Ballet's Middle Child

May 31, 2014

Pennsylvania Ballet’s Evelyn Kocak, who spent seven years in the corps de ballets of several companies, was ecstatic when she was finally promoted to soloist. But once in the role, she found it difficult to understand how she fit into the company’s dynamic. She struggled between missing the camaraderie of the corps de ballet and working toward her next promotion. “You’re not the new, fresh thing anymore that everyone’s looking at, but you’re not just skyrocketing to principal,” says Kocak, who calls the position the “middle child of ballet.” “You have to find a way to remind everyone that you’re there, that you’re talented.”

Kocak is not alone in finding the soloist rank a confusing middle ground: The promotion puts soloists a step above most members of the company, yet they don’t have the authority of principal artists. Their schedules shift between periods of heavy and light dancing, and they have little time to prepare for a lead role. These pressures can be mentally and physically exhausting.

Finding yourself alone in the spotlight with a larger responsibility for the success of a performance only heightens the stress. “If you’re out there with eight other guys, chances are someone’s looking at one of them. But when you’re featured, it’s easy to see every bobble,” says New York City Ballet soloist Craig Hall. And when dancing principal parts, soloists are often only given one chance to perform, making every moment onstage count toward proving to the artistic director, audience and critics that the promotion was well deserved.

SFB’s Jennifer Stahl in Yuri Possokhov’s The Rite of Spring (photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy SFB)

Juggling Corps and Principal Parts

Although the size and structure of a company dictate how roles are divided, soloists take on a range of work. Kocak once danced in the corps of George Balanchine’s
Stravinsky Violin Concerto
while learning the lead for another cast. Corps rehearsals often coincided with, and took precedence over, principal rehearsals, leaving her with little coaching. “Trying to watch both spots at the same time and learn all the counts—that’s a challenge,” she says. She found that watching a video of the ballet to learn the parts before rehearsals began maximized coaching time. Looking to senior dancers also can help, too: Principals are often flattered to offer firsthand experience in mastering a tricky step or learning where to breathe during a strenuous variation.

Usually, though, soloists must adjust to a much lighter performance schedule compared to their corps days, as featured roles are few and far between and parts are often given based on seniority. The change from dancing every night to understudying or dancing once in a third cast is startling—sometimes even depressing. Kocak uses quiet periods to push her technique and artistry with extra classes, outside rehearsals and guesting gigs.

These dramatic shifts in work also can take a toll on the body. A recent tear in his Achilles tendon forced Hall to evaluate his routine. He now prioritizes cross-training like yoga, Gyrotonic and gym workouts.

Becoming an Artist

On the plus side, soloist is the rank where dancers often develop the most, rehearsing closely with coaches and senior dancers. San Francisco Ballet’s Jennifer Stahl loves the personal interactions she now has with ballet masters. “Betsy Erickson was very helpful when I was preparing to dance Myrtha in
, because she’d danced the role many times in her own career,” she says. “There was a lot of one-on-one time where she addressed my strengths and weaknesses and encouraged me, so I could really take charge of the role.”

Dancing principal roles often means partnering with principal dancers. Hall was cast in Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain with Wendy Whelan shortly after his promotion. Partnering such an iconic, established ballerina in a major work—and trying to match her level of dancing—terrified him. “I was so nervous I thought I would pass out,” he says. Having danced it many times before, Whelan helped him become more grounded through his feet and breathe into the movement. She also reminded him that their ages and ranks didn’t matter. “She let me know that we were in this together,” he says. “It helped my confidence in a big way.”

Hall adds that these experiences are humbling, and fuel him to work harder to become a better dancer. Right now, though, he’s finally learning to enjoy his time as a soloist. “You can’t get too frustrated with something—or too full in your head—because as easily as you have something, it can be taken away,” he says. “Every time I get onstage I’m thankful and try to live in that moment.”