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)