Five ballet dancers share the moments that catapulted them to stardom
My own big break came when I was a corps member with San Francisco Ballet and Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson cast me as the Sylph in La Sylphide. I was scheduled for one performance only—one chance to live up to expectations and fulfill my dream of headlining a story ballet.
I was well coached and spent hours working by myself in the studio. The performance, though, was a blur—I lost myself in the role and barely remember floating from scene to scene. But my hard work paid off! I was promoted to soloist and then to principal a few years later. Without a doubt, that night was a turning point in my career.
One opportunity like this can change a dancer’s entire trajectory. A single class, rehearsal or performance can be the right exposure at the right time and put you on the fast track for success. DS talked to five ballet dancers from around the country to learn about their big breaks. Their responses prove that when your moment presents itself, you’ve got to seize it!
Dancer: Dana Genshaft
Company: San Francisco Ballet
Date of Big Break: March 30, 2006
Role: A part in William Forsythe’s Artifact Suite
Scenario: Corps member gets the chance to work with one of the greats.
The Process: “Bill brought ‘fierce joy’ out of us,” Dana says of working with Forsythe. “That is how he wanted us to dance. I felt like I had broken out of a shell. I vowed to take that inspiration with me into the future.”
One day Forsythe “pointed out that I had to lead with my elbow to get my leg up in arabesque. It worked. Later he called to me and said something like, ‘When you were going over the steps in the back, you looked like you knew something. Keep doing that.’ To have someone notice you like that is incredible!”
The Verdict: Ballet Master Ricardo Bustamante says of Dana’s recent promotion to soloist, “Her repertoire is so extensive and you can always count on her. Basically every choreographer that comes to our company wants to have Dana in his or her ballet.”
Looking Back: Dana insists that there was not one specific breakthrough moment. “Some of the biggest changes are the ones that no one sees,” she says. “Those are the ones that people just sort of notice months down the line and wonder what happened.”
Dancer: Katharine Precourt
Company: Houston Ballet
Date of Big Break: September 22, 2007
Role: Lead in William Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated…
Scenario: Principal dancer is sidelined with an injury. Corps member gets the chance to shine.
The Details: “Artistic director Stanton Welch came up to me the night before the dress rehearsal and said that I would get to do it. It would be a test to see if I could step up and do the part” in performance, recalls Katharine, who was originally just an understudy. “That night was the first time I did the pas de deux full out. He told me the next morning that I’d be doing the show!”
The Pressure: “It was all so last minute,” says Katharine. “But I had watched the video so many times that I felt prepared.” Plus Katharine had written all of the steps and counts down to keep track! Katharine was also thrown into JirË‡i Kylián’s Petite Mort on the same program, demonstrating her versatility and readiness to take on principal roles.
The Verdict: “Wow!” exclaims Welch. “I certainly think that a big achievement for her this year personally was with In the middle, somewhat elevated… She did extremely well. She remained calm; she walked onstage and she delivered.”
Looking Back: Enjoying her recent promotion to demi-soloist, Katharine reflects: “Getting the opportunity to dance these ballets has been one of my career goals,” she says. “I prepared as best as I could. I was just living in the moment.”
Dancer: James Moore
Company: Pacific Northwest Ballet
Date of Big Break: November 3, 2005
Role: Mopey, a 13-minute solo by Marco Goecke
Scenario: Artistic Director takes a chance and casts young dancer in major role.
Why Him? “James struck me as an untapped talent brimming with energy and excitement,” says Peter Boal, artistic director of PNB. “Mopey seemed to fit him perfectly.”
The Process: “Sean Suozzi [soloist with New York City Ballet], who staged Mopey, was a friend of mine from The School of American Ballet,” James says. “The piece was choreographed on him, so it was cool to learn it from him. I got nervous when he started teaching us the choreography because it’s a modern ballet with seemingly random steps, so it was hard to keep up.”
The Verdict: “James took the opportunity and ran with it,” Boal says. “It’s made him somewhat of a star at PNB and earned him many more opportunities, all of which he has triumphed in.”
Looking Back: “Before I was just the new corps guy,” James admits. “But now even people on the street stop me. What was even cooler were the letters we got from the audience. I got a letter from a 75-year-old man who wrote in to say how moved he was by the performance. It was great to know that someone appreciated your work.”
Dancer: Gabriella Yudenich
Company: Pennsylvania Ballet
Date of Big Break: February 2, 2007
Role: Myrtha in Giselle
Scenario: Dancer scheduled to perform gets injured and corps member is bumped up to first cast.
Why her? “Watching her in class, she had a natural carriage that lent itself to the role,” says Roy Kaiser, artistic director of PB. “Even the way she would stand would exude authority. I felt like the role wouldn’t be a stretch for her.”
The Pressure: “When I found out I’d be doing opening night, I was petrified!” she says. “I’d wake up in the middle of the night with butterflies in my stomach and in a panic that I’d fall over on the very first promenade.”
The Verdict: “When the reviews came out, I was shocked, flattered and kind of embarrassed,” Gabriella says. “They were very nice! I wasn’t supposed to have that opportunity. It was very special, and I had to take it and dance to the best of my ability.”
Looking Back: Now a soloist, Gabriella reflects on her big break: “I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is my first serious role ever. Now’s the time I have to shine.’ I went into it feeling like I had to do well for my career, but I also wanted to have fun and feel the music.”
Dancer: Kathleen Breen Combes
Company: Boston Ballet
Date of Big Break: May 13, 2006
Role: The title role in Jorma Elo’s Carmen
Scenario: Principal dancer gets injured. Young soloist steps up.
The Details: “It was my first full-length ballet,” Kathleen says. “As a principal carrying a ballet you have to portray so much more detail and depth.”
Why Her? “She has proven herself as extremely reliable and a spirited, dynamic performer,” says Mikko Nissinen, artistic director of BB. “She has versatility and a uniqueness that truly stands out.”
The Verdict: Kathleen’s spirited performance earned critical praise and more principal roles for the following season.
Looking Back: “It was a huge opportunity,” Kathleen says. “No one cares if you’ve been rehearsed or not; you have to make it work one way or another. Jorma is an incredible person to work with—he trusts you completely. To have him say ‘Don’t worry’ made it much easier because I didn’t feel like I had something to prove to him. But it was one of those things that I wish I had enjoyed more. You hope that you’ll have that opportunity again, but you don’t know when it will arrive.”
Photo: Erik Tomasson