The Technique Question: Should Ballet Students Train in One Style, or Many?
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
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.
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
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."
Parrish Maynard leading class during San Francisco Ballet School's Summer Session (Erik Tomasson, courtesy San Francisco Ballet School)
Misty Copeland. Her name is synonymous with exquisite artistry and outspoken advocacy. And her visibility has made a huge impact on the ballet world. Ballet's relationship with race has always been strained at best, hostile at worst. But Copeland's persistent message and star quality have finally forced the ballet industry to start talking about racial diversity, inclusivity, and representation. "The rarity of seeing ourselves represented is sad," Copeland says. "The more we see every hue and body shape represented on the stage, the more possibilities young dancers feel they have for themselves."
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Yesterday, the dance community was heartbroken to learn that Jaime Guttenberg and Cara Loughran, both 14-year-old dancers, were among the 17 people killed on Valentine's Day in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.
American Ballet Theatre principal Sarah Lane charms audiences with her bright energy and crisp technique. The San Francisco, CA, native first started dancing at age 4 at a local community center, and at age 7 started training in Memphis, TN, at the Classical Ballet Memphis. Her family later moved to Rochester, NY, where she continued studying at the Draper Center for Dance Education. In 2002, she was a YoungArts Foundation winner in dance, allowing her to become a U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts. She joined American Ballet Theatre as an apprentice in 2003, was made a soloist in 2007, and was promoted to principal last fall. Recently, she originated the role of Princess Praline in Alexei Ratmansky's Whipped Cream. Catch her later this spring during ABT's Metropolitan Opera season. —Courtney Bowers
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You know that thing when you're onstage at a competition and you catch your teacher unconsciously marking through every step of the choreography in the wings, just willing you and the rest of the group to dance perfectly?
Yeah—that happens in ice dancing, too. Case in point: the scene at the Olympic rink yesterday, as Canadian ice-dancing legends Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir skated their way to their third Olympic gold.
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Photo by Travis Kelley, courtesy Kathryn Morgan
In our "Dear Katie" series, former NYCB soloist Kathryn Morgan answers your pressing dance questions. Have something you want to ask Katie? Email email@example.com for a chance to be featured!
I want to dance in a ballet company, but I'm insecure about my body. I'm not skinny, and I don't think I ever will be, because that's just not the way I'm built. Please be honest with me: If I don't have the traditional ballet body, do I have a future in professional ballet?