles that are featured, but not necessarily the star,” such as the Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty. But at Ballet West, Bennett has danced soloist and lead roles, including Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. So how does she change preconceived notions about where she belongs? “I try to get the essence and quality of the movement and go for it,” Bennett says.
What about the challenge of finding a partner who can work with a ballerina who’s over 6' tall on pointe? “Some of my favorite partners are shorter than I am,” Bennett says. In such pairings, she says, communicating with your partner is key.
So if you think you’re too tall for ballet, think again. “Tall is beautiful,” Bennett says. “Be proud of who you are.”
Harper Watters is a ballet dancer for today's generation. A social media maestro and a charismatic performer, the Houston Ballet soloist is equally at home in front of the camera hosting his hit YouTube series, "The Pre Show"; interacting with fans on his crazy-popular Instagram account; or showing off his beautiful classical technique onstage. It's a multifaceted identity that's proven to be invaluable to his career—and it's taking him to places he never even dreamed of.
Getting corrections from our dance instructors is how we grow, and as students, it's important that we do our best to apply every correction right away. But sometimes—whether it's because we're in physical pain, or have a lot on our minds, or are just not paying attention—those corrections don't sink in. And from a teacher's standpoint, giving the same corrections time and time again gets old very fast. Here are 10 important corrections dance teachers are tired of giving. Take them to heart!
Summer intensive auditions can be nerve-racking. A panel of directors is watching your every move, and you're not even sure if you can be seen among the hundreds of other dancers in the room. We asked five summer intensive directors for their input on how dancers can make a positive impression—and even be remembered next year.
When we think of a dancer who's broken barriers, American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland tends to be the name that comes to mind. And though Copeland has been a crucial advocate for equality in the world of ballet, Raven Wilkinson—a mentor of Copeland's—is considered one of the original pioneers of the movement.
In 1955, Wilkinson became the first African American to dance with the renowned Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Her fortitude in the face of bigotry and hate cemented her legacy. Now, with the release of the new children's book Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, a new generation of dancers will be inspired by her tale of overcoming obstacles to achieve a dream.
The book details Wilkinson's life, from her experience as a young dancer training in Harlem, to her run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan while on tour with Ballet Russe, to her later ballet career in Europe. "There were times where my heart really hurt because of the situations I had to deal with," she says. "But I always had faith that I was made to be a dancer and that I was gonna dance."
Dance Spirit spoke with Wilkinson to discuss the new book and get her take on racial equality within the ballet world.
Postmodern pioneer Trisha Brown redefined how dance is seen and felt. A founding member of Judson Dance Theater, Brown frequently collaborated with other experimental artists like Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, and Steve Paxton.
She embraced pedestrian movement, pairing everyday gesture with rhythm and fluidity. "It's liquid," says Wendy Perron, who danced with Brown in the '60s and '70s. "Like a river with many tributaries, water coming out of a faucet, or being on a raft and seeing the water move away in different directions." Brown also pushed beyond stages with choreography in fields, museums—even on the sides of buildings.
There's a common misconception that a dancer's body has to be thin. But the truth is that talent knows no body type, and the number on the scale never determines an artist's capabilities. Here are some extraordinary dancers fighting the stereotype of what a dancer "should" look like.
We always love a good halftime performance. And we LIVE for halftime performances involving talented kids. (Fingers and toes crossed that Justin Timberlake follows Missy Elliott's lead and invites some fabulous littles to share his Super Bowl stage.)
So obviously, our hearts completely melted for 5-year-old Tavaris Jones. Tavaris may have just started kindergarten, but during Monday night's game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, the Detroit native danced with the panache of a veteran pro at halftime.