More often than not, a dancer stumbles before she soars. Sarah Walborn breezed through her training years at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, spending summers at San Francisco Ballet School. After high school, she accepted SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s offer to become a trainee, and by her second year was hired as a company apprentice. “I had a phenomenal time,” she says. “I really felt a connection to the company.”
Then the bottom fell out. At the end of her apprenticeship, Walborn wasn’t taken into the corps. SFB hired no apprentices that year, but Walborn blamed herself.
“It was my first job,” Walborn, 22, says. “I didn’t have the confidence, so I held back.” With only a year to prove herself, she lost not only focus, but also technique. Walborn learned too late that dancing in a large company meant she was responsible for maintaining a top technical level without the watchful eyes of teachers.
She returned home to spend a year at CPYB rebuilding—both her technique and her confidence. That spring, Walborn hit the road, auditioning nearly every week, about 24 auditions in all. When artistic director Septime Webre expressed interest after a Washington Ballet audition, Walborn said “yes” without hesitation. She sensed that a small company of just 18 dancers might be a better fit for her.
“Despite her classical training, Sarah has an energy that I find very modern,” says Webre. “There’s something fresh about her—she’s a contemporary ballerina, but she can still handle the classics.”
Webre offered Walborn a studio company contract. She took it, relying on her parents and a summer job to pay expenses (studio company dancers only receive a stipend for rehearsals and performances). The experience gave her time to get to know the main company: She took their morning classes and joined them in large ballets like The Nutcracker and Le Corsaire, sometimes dancing second-cast soloist parts or understudying lead roles.
Since her upgrade to an apprentice position at the beginning of this season, she says her job hasn’t changed much, aside from the pay scale. Yet Walborn feels a greater sense of responsibility. “I have more expectations on me now,” she says. “Before I just wanted to get into the company. Now my goal is to live up to my peers and support them.”
She works alongside the company dancers, beginning with a 9:45 am technique class, then a rehearsal, a lunch break between 2 pm and 3 pm, and more rehearsals until 6 pm. So far, she’s danced in Don Quixote, a demi-soloist part in Webre’s Great Gatsby and in Karole Armitage’s premiere Brahms on Edge. She spends nights working on her online University of Phoenix math course. Some free weekends she drives to Pennsylvania for maintenance classes at CPYB.
“I look at this as another training year and a chance to show what I have,” Walborn says. Webre usually hires apprentices for two years and hopes
that those dancers will work well in the intimate family-like atmosphere so they can move into the company. Not every apprentice becomes a company member, but it remains the best doorway.
Still smarting from her experience in San Francisco, Walborn is thankful to have an extra apprentice year to find her footing. “I want to be in a place that’s going to challenge me, but what matters most is how I feel about my dancing,” Walborn says. “For so many years, I was worried about what other people thought. Now I know that if my dancing has flow, effort, feeling and a reason behind it, it’s going to look good.”