Training Ground

July 29, 2010

In the Wings: Emily Kikta


Wearing a battered practice tutu, Emily Kikta unfurls her leg into a high, cantilevered développé that seems to stretch to the ceiling, then lands in a soft yet luxurious balancé. She’s in a rehearsal of Balanchine’s sweeping Valse Fantaisie for the School of American Ballet’s annual Student Workshop performance. “I really like to travel and bend,” 17-year-old Kikta says with a smile afterwards.

Kikta’s long physique is what initially attracted the attention of Kay Mazzo, SAB’s co-chairman of faculty. “When she takes an arabesque, her lines go on for­ever,” Mazzo says.


But Kikta, 5’10”, also has the talent to back up her facility. “She has attack and energy, and when you give her a correction, it’s hers: You don’t have to recorrect it the next day,” says Mazzo. “She moves very well for a girl of her height.” Kikta towers over most of her classmates and admits that she sometimes has trouble with jumps and moving quickly. But she looks up to other tall dancers like New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns. “She can do everything,” Kikta says.


Kikta began taking ballet in her hometown of Pittsburgh, and first attended SAB’s summer program at 13. At the end of her second summer, SAB asked her to stay, but she wasn’t ready to leave home. Kikta came back the next year, and eagerly accepted when the offer was renewed.


George Balanchine founded SAB in 1934, and it serves as the official school for NYCB. The training stresses the Balanchine aesthetic, emphasizing musicality, attack, precision and speed. To ensure strong pointework, girls are required to wear pointe shoes for technique class starting around age 15. “Mr. Balanchine wanted it to feel like wearing a pointe shoe was second nature,” explains Mazzo. “It works. The shoe and the foot become one.”


Kikta lives in SAB’s dormitory along with 64 other resident students. She starts her day with two academic classes at the nearby Professional Children’s School before ballet at 10:30. After lunch in SAB’s cafeteria, she returns to school for two more academic classes, then walks back to the studio for pointe, variations or adagio. She ends her day at SAB’s Pilates studio. When Workshop rehearsals start in the spring, guided study replaces her afternoon academics. Kikta ambitiously completed her junior and senior years together so she could graduate early.


“I wanted to be done with high school so I could start college, since it will take longer being a dancer,” she says. She will begin taking liberal arts classes at Fordham University part-time this fall.

Kikta dreams of dancing with NYCB. She maintains a calm, mature focus, and takes advantage of the free tickets SAB students receive to NYCB performances. “I love the Balanchine style,” she says, “but I also love how City Ballet mixes the Balanchine rep with contemporary, so you get everything. It would be so great to dance for them.”


So far, she seems right on track.


At a Glance: School of American Ballet

Founded: 1934 by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein

Artistic Director/Co-Chairman of Faculty: Peter Martins, Kay Mazzo

Technique Taught: Classical ballet with a Balanchine aesthetic

Number of Students: Winter term, 400; summer program, 200

Alumni: New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, The Royal Ballet, Miami City Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Paul Taylor Dance Company, among others

Focus: Training professional classical ballet dancers with a focus on the Balanchine aesthetic, which emphasizes musicality, energy, speed, careful attention to details and control.




Student Opportunities


Train With Gelsey

Young dancers looking for top-tier training now have a new option: the Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet in New York City. The former New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre star is opening a school for dancers ages 10 and up, and will teach extensively throughout all five levels.

“The focus will be on the art of storytelling and acting,” says Kirkland. “I want to give dancers skills other than just ballet.”


To realize this vision, she has enlisted not only distinguished ballet teachers such as David Howard and Irina Kolpakova, but also mime and movement coach Pilar Garcia, who prepared Kirkland herself for many roles. The Vaganova-based curriculum includes technique, pointe, repertoire and men’s classes, plus drama, stage combat, music, art, character and historic dance.  Kirkland also plans to develop a studio company for advanced students that will be supplemented with professional dancers.


The Academy offers flexible training options. Students can attend a full day of dance classes and complete academics online, through homeschool or in a school with a flexible schedule. Or they can take a lighter load of dance classes after school.


The inaugural summer course begins August 16, and the year-round program starts in September. See www.gelsey­ —Charlotte Stabenau



The Lausanne Launch Pad

As one of the most prestigious student ballet competitions, the Prix de Lausanne has introduced the world to such stellar ballerinas as Alessandra Ferri, Darcey Bussell, Julie Kent, Diana Vishneva and Alina Cojocaru, to name just a few. The competition is designed to help young dancers land a contract: Even those who don’t make the finals take an audition class for school and company directors. Apply by September 30 to be considered for the 2011 competition.


February 1–6

Lausanne, Switzerland

Once a year

Students ages 15­–18

75 euros

Jury members:
Last year’s panel included Royal Danish Ballet ballet master Frank Andersen, San Francisco Ballet School associate director Lola De Avila and Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy associate director Shelley Power, among others.

How it works:
Seventy-five participants are chosen through video applications. Once they arrive in Lausanne, competitors take daily ballet and contemporary classes and receive coaching on their variations. Scores are based on the dancers’ work in class and their performances onstage in one classical and one contemporary piece. Twenty candidates are selected for the finals.

What makes it unique:
The rules mandate that one-third of candidates selected for the semifinal and final rounds must come from private studios, as opposed to large training institutions. Also, eating habits and body mass index are scrutinized before the competition to ensure dancers’ health.

Three or four apprenticeships, three or four full scholarships, a contemporary prize and a “Best Swiss Candidate”.

Other benefits:
Almost 30 schools offer scholarships to train at their institution.


—Jennifer Stahl



Atlanta Ballet Goes Back To School

Last spring, Atlanta Ballet partnered with Kennesaw State University to help its dancers work towards a BA in dance and give KSU students a chance to perform with the company. Atlanta Ballet dancer John Welker just embarked on his second year as a KSU dance major.


How is this partnership helpful?

I can test out of all the dance technique classes, which covers a year’s worth of credits. And KSU lets us do most of the general ed courses online, which is great when the company’s in the theater.



Why major in dance?

I can choreograph on KSU dancers, and step away from Atlanta Ballet to find my own movement style and what I have to say choreographically.


How should dancers approach college?

Don’t do too much at once! And keep an open mind, especially when it’s something you wouldn’t do on your own, like taking a political science course. It’s a whole new way of thinking.


Find out more about this partnership on



TIP: How can you make the most of your training program?

“Always come to class with an open mind. Approach each teacher’s class differently and concentrate on what they have to offer. Listen to everyone’s corrections, and really think about the details presented. Be able to communicate with the faculty when you have questions or if you’re injured. And don’t go anywhere without a notebook!” —Sharon Dante, founder and executive director of The Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts