American Ballet Theatre’s Catherine Hurlin and Aran Bell Are on the Fast Track Towards Stardom

December 20, 2019

This is Pointe‘s Winter 2020 cover story. You can click here to purchase this issue.

“They’re breaking all my theories about not pushing dancers too soon,” Kevin McKenzie, the usually cautious artistic director of American Ballet Theatre, said recently in his office near Union Square. He was referring to recently promoted soloists Catherine Hurlin and Aran Bell, 24 and 21, respectively. And he’s not kidding. Hurlin and Bell are on the fast track, with role after role coming their way.

Bell, whom many remember as the funny and self-possessed 11-year-old in the ballet documentary First Position, had his debut in Romeo and Juliet in 2018 while still a corps member, followed by Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty the next year. Catherine Hurlin has been a shooting star since her student days at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, when she was chosen to dance the role of Clara in Alexei Ratmansky’s new Nutcracker. Once in the company, she acquired the nickname “Hurricane,” a moniker that becomes self-explanatory when you see her tear across the stage. Both have rock-solid technique and an enviable facility. But their most impressive quality at the moment is how nothing seems to faze them. “They’ve displayed the ability to develop artistically, with the sensibility of someone with more experience,” reflects McKenzie.

Bell and Hurlin pose against a light grey background dressed in red and gold Don Quixote costumes.
Aran Bell and Catherine Hurlin

Jayme Thornton

There’s something very exciting about watching two dancers blossom before your eyes, especially at once. Recently, they’ve begun to be cast together, first in Jessica Lang’s Garden Blue in fall 2018. Then came Ratmansky’s The Seasons, where Hurlin danced the role of Hail to Bell’s Winter, followed by Twyla Tharp’s A Gathering of Ghosts and Lang’s Let Me Sing Forevermore, both of which were performed in the fall season. Lang had created Let Me Sing for the Erik Bruhn competition, where the pair competed together in March. (Hurlin was awarded the women’s prize.) It was around then that they also started dating. “Combined,” says Lang of their dynamic in the studio and onstage, “they balance each other. He grounds her, she lightens him. And there’s a real connection.”Lang’s jazzy pas de deux, set to Tony Bennett’s rendition of “Fly Me to the Moon,” seemed to capture them perfectly at this point in their careers: two amazingly talented, young American dancers, ready to take on the world. In March, they will star together in Ratmansky’s newest evening-length, Of Love and Rage.

Aran Bell

Bell is an imposing young man: tall, broad-shouldered, quiet, comfortable in his skin. In rehearsal and in conversation, he comes across as serious, though Hurlin, a firecracker, can easily get him to crack a smile. On the index finger of his right hand, he wears a silver skull ring. “It’s called a ‘revenant,’ which is a person who comes back from the dead,” he tells me, “and I’ve been called an old soul my whole life.” In rehearsals he doesn’t talk much, but you can see him watching the proceedings, breaking down the choreography, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Making his role debut as Romeo, at age 19, “was pretty stressful,” he admits, but he didn’t allow that stress to tie him in knots. Instead, he prepared. “I go home and study videos of the roles I have to do. I don’t think about anything else really,” he says. ABT’s Devon Teuscher, a principal who was his partner in Romeo and Juliet, remembers how steady he was from the first day of rehearsals. “He knew the role. It was shocking how easy and natural the process was.”

Bell and Hurlin in right unitards against a structural backdrop onstage.

Bell and Hurlin in Jessica Lang’s Garden Blue

Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy ABT

This kind of focus is innate but was deepened by his unusual upbringing. His dad, Ryan, was a Navy doctor (and still practices as a civilian). The family moved around, from Washington, DC, to Washington State, and back to DC before decamping for Naples, Italy, for four and a half years, followed by upstate New York and Greenwich, Connecticut. He was homeschooled, and privately trained by a series of ballet teachers, each an exponent of a different style.

Like a lot of men, he got into ballet by tagging along to his sister’s lessons. As a boy of 4 in Washington, he started training with Michiko Schulbach, who followed the Vaganova syllabus. At the school, he says, “there was no baby ballet. I stood at the barre with the older kids, and when she said ‘tendu‘ you tendued.” But ballet appealed to his focused, disciplined nature. Then, for three years, he went to the Balanchine-influenced Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. In Italy, he and his mother, Michelle, commuted two hours each way to Rome, six days a week, to work with the teacher Denys Ganio. All of his teachers have been demanding. “I like blunt people,” he says.

Aran Bell poses against a light grey background. He's wearing white tights and shoes and a gold and Don Quixote jacket.
Aran Bell

Jayme Thornton

Ganio, in particular, was a huge influence. Trained at the Paris Opéra and a longtime star of the Roland Petit company, he was a hard-driving but loving teacher with an enormous personality. “I was doing triple tours when I was 11,” says Bell. “They were terrible, but over time you grow that coordination.” Ganio also taught his young pupil variations outside the usual classical canon, including highly theatrical solos by Petit. “He brought out the craziness in me,” says Bell, something he felt he needed. After that there were stints with the Cuban dancer Magaly Suarez in Florida and Fabrice Herrault in New York. International competitions, including Youth America Grand Prix, helped him gain more performance experience.

At just shy of 16, he was taken into ABT Studio Company, at the time directed by Kate Lydon. It was only then that Bell, who was still on the smaller side and slight, began to grow to his current height of 6′ 3″. And, more importantly, where he really learned to partner. Going through a huge growth spurt made things more difficult, but also focused his efforts. “I had a moment of realization when they asked me to do a very simple lift with the lightest girl in the room and it just didn’t happen,” he explains. “I had that panic—’I need to do something about this, fast.’ ” He started to work out assiduously at the gym, bulked up and figured it out. As a result, at 21 he is already considered one of the most dependable partners in the company.

It has all happened very fast. “He was this darling child who turned into this man in a matter of moments,” Lang says almost wistfully. “It’s quite staggering.”

Catherine Hurlin

High expectations have been placed on Catherine Hurlin since she was a kid. Her mother, the former Paul Taylor dancer Denise Roberts Hurlin, once told The New York Times that she intuited that her daughter would become a dancer right from the start, when she “stretched out on the changing table and pointed her feet.” Dancing does seem to come naturally to her. She’s limber, quick and tireless, seemingly able to do anything. “What’s special about Catherine is that she’s fearless,” the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky recently said of her. “She has this instinctive way of doing things excitingly.” One minute she’s sitting on the floor watching another dancer rehearse a section of choreography, the next she gets up and does it herself, without breaking a sweat.

Catherine Hurlin flies through the air in a grand jetu00e9 wearing a brown and yellow peasant costume. A group of dancers dressed as peasants sit on the ground behind her.

Hurlin dancing the peasant pas de deux in Giselle

Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy ABT

Like Bell, she started dance early, at 5. She spent four years at Westchester Dance Academy, a competition studio, where she learned a mix of jazz, tap and lyrical dance, and a little ballet. (That jazz training has come in handy in Jessica Lang’s Let Me Sing Forevermore and Twyla Tharp’s ballets, particularly Deuce Coupe.) At 11, Hurlin competed in YAGP (Bell, then 9, was there too) and received a scholarship to the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. Franco De Vita, then the school’s director, has vivid memories of this high-energy little girl with bright red hair whose big personality seemed to light up the room. “She was always a ham,” he says, “but she knew how to rein it in. She made the right choices, always. And she had confidence.”

That confidence comes with something you can’t really teach: an instinct for acting, and particularly for comedy. Ratmansky, who had already spotted her at the school when he was creating his Nutcracker, later chose her to play Mademoiselle Marianne Chartreuse in his Whipped Cream, a character who dances a vaudeville-like trio while wearing a bottle-shaped foam costume. With deadpan, dopey charm, she turned the character into one of the highlights of the ballet. But she can also be dramatic, as she proved earlier this year in the one-act drama On the Dnieper, where she dances the role of a young woman forced to marry a man she doesn’t love. She approaches humor and drama with the same directness. “When I’m out there onstage, I’m just in it,” she says. “I’m not really thinking. I’ve had that stage amnesia where you go offstage and you say, ‘What just happened? Did I do the right choreography?’ ”

Catherine Hurlin poses with a red fan against a light grey background. She's wearing a red and gold Don Quixote tutu and pointe shoes.
Catherine Hurlin

Jayme Thornton

So far, her spontaneity, and the trust she has in her abilities, seems to shield her from the timidity and hand-wringing one often sees in young dancers—particularly young women—who often struggle with the implicit message that they are just one of many. She’s not consumed by the thought that she might not get this or that role. “There’s more to life than ballet!” she exclaims. (So, then, what do you do to relax?, I asked her “We sit on the couch and watch TV!” she answered with a laugh.) And yet, despite her breezy affect, she puts in the work, and the proof is in the results: She gets visibly stronger, and more impressive, with each passing season. At the same time, she has not lost the sense that dancing should also be fun. “I think my personality is very active and playful and free,” she says, “and I think dance has allowed me to be that person.” This is what Bell admires most about her: the freedom she experiences when she dances.

One day, she says, she’d like to perform dramatic roles like Giselle and Manon and Juliet. She’s also drawn to Odette/Odile, though, she admits, “the dramatic parts attract me more than the technical side that you need in order to be a swan.” Is she ready to dig into her gut? “I don’t know if I’m ready or not, but I still wanna do it!”