In today’s ballet world, dancers need to be adaptable. Long gone are the days when a few big companies would dance the classics, while others specialized in contemporary rep; now, everyone does a bit of everything. “You have to be able to put on different styles like you’re putting on jackets,” says Parrish Maynard, a faculty member at San Francisco Ballet School. “As a professional, one minute you’ll be doing a piece by George Balanchine, the next a contemporary William Forsythe work and then a week later Swan Lake.”
But studying a ton of different styles isn’t always the best way to develop versatility. While some dancers thrive on the multiple-technique approach, for others, it can be confusing to tackle several different methods before developing a solid base in a single style. So what’s the right path for you? Here’s advice from top teachers and pros in the industry.
When Less Leads to More
Ellison Ballet students showing off their Vaganova training. (Photo by Rachel Neville, courtesy Ellison Ballet)
If you already have your heart set on a company that specializes in a particular style—the Bournonville-based Royal Danish Ballet, for example, or one of the several American companies that prioritize Balanchine—immersing yourself in that style has obvious benefits. And sometimes, a narrow, single-technique focus can actually open doors to larger worlds. Now a principal with San Francisco Ballet, Sarah Van Patten studied for several years with master teacher Jacqueline Cronsberg, who specialized in Balanchine technique. “It was a small school, and very intense,” she remembers. “I just worked with my one teacher all the time, so I never felt like I got lost in multiple styles and views on things.” And she didn’t find Cronsberg’s Balanchine focus limiting, either. When, right out of school, Van Patten joined RDB—a company specializing in August Bournonville’s fleet, story-centric ballets—she felt adequately prepared. “The quickness of my Balanchine training actually translated into Bournonville very easily, especially in petit allégro,” she says.
Susan Pilarre leading a class at SAB. (Photo by Ellen Crane, courtesy SAB)
Teachers at some of NYC’s best ballet schools echo that diversity-through-specificity argument. “We teach a very strict Vaganova technique,” says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet, “but it’s not limiting. It develops an acute awareness of one’s instrument—how it logically functions—and it enables a freedom to adapt to any choreographic style.” Susan Pilarre, a longtime faculty member at the Balanchine-focused School of American Ballet, says that Mr. B’s style is like “a good little black dress. It can go anywhere.” Her proof? SAB students frequently go on to have professional careers with non-Balanchine companies.
The Benefits of a “Tasting Menu”
On the flip side, early exposure to the many styles you’ll be expected to take on as a pro also comes with great perks. “To make a dancer employable, we feel it’s important that she has a full rep in her body,” Maynard says. “A lot of companies don’t want people who look like they can only do one thing.” At San Francisco Ballet School, the technique is a hybrid “American” style that includes bits and pieces of several methods, and the curriculum also introduces students to works by choreographers like Balanchine, Forsythe, Nacho Duato and Jiˇrí Kylián. “It develops a very clean look, with no affectations,” Maynard says.
Noelani Pantastico, now a principal at Pacific Northwest Ballet, admits that when she joined the company at age 17, she didn’t have much of a range. “I was primarily Balanchine-based at that time,” she says. “I had a good technical foundation, but when I started working with choreographers, I realized there was another world out there.” Pantastico ended up getting her diversifying “training” as a pro: She left PNB to work with Jean-Christophe Maillot at Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, where she danced a wide-ranging rep for seven years before returning to PNB with a new sense of perspective. “At a certain point, it’s important to expand your focus,” she says. “I wish I’d done it sooner. I would’ve been a stronger dancer.”
Keeping an Open Mind
Parrish Maynard leading class during San Francisco Ballet School's Summer Session (Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy San Francisco Ballet School)
In the end, the real key to adaptability is openness—and courage. “As a student, I was fearless, and that let me take a new style and go with it,” Van Patten says. “I really watched everyone around me and took in their strengths.” And while figuring out your own approach to the technique question is important, Van Patten stresses the importance of finding a mentor who speaks to you, whatever her style. “A good teacher is a good teacher,” she says. “If my teacher had been Vaganova-based, I would’ve stayed with her! Ultimately, with the right mind-set and the right mentor, you can do anything.”
A Rundown of the Major Ballet Techniques
History: The legendary Russian ballerina and teacher Agrippina Vaganova combined elements of French, Italian and early Russian techniques to create this method. The syllabus is broken down into eight years of training—a slow, steady and deliberate progression.
Emphases: Use of the upper body and placement of the head. “Arms are not just for decoration,” says Yuliya Rakova, a teacher at the Vaganova-based Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC. “They support the jumps and turns, and have to be very expressive.”
Affiliated company: Mariinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia
History: George Balanchine, who trained at the Imperial Ballet School (before
it was renamed the Vaganova Ballet Academy), developed a unique style that was based on his Russian roots but influenced by his adopted American home. “He didn’t change the technique, but he stretched it and made it more modern-looking,” says Susan Pilarre, faculty member at the School of American Ballet in New York City.
Emphases: Deep plié, the use of épaulement and keen musicality. “Beautiful arms and hands and the shaping and placing of the feet are important,” says Pilarre. “Balanchine dancers can move quickly because they dance on the balls of their feet.”
Affiliated companies: New York City Ballet, Miami City Ballet
History: Developed by August Bournonville, a Danish dancer who also performed with the Paris Opéra Ballet, this technique has both Danish and French influences. It’s the foundation of Bournonville’s many famous ballets, such as La Sylphide and Napoli.
Emphases: Light, fast footwork and a quiet upper body. The head and shoulders follow the working leg, and jumps are strong and buoyant.
Affiliated company: Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen, Denmark
History: Established by Italian master teacher Enrico Cecchetti, this technique
is maintained in the U.S. by the Cecchetti Council of America, through which students and teachers can complete several grades of exams. There are planned exercises for each day, with a focus on anatomy.
Emphases: Coordination of the head and arms, with smooth transitions between steps. Students are encouraged to work both sides of their bodies equally.
Royal Academy of Dance (RAD)
History: RAD was developed in 1920 by a group of leading dance professionals, who created a series of exams to help raise the level of dance education among students and teachers. The syllabus is influenced by the Cecchetti and Vaganova techniques.
Emphases: Attention to detail, particularly in port de bras and épaulement. Arms tend to be held low and rounded.
Photo by Gene Schiavone
Based purely on appearances, you’d think Keenan Kampa would be aching to dance cutting-edge contemporary works. The 5' 8" beauty, with her lithe frame, Hollywood glamour and penchant for hip leotards, has an eye for fashion that spills over into the studio. It’s not uncommon to see her sporting a tie-dyed leotard, cherry-red lipstick and a braid across her head, accenting her short, edgy haircut.
But beneath that chic exterior lives a tried-and-true classical dancer. Her long, slender limbs create extraordinary lines, made all the more beautiful by her supple feet. She knows how to use her length, moving with regal breeziness—a hallmark of her training at Russia’s Vaganova Academy. “The way Russians teach you to use space around you is very grand,” says Larissa Ponomarenko, a ballet master and former principal dancer at Boston Ballet who also trained at the Vaganova Academy.
Keenan spent three years at the Vaganova Academy, starting when she was 18. Although her time in Russia wasn’t easy at first—she didn’t speak the language and struggled to fit in and make friends—it ended up having a profound effect on her. She became one of very few Americans to graduate from the school, and the only one to receive the diploma usually reserved for Russian students. She also fell in love with the Russian people and culture.
After graduating in the spring of 2010, however, Keenan didn’t receive a contract from the Maryinsky Ballet, the Vaganova Academy’s company. Instead, she returned to the U.S. and joined Boston Ballet as a corps de ballet member. But this summer, after two seasons with Boston, Keenan is heading back to Russia, where she was just offered a contract with the Maryinsky.
Keenan, 23, grew up outside Washington, D.C., and began taking ballet at age 4 at the Conservatory Ballet in Reston, VA. She studied with director Julia Redick, who based her training on the Russian system and shared videos of the Maryinsky and Bolshoi Ballets with her students, instilling an appreciation for the style. “When you see that at such a young age, those are the dancers you try to emulate,” Keenan says. “When I was in class, I’d see them in my mind.”
At 14, Keenan attended her first summer program (at Boston Ballet, coincidentally). “I was discouraged because I was put in the lowest level,” she says. “But that became my motivation and driving force—to get better and prove myself to the teachers.” And prove herself she did: Keenan returned the following year and was placed in the second-highest class.
Though she ventured out during the summers—she also spent two years at American Ballet Theatre’s summer program—Keenan remained at Conservatory Ballet throughout high school. She felt challenged yet comfortable with Redick. “It wasn’t your stereotypical ballet class,” Keenan says. “We’d spend hours on pliés. There was a lot of explaining, experimenting and finding what worked for me. I was never scared to try anything.”
Opportunity knocked in January 2007 when Keenan attended a master class with Vaganova Academy professor Gennady Selyutski. At the time, she was preparing for the Prix de Lausanne ballet competition (she ended up in the semifinals). Although Selyutski spoke little English, Keenan felt a strong connection to him—but she was still shocked when he approached her after class and, with the help of an interpreter, invited her to study at the Academy. She said yes.
Keenan standing near the Neva River and The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia
By August, Keenan was in St. Petersburg, Russia, sitting in a hotel room with her parents, who would be leaving her on her own in 24 hours. “I didn’t know what to expect,” she says. “There was nothing I could visualize. I was nervous.” While she still had the comfort of family nearby, she wrote herself a list of goals. “There were aspects of different dancers that I wanted to see manifest in myself,” Keenan says. She wrote that she wanted the artistry of Altynai Asylmuratova, a Vaganova Academy graduate, former Maryinsky prima ballerina and current artistic director of the school. She also wanted to focus on her flexibility—she had always been a turns and jumps ballerina—aspiring to achieve lines like those of Svetlana Zakharova, another Academy graduate and current Bolshoi Ballet principal. Today, Keenan’s grand battement à la seconde easily grazes her ear, and her grand jetés have length as well as loft.
Keenan says it takes her time to adapt to change, and her first year in Russia was a challenge. There was the language barrier (not even her Russian language teacher spoke English). It was cold, and she didn’t like the food. She had to adjust to the school’s raked (slanted) floors. And the students weren’t exactly welcoming. “I don’t think I spoke much that first year. I just got through each day,” Keenan says. But her classmates eventually warmed to her. “Keenan is marvelously charming, onstage and in life,” says Vaganova Academy professor Tatiana Udalenkova. “She has a talent for attracting people.”
By her second year, Keenan was settling in and improving. The expansive épaulement and port de bras that seemed to come naturally to her Russian classmates began to feel familiar. She also found a champion and confidant in Udalenkova. “She kind of became a mother to me,” Keenan says. “She took me under her wing.”
Keenan hoped to join the Maryinsky Ballet, and with her success in school, a contract seemed likely. But as graduation approached, her teachers began signaling that there might be challenges. She heard murmurs of visa issues (Keenan says it’s a complicated process for the company to hire foreigners) and concerns about the mental strain of being the Maryinsky’s lone American. Udalenkova encouraged her to join a company where she’d have more opportunities to dance right away. Keenan quickly began making alternate plans. During her second year abroad, she had taken a company class with Boston Ballet on a trip home. They had offered her a contract. June 4, the very day she auditioned for the Maryinsky, was the day she had to give Boston an answer. She accepted.
Keenan was heartbroken to leave Russia and overwhelmed by the artistic freedom offered in Boston—but in time, she grew to appreciate life in her new city. “It’s really something special to see the way the dancers here pick up choreography and mold themselves to each style,” she says. “It opened up my eyes to American ballet.”
She also realized that, as a company member, she had to take charge of her technique. “Ultimately, it comes down to me and how I work,” Keenan says. “A teacher gives you an exercise, and you can sweat bullets or you can do it halfway.”
Ponomarenko says that meticulous technique lives inside Keenan. “Her Russian training is just a small part of a puzzle,” Ponomarenko says. “She’ll never lose it. She just needs an opportunity to show it.”
One opportunity came last summer, when Keenan was invited to perform at a gala in Indianapolis, IN. The organizers let her choose her partner and she requested Alexey Popov, her former partner at the Academy. They agreed and she flew to Russia to rehearse with him. On her final day there, Gennady Selyutski, the same ballet master who first spotted Keenan, took notice once again. He asked Keenan if she had a variation she could show him. He asked her if she could do 32 fouettés. “Oh, my gosh,” Keenan remembers thinking. “He’s auditioning me.” Then Selyutski brought in Yuri Fateyev, the Maryinsky Ballet’s director, who asked her to demonstrate a slew of steps: tendus, 16 double pirouettes and fouettés (again!). She also danced a section of Kitri’s variation from Don Quixote. Then the director left without saying a word and Selyutski told Keenan to see Fateyev in his office. They talked for a while and then Fateyev offered her a contract. But Keenan was already committed to Boston Ballet for the 2011–12 season.
Now, Keenan will be dancing with Boston Ballet through May, and then she’s heading back to Russia, where she’ll be the first American to join the Maryinsky. But wherever she ends up in the future—either abroad or back in the U.S.—Keenan has the potential to touch audiences. “I’ve detected the depth of an artist that is not developed yet, and I believe that will be the most interesting part of Keenan,” Ponomarenko says. “She gave me small glimpses of that artistry. It was like a pulsing star.”
Keenan in Boston Ballet's Arabian costume from The Nutcracker. By Gene Schiavone
Birthday: February 3, 1989
Favorite ballets: Scheherazade, Spartacus, Romeo and Juliet
Dream roles: Juliet and Cinderella
Dance idols: Sylvie Guillem, Altynai Asylmuratova, Svetlana Zakharova
Favorite foods: Carrot juice and oatmeal raisin cookies. “I’m a health fanatic and a vegetarian.”
Perfect day off: “Hanging out with my three sisters, who are my best friends, walking a lot and going to a concert.”
Secret talent: Keenan designs T-shirts for her friends featuring Russian Matryoshka, or nesting, dolls. She paints each doll with an accessory, like headphones, to match her friends’ interests.
Most-played on her iPod: “My two favorite go-to groups are Dr. Dog and The Morning Benders. Right now I’m listening to a lot of The Smiths, Bright Eyes and The Shins. I listen to music a lot.”
Day job: When she’s not too busy, Keenan works at American Apparel. “Last year, when I first got to Boston, I was shopping and the employees came up to me and asked, ‘Hey, do you want to work here?’ They took a Polaroid and then I was on the schedule. It’s been a nice outlet because it’s a different group of people—and I get 50 percent off.”
Always in her dance bag: Burt’s Bees mint lip balm