I remember feeling thrilled but anxious when I signed my first-year corps contract with San Francisco Ballet. My mind raced: What does it mean to be professional? What do I need to do to succeed in a company environment? Like the other new members, I was out of school and therefore out of my comfort zone.
Luckily for me, this feeling didn’t last very long. I soon gained confidence and set out to carve my own path—thanks to a few principal dancers who unknowingly showed me the way.
“Watch Muriel Maffre,” Helgi Tomasson told me. “Learn from her.” Little did he know that I had already been studying the French ballerina, and not just for her exquisite artistry. I noticed how she maintained her focus while other dancers created drama. I saw that she was respectful of everyone: guest choreographers, dressers at the theater, first-year apprentices. She never shouted into her cell phone in the lounge, broadcasting her personal life for all to hear. Even when I became a principal and moved into her dressing room, Muriel treated me not as the junior dancer I was but as an equal. To me, she was the epitome of professional.
Unfortunately, not all ballerinas behave like Muriel. My strict definition of a “ballerina” has everything to do with artistic quality and nothing to do with personal character. Some phenomenal dancers are arrogant divas, while others who are equally talented manage to remain unassuming and down to earth. Dancers in both catergories are “ballerinas,” but my role models have always been the latter.
Muriel’s behavior taught me the importance of steering clear of messy company politics—a lesson that I would soon put to good use. When I was 18, having just returned from a yearlong hiatus during which I nursed three stress fractures, I was chosen to learn the lead in Balanchine’s Bugaku. It was a kind gesture on Helgi’s part, a move I knew was intended to help motivate me. But I was an unpopular choice in the eyes of many company members, and I felt their disapproval. Thinking of what Muriel would do, I was determined to ignore their negativity and concentrate on my work, because I wanted to make the most of this opportunity. Maintaining a positive attitude is always easier said than done, however, so it helped that I had Muriel’s example to follow. She was first cast for Bugaku, and I had the benefit of studying her thoughtful approach in our intimate rehearsals. That experience was my first step towards defining my own idea of what is appropriate in the studio and figuring out how I could not only survive but thrive in a company environment.
Other senior company members helped me learn the value of a sense of humor. Former SFB principals Joanna Berman and Julia Adam were not only incredible artists but also the company comedians. Always laughing—whether it was about a “Seinfeld” episode, an onstage mishap or a random quip—they kept the mood light in the studio, and I loved being around them. Humor, they taught me, eases tension and creates a less inhibited work environment, turning awkward moments into potential jokes and keeping things in perspective. And it doesn’t preclude serious artistic work, either. Anyone who has been in rehearsal with Mark Morris knows that it’s impossible to keep a straight face, yet he commands respect and inspires hard work. (It’s no surprise that Joanna and Julia were two of his favorite dancers to use at SFB.) I also noticed that choreographers like Morris are attracted not only to talent but also to dancers who exude passionate, fun-loving creative energy.
You’re probably thinking, “Sure, but being funny, courteous and kind won’t get you more performances of Odette/Odile.” That’s true. I’ve seen people—usually exceptional dancers who can afford it—backstab and throw tantrums and still get the opening nights. But I’ve found that they’re often unhappy. And since companies are ultimately businesses, unprofessional behavior can affect the longevity of a dancer’s career.
Taking the high road does not guarantee professional success. But people notice when you make the right choices. I watched the way my role models behaved, and thanks to their influence, I’m laughing every day and staying positive in the face of frustration. It may not always be easy, but it’s worth it.
My Ballerina Ideal
Four dancers on their professional role models
Julie Kent, principal, American Ballet Theatre: “When I was a student dancing as a super with the New York City Ballet, Patricia McBride was so patient and welcoming with me and the other young girls. Now I try to be the same way after performances. There are children and young performers who have invested so much time watching, so I give them the courtesy of a few minutes of my time.”
Christine Shevchenko, corps de ballet, ABT: “I admire Julie Kent, because she’s consistently polite and very caring, especially with fans. She’ll always wait and sign autographs and take pictures.”
Martha Chamberlain, principal, Pennsylvania Ballet: “When I first joined the company, I was struck by the way Leslie Carothers kept the atmosphere very light in the studio. It relieved some of the everyday pressures of being a ballet dancer. She taught me that in this career, no one will die if you make a mistake, so relax a little.”
Vanessa Zahorian, principal, San Francisco Ballet: “I admired the way Muriel Maffre managed to steer clear of backstage cattiness. She never showed a competitive streak, and she would never talk about other people or gossip.”