What's Missing from Pre-Professional Training?
By Laura Cappelle and Joseph Carman
This January, artistic directors from around the world came together at a DanceEast retreat in Ipswich, UK, and asked, What are today’s ballet students missing? Pointe followed up with four to get their views. The group found many holes—from a need for more professionalism to a lack of articulate pointework.
Mikko Nissinen, Boston Ballet
While schools are saying they’re doing a really good job, I personally find that students underestimate what the professional level actually is, the expectation and the intensity. Graduates from the major schools have a basic education. But they don’t have stage experience and they haven’t performed the variety of styles done today.
It takes three steps to be a professional: You have to learn how to dance, how to perform and how to deal with injuries. Apprenticeship programs and second companies are essential so that dancers can hone those skills. I rarely hire someone directly from a school. Students all think they understand the reality of company life, but they don’t. For example, sometimes new dancers think they’re working really hard, and they tell me they’re working really hard, but then a year later they say, “Oh, my god, I didn’t realize how much I had to put into it.”
I’ve also seen that new dancers are often prone to stress fractures. It’s because they aren’t used to working so many hours a day with that impact. If they have alignment issues, like standing too far back, the natural energy line exits out the shin versus going through the whole leg, and the bone gets hammered. You do that enough and, guess what, the bone starts to crack.
Overall, today’s dancers are generally well-trained, clean and capable of adapting to a wide range of styles. But we have to remember theatricality. Pas de deux work is also an area where I want dancers to be stronger. I think students start that quite late. And I would encourage everybody to be a self-studied dance historian—where we are now makes so much more sense when you know where we came from.
Ted Brandsen, Dutch National Ballet
Increasingly, we tend to train very technically capable dancers, but not all-around artists. Virtuosity has become a cause in itself, and while we all love to have dancers who can do anything, not everybody can dance Kitri. Dancers often lack experience with corps work and partnering. It’s very important to learn how to dance together.
The boys are stronger than the girls at the moment. Pointework is not always crisp enough. Some dancers can do tricks but not necessarily a good, beautiful rond de jambe in their shoes. There’s a lack of articulation.
For new dancers, company class can be a shock: Top-level student classes tend to be very complex and difficult, whereas in company class, the basic material is simpler but the pace is much faster. When dancers are used to being at the top of their group, they can lose momentum and have trouble adjusting to being in the corps.
Schools also need to prepare dancers to be open to all professional possibilities: There is sometimes too much focus on getting into the company affiliated with your school. There are so many other options today. You need to be aware of what else is going on in the world.
Reid Anderson, Stuttgart Ballet
Two-thirds of our dancers now come from the John Cranko School, where we emphasize a commitment to ballet from the heart. Students have to be taught that they’re artists, not machines. Competitions mean absolutely nothing to me: Technique is a means to the end, not the end.
The main issue we see with students from elsewhere is placement. They have talent but not necessarily knowledge. Sometimes they have just been taught the steps but not how to do them, how to get their leg up properly. We have to rebuild, with a focus even just on barrework, which has to be done brilliantly, with musicality and the ability to vary the speed.
Solid partnering in particular is a must for our repertoire. Modern training is also key. But students don’t necessarily need Graham or Limón technique classes; they just have to perform modern choreography. I don’t feel acting classes are necessary, either. With Cranko, we were never told that we were acting—it was simply part of the steps from the start, not something we added onto them. Either you can act or you can’t, but I don’t think it can be taught.
Nikolaj Hübbe, Royal Danish Ballet
I believe major schools do produce dancers who are ready to work in big companies. If anything is missing, it’s usually personality, character, the ability to color the movement. Drama and music are essential, and the more art in general young people are exposed to, the more they bring to the table. In Copenhagen, the students really grow up onstage—they’re in so many ballets, and it means they’re quite comfortable performing, creating a character.
I think speed in pointework is necessary in today’s world, and when I arrived, we worked together with the Royal Danish Ballet School to add extra pointe classes. I wanted more articulation through the foot, more delicate yet stronger pointework, more virtuosity. Petipa and Balanchine variations are now included in the curriculum alongside Bournonville repertoire.
We also incorporated a lot more port de bras. The plasticity of the Russian back and arms is an incredible asset: It makes the dancer more expressive and musical. A more open chest isn’t contradictory with Bournonville, and for the oldest girls we recruited a Russian teacher, Eva Draw.
To toughen them up and teach them how to rehearse, the students now take part in a second company during the last years of training. We emphasize responsibility, as it’s essential in a career. I also like to have them use their creativity and fantasy. They need to have ballets choreographed on them, since it pushes them, awakens their theatricality.