Ballerina 2019

What will it take to command the stage a decade from today?
Published in the June/July 2009 issue.

Swans, pluck those feathers! Wilis, stow those veils! Dancers everywhere, update those personal websites! Embrace every challenge the dance world throws your way and look for a few more—your future may depend on it.


Such is the consensus of the distinguished array of dancers, company directors and teachers Pointe asked about the prospects for the ballerina in today’s highly competitive and information-saturated dance world. How is the pathway to success different from what it was a generation ago? What does it take to be a ballerina in the 21st century?


First, let’s define our terms. Nobody does that better than Ontario-born Karen Kain, who joined The National Ballet of Canada in 1969, rapidly advanced to principal dancer, retired from the stage with laurels in 1997, and eight years later, became NBC’s artistic director.


“Some people think anyone who puts on a pointe shoe is a ballerina,” says Kain. “But when I use the term, I’m thinking of someone who has extraordinary individuality, a hugely refined and articulate body, humility, musicality, the strength and stamina of a major athlete, and the histrionic ability of a major actor. On top of that, a ballerina needs an attribute that is more difficult to describe. It’s a commitment and passion for the artform, a capacity to work harder than most human beings, the concentration to put aside other things.”


Kain considers the demands made upon her own company typical of the global ballet scene. “Today, technique and stamina are pushed to the limits. It’s all much more demanding than it was for me. We only have the budget for five principal women. So the really useful ballerinas in the 21st century will be more than great Giselles. They are here to dance a variety of different works.”


In some respects, Kain might be describing New York City Ballet’s much lauded principal Wendy Whelan, who, in her 25 years with the company, has gradually augmented her core Balanchine/Robbins repertoire. Her prescription for ballerina stardom?


“I think today that you’ve got to be open to all the languages thrown at you by newer choreographers,” says Whelan. Her resumé now includes dances by Forsythe, Ratmansky, Dove, Tharp and Wheeldon. “Their work isn’t necessarily ballet-based, but they want you to come up with a new way of doing a modern step in pointe shoes. We don’t even have a word for these steps; because they’re not in a book, you must do the exploring.


“I recall that when we were rehearsing Russian Seasons, Ratmansky told me not to be afraid to be melodramatic,” Whelan continues. “I didn’t do that sort of thing, so he really challenged me. It makes you trust your creativity a bit more; self-knowledge always adds to the ballets we know.”


Diversity is also the key to the success of the Kirov Ballet’s bewitching Diana Vishneva. Few ballerinas have evolved from their training as much as this illustrious graduate of the Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg.


“Of course, Vaganova was great,” Vishneva says. “But the Western school has been more important in forming my career. I wouldn’t be where I am now without it. Still, I will never forget my roots in Russia.” Which may explain why she dispatches Kitri with the same flair with which she delivers Balanchine’s “Rubies” or a creation by Momix artistic director Moses Pendleton.


Vishneva is a child of the electronic age. She maintains a website (www.dianavishneva.ru) and operates a chat room in which she “always” responds to her admirers’ questions. You can catch many of Vishneva’s performances online and she notes that they inspire fans to buy tickets for her theatrical appearances.


Drew Jacoby’s history differs significantly from Vishneva’s. Her elongated line and charisma first attracted attention in Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet. She now dances with Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company, and is currently guesting with the Dutch National Ballet. She offers some refreshing insights on the contemporary ballerina.


“What a great dancer needs now is zero insecurity,” Jacoby says. “Those I enjoy watching make you believe them because they are not afraid. They convince you that what they are doing is important. They embody coolness,” she says, and some would find it an apt description of her own style. “I don’t mean cocky virtuosity,” she adds, “I just mean being comfortable in your own skin. I guess what is really required is intelligence and character—on top of the obvious technical facility. Today’s ballerina needs a grasp of the weight of the art.”


There is art, and then, there is art. Ashley Wheater, the artistic director of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet since 2007, measures greatness in a ballerina by the artistic standards propounded by his company’s founder. “When Robert Joffrey started it all, he wanted really strong, well-trained, fully committed women. His legacy is worth keeping alive. These are the dancers who will go to the end of their profession to find out what it means to immerse yourself in a role. It’s an American aesthetic for an American company.”


Veteran teacher David Howard takes a different view, finding the studied eclecticism of most repertoires and the anonymity of technically superior dancing are factors hindering distinction. He can’t resist reminiscing about his era at The Royal Ballet, when giants like Margot Fonteyn bouréed across the boards. He recalls the Bolshoi’s brilliant, rebellious Maya Plisetskaya, who fought against the conventions of the Soviet system. He cites France’s unclassifiable and uncompromising Sylvie Guillem. He charges artistic directors with finding their heirs.


“We will have ballerinas if dancers like this come along and companies notice them,” says Howard. “Because they’re a headache, companies don’t promote them, but they should. A great and distinctive ballerina like Maya Plisetskaya had a different kind of energy; she would be fired today.


“But,” Howard continues, “dancers are still inspired and still get out there and try their very best. And through them, the artform will change. In a way, I’m optimistic.”

Allan Ulrich is chief critic for voiceofdance.com, and contributes to a variety of American and international publications.