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Principal DancersDescribe the Progression of a Principal Dancer


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#1 Stecyk

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Posted 18 September 2011 - 04:08 PM

Last Thursday September 17, I attended Canada's National Ballet in Calgary, home of Alberta Ballet. The National Ballet is celebrating its 60th Anniversary by touring Canada.

We enjoyed four ballets: the second detail; Other Dances; The Man in Black; and Emergence, all of which were modern ballets. Everyone enjoyed the ballets as evidenced by the standing ovation at the end of the evening. For those interested in a review, please see Bob Clark's article in the Calgary Herald:

http://goo.gl/KTeY5

Anniversary ballet tour bookended brilliantly

Alberta Ballet presents the National Ballet of Canada's 60th Anniversary Tour, Emergence & Other Works, through today at the

Jubilee Auditorium. Ticket info: Albertaballet.com

Rating 4-1/2 out of a possible 5 (edited for clarity)

If it were a flight - which it was, imaginatively speaking - you'd be inclined to say the National Ballet of Canada 60th anniversary show unveiled on Thursday at the Jubilee took off strongly and landed beautifully.

Or you could put it the other way around - and if you did, you'd have to say the landing was very strong, indeed.


Prior to the ballets, Karen Kain of the National Ballet met with the audience and took their questions. She discussed her career, the National Ballet, and dancers. She indicated that dancers today are much more capable than they were during her generation. There are greater demands placed upon today's dancers.

I asked her what she looked for in a principal dancer. She indicated that she looked for intelligence. Principal dancers must be extremely bright. Next, they must possess desire and passion. They always work harder than the others. They must have great timing and musicality as well as have great range and flexibility. And last, principal dancers possess a genetic gift.

My question was the last question asked during the pre-dance session. As soon as she responded, the crowd disbanded on its way to find its seating.

Leaders in almost any field are usually very bright. Similarly, desire, passion, and a willingness to work harder than most others is also true. For dancers, timing and musicality as well as range and flexibility are naturals. At the principal dancer level, I am not surprised by her genetic gift comment.

I'd like to ask those in Ballet Talk to describe a general career for a principal dancer. From looking at the evening's program, it seemed to me that most principal dancers were dancing with the National Ballet for about five to seven years before becoming a principal dancer.

Do you agree with Ms. Kain's answer? Would you augment her answer or suggest changes?

How long do most principal dancers remain as principal dancers before retiring? Do principal dancers receive any special benefits, aside from receiving more money and better roles? Is there more guidance or mentoring? Are the expectations much more demanding? Are more career or post-dance options explored? And as dancers approach the end of the performance careers, are they usually given a long transition period? That is, do artistic directors usually provide some early guidance that their careers are entering the sunset period? Is there anything else that would be helpful knowing?

I look forward to your responses.

#2 vipa

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Posted 18 September 2011 - 05:05 PM

I'd a agree with the statements made by Kain with a couple of qualifiers.

I don't think principal dancers are necessarily those who are willing to work harder than the rest. Many dancers are willing to work super hard. The hardest working soloist is not the one who is necessarily promoted to principal. The artistic director's tastes, company needs, versatility of the dancer and other factors play a role. I'm not saying one can rise without working really hard, I'm quibbling with the idea that the hardest worker gets promoted.

Genetics plays a part but, other than physical features we don't know what inherited traits might make a principal.

Along with intelligence, I'd add imagination. The ability to bring something fresh to a role.

As far as when a dancer becomes a principal - it depends. Some dancers rise quickly other more slowly. It depends on the individual dancer and again the needs of the company - Is a tall man needed to partner the principal ladies? Is a short woman needed because there are a couple of short principal men? etc. etc.

I'd also like to say, as a long time ballet fan, there have been times when I've wondered by a particular soloist hadn't be promoted and also wondered why another has.

#3 Stecyk

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Posted 18 September 2011 - 05:57 PM

Thank you Vipa for providing your thoughts.

My interpretation with regard to hard work was that to be a a principal dancer, he or she must have everything else and be among the hardest working. And that hard work results because of the desire and passion.

Although Kain didn't elaborate on genetics, my own guess is that beneficial genetics are spread over all attributes, from physical traits to intelligence to attitude. When I think of those at the pinacle of their profession and genetics, I am reminded of a Stephen King quote:

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (I won't provide a url; for those interested, please use the Search Amazon feature at the top)

Page 135-136

Writers form themselves into the pyramid we see in all areas of human talent and creativity. At the bottom are the bad ones. Above them is a group which is slightly smaller but still large and welcoming; these are the competent writers. They may also be found on the staff of your local newspaper, on the racks at your local bookstore, and at poetry readings on Open Mike Night. These are the folks who somehow understand that although a lesbian may be angry, her breasts will remain breasts.

The next level is much smaller. These are the really good writers. Above them--above almost all of us--are the Shakespeares, the Faulkners, the Yeatses, Shaws, and Eudora Weltys. They are geniuses, divine accidents, gifted in a way which is beyond our ability to understand, let alone attain. Shit, most geniuses aren't able to understand themselves, and many lead miserable lives, realizing (at least on some level) that they are nothing but fortunate freaks, the intellectual version of runway models who just happen to be born with the right cheekbones and with breasts which fit the image of an age.

I am approaching the heart of this book with two theses, both simple. The first is that good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, and the elements of style) and then filling up the third level of your toolbox with the right instruments. The second is that while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.


While King writes about writers, I suspect geniuses in many or most (artistic) professions are similar. That is, those at the very pinnacle of their professions are very few in number. And, some extreme geniuses are genetically fortunate, gifted in a way which is way beyond our ability to understand, let alone attain.

I hadn't considered the needs of the company being a determining factor. However, your response makes sense. I had naively hoped that a company would use whomever is necessary, but would recognize and reward those most deserving.

If others have more to add, including further commentary from Vipa, I am most interested in reading and learning.

#4 Stecyk

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Posted 19 September 2011 - 08:12 AM

In her discussion, Kain indicated that she got her break when she was nineteen. She was asked to step into Swan Lake because other dancers were injured and there was no budget to bring in another dancer.

On Sunday Arts, Sara Mearns, a principal dancer with NYCB, provides a fifteen minute video discussion. To see the video, please follow the link:

Sunday Arts - New York City Ballet - Sara Mearns

#5 Stecyk

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Posted 20 September 2011 - 11:42 AM

I thought that once a dancer became a principal, he or she was likely to stay with that ballet for the remainder of his or her career. I am not sure if that thought is generally held true; however, The New York Times reports that David Hallberg is leaving for the Bolshoi Ballet.

New York Times: American to Join the Bolshoi Ballet by ALASTAIR MACAULAY and DANIEL J. WAKIN (subscription might be required)

David Hallberg, a principal dancer with American Ballet Theater, is becoming the first American star to enlist permanently with the fabled Bolshoi Ballet of Moscow. Mr. Hallberg, 29, who was born in Rapid City, S. D., will hold the coveted status of premier, the Bolshoi term for principal dancer.

“Personally I feel a sense of responsibility as an American,” Mr. Hallberg said on Tuesday, adding that he was proud to join such a historic company. “I will be bringing something different to the company but I will also be respecting their traditions as well.” He said he was aware of the unique responsibility entailed in being a first. “There will be people watching,” he said. “I have to do it justice.”



#6 Helene

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Posted 20 September 2011 - 12:31 PM

It's still the norm that dancers of all levels in the top tier companies, regional, national and international, remain with their original companies, with maybe one change along the way, but that's not guaranteed for any specific dancer. ABT has invited dancers to be Principals with the company when they are also Principals with their original companies, like Natalia Osipova. With Hallberg dancing with ABT and the Bolshoi, it becomes reciprocal.

#7 Cordelia

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Posted 20 September 2011 - 12:31 PM

I thought that once a dancer became a principal, he or she was likely to stay with that ballet for the remainder of his or her career. I am not sure if that thought is generally true; however, The New York Times reports that David Hallberg is leaving for the Bolshoi Ballet.

New York Times: American to Join the Bolshoi Ballet by ALASTAIR MACAULAY and DANIEL J. WAKIN (subscription might be required)

David Hallberg, a principal dancer with American Ballet Theater, is becoming the first American star to enlist permanently with the fabled Bolshoi Ballet of Moscow. Mr. Hallberg, 29, who was born in Rapid City, S. D., will hold the coveted status of premier, the Bolshoi term for principal dancer.

“Personally I feel a sense of responsibility as an American,” Mr. Hallberg said on Tuesday, adding that he was proud to join such a historic company. “I will be bringing something different to the company but I will also be respecting their traditions as well.” He said he was aware of the unique responsibility entailed in being a first. “There will be people watching,” he said. “I have to do it justice.”


Wow, that's great for Hallberg but sad for ABT and us American fans. I've always preferred Bolshoi over Mariinsky overall, I love how the Bolshoi is continuing its invigoration which started under Ratmansky. Just out of curiosity I went to Bolshoi's website and didn't see Hallberg's name on the list of principals yet. Reading the list of principals there I'm surprised at how much older their principals are, with many in their late 30s or older. It would be exciting to see how Hallberg is used and how well he is accepted by Moscow fans. I also believe they need a couple more female principals, I saw them seven times in recent years, and it seems like every ballet on tour have same lead ballerina, mainly Zakharova, Osipova, and Alexandrova. Not saying those ballerinas aren't great because I do love Osipova, but Bolshoi desperately needs a more lyrical ballerina to balance out the mix.

#8 Stecyk

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Posted 20 September 2011 - 01:23 PM

Thank you Helene for your helpful answer. From corresponding with others, I learned that the Alberta Ballet does have a reasonable amount of turnover. I look forward to learning about and watching those who join Alberta Ballet, and similarly following the careers of those who leave.

#9 Drew

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Posted 20 September 2011 - 01:29 PM

I also believe they need a couple more female principals, I saw them seven times in recent years, and it seems like every ballet on tour have same lead ballerina, mainly Zakharova, Osipova, and Alexandrova. Not saying those ballerinas aren't great because I do love Osipova, but Bolshoi desperately needs a more lyrical ballerina to balance out the mix.


I don't have deep knowledge of the Bolshoi roster but believe Kaptsova and Lunkina are both more lyrical ...

#10 Cordelia

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Posted 20 September 2011 - 05:34 PM


I also believe they need a couple more female principals, I saw them seven times in recent years, and it seems like every ballet on tour have same lead ballerina, mainly Zakharova, Osipova, and Alexandrova. Not saying those ballerinas aren't great because I do love Osipova, but Bolshoi desperately needs a more lyrical ballerina to balance out the mix.


I don't have deep knowledge of the Bolshoi roster but believe Kaptsova and Lunkina are both more lyrical ...


Oh yes thank you, Kaptsova definitely lyrical type of dancer and is wonderful but she's not principal, just 1st soloist I think. I saw her dance Gulnara in Le Corsaire. Lunkina is a principal and is definitely in the lyrical camp but I haven't seen her on tour as much as Zakharova, Osipova, and Alexandrova. Nadezhda Gracheva just recently retired from stage. Stepanenko is well into her 40s, both Ryzhkina and Antonicheva are either 40 or approaching 40, so there are definitely spots open for female principals in near future. Maybe Filin will steal another dancer from somewhere else.

#11 Stecyk

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Posted 20 September 2011 - 06:46 PM

Another article, this time from The Wall Street Journal

ABT Dancer Defects (subscription might be necessary)

The artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, Sergei Fillin, said in a statement: "Mr. Hallberg received his training in the United States and Paris Opera Ballet School. He possesses all the best qualities of classical dancer—perfect technique refined manners and outstanding acting abilities."

Despite the new home base, Mr. Hallberg, a native of South Dakota, will continue to dance with ABT. He is expected to appear in "The Nutcracker" this winter at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as well as on tour and at the company's annual Metropolitan Opera House season in the spring. He joined ABT as a member of the corps de ballet in 2001 and became Principal in 2005.



#12 Fraildove

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Posted 20 September 2011 - 08:46 PM

Well, if Filin is taking requests can I give a huge nod to Evgenia Obraztsova? If the Bolshoi stole this beautiful but sadly non promoted dancer from the Mariinsky, then the Bolshoi would essentially be, without question, the greatest company in Russia. And in my opinion, Europe and America. I know it's off topic, but I had to throw that in!

#13 Helene

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Posted 20 September 2011 - 09:05 PM

Amen, Fraildove.

#14 bart

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Posted 21 September 2011 - 06:22 AM

Just want to remind people that we already have an ongoing thread discussing the Hallberg/Bolshoi story and its implications:

http://balletalert.i..._15#entry292004

#15 Stecyk

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Posted 23 September 2011 - 05:27 AM

I've added a link to a podcast concerning the Hallberg/Bolshoi at Bart's link.


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