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The number of "classical" works is large but limited in ballet and opera. How many roles does a classically trained dancer have in their own repertoire in a typical career? Are these roles the focus of their life's work? Do they, as young dancers, typically aspire to learn X roles and dance them in their careers? Or do dancers learn to dance "generic" ballet and take the roles that the company sees them suited for? Can a principal dancer expect to dance all the "great" roles in their career, assuming no injuries etc.?

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A quick answer is that the current practice seems to be for young dancers to learn every role, and that anyone who can do the steps in a role will get the role. Or so it seems. This is another huge break with the past, in which dancers (like opera singers) were trained in a specific genre. There was always crossover, especially among stars, but the general rule was that dancers danced certain roles and not others.

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How is this role learning done? Does a principal A get approached by the artistic direct and told that they want A to perform so and so role and X ballet master / coach is going to teach you the role? Or do dancers learn these classic roles .. or parts of them as exercises in their normal learning process from teachers? Or do they learn them "on their own" from seeing them performed? I recall seeing Paloma Herrera interviewed a young ballerina who said she always wanted to dance Juliet with the ABT and it came to pass (quite young for her). Do you think she knew much of the role before she was assigned it, for example? I can understand that the director would want to put his stamp on the role, but in the case of a classic role are these not more or less "settled law" so to speak?

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These are all very good questions! I don't think there's any one answer -- I hope others will join in with their observations and experiences.

On learning roles, I think that varies from school to school. Some have "repertory" courses in which students learn specific variations. Others have performances for which the students learn variations. Students learn roles for competitions -- and many learn them in private coaching, because a teacher thinks they'll benefit from it, or because they take private lessons.

I think the practices of companies are so varied that it would be difficult to draw any rules about the process -- it varies by company and by artistic director. I was surprised that dancers asked for roles, as I had so often read that dancers had to be "good soldiers" and obey orders -- but they do. Sometimes roles are assigned by the director, sometimes by the stager, if one is brought in to stage a classic, in consultation with the director.

If a dancer did learn a role as a student, he or she will have to relearn it, or at least adapt it, when s/he joins a company, as each company has a particular style, or at least approach.

Anyone have specific examples?

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This discussion is all very revealing even if there are many variations, because as an audience member I only get to see the final product and haven't a clue as to how it is "created". Of course with a classic ballet, much is "settled law" but getting it into a performance is a whole other ball of wax.

When a guest performs a role, is it the company that reaches out to the performer... or is it perhaps the performers "agent" (I assume that some of the big names have representation) approach a company with a suggestion?

How many complete run thrus of a complete work will a large company do for a full length story type ballet? Or will they break it up and only do one complete rehearsal pulling all the parts together? How does the tempi of the orchestra come into play or when does it in the preparation? This can have a profound effect I would think and for the work to flow smoothly I would also think that this would need to be factored in early on in the production and learning or tweaking the role. Who actually decides "how" the music will be done? Is it the AD or the MD of the company? Will Kevin McKensie tell the conductor to speed it up... or slow it down for example?

Are all these types of procedures resident in a company or with a AD and he or she would take their approach to another company if they moved on.. or adapt to the company policy... so to speak.

Please excuse me for asking all sorts of (dumb) questions about what appears to be a very intricate and complex process (to me), with such concern for subtlety and nuance.

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Mme Alonso always says that for a ballerina to get to the point of doing "Giselle", first she has to "earn it", to prove of being able to know by heart how to dance first Willis Corps, Giselle's friends, Peasant PDD, Zulma and Moyna, Myrtha and even Albretch and Hilarion...meaning that she will be spending some time learning ALL the roles-(even the male dancers ones)-and "getting" the spirit of the ballet while spending some years scaling the rankings up to where she will be given the title role. By the time that happens, usually the ballerina can dance the role while sleeping...

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On learning roles, I think that varies from school to school. Some have "repertory" courses in which students learn specific variations. Others have performances for which the students learn variations. Students learn roles for competitions -- and many learn them in private coaching, because a teacher thinks they'll benefit from it, or because they take private lessons.

Well.....at school any young dancer learns more or less the same pas de deux or variations: Paquita pas de deux,Peasants pas de deux from Giselle,Kitri variation,Cupid variation,Slave variation from Corsaire etc....they're in the programme of the repertoire and pas de deux in any ballet school.You can learn other variations and roles if you take part to galas,competitions,performances...but this is personal knowledge.

Nobody asks you in a company what role you'd like to do,what variations you know....absolutely not!

The corps of ballet has no decisional power....the director himself,the ballet teachers of the company or the choreographer are the only ones who can choose who is gonna dance what.They make their decisions following their own judgement and sense and,knowing the dancers and their capabilities,guess which one is more suitable for the role.Only Etoiles or principal dancers can choose what to do and what to avoid.I think Ferri is a very good example.She always chose to dance more neoclassical roles than strict repertoire.In fact the characters for whom she is world famous were Manon,Juliet,Chauve-Souris....all examples of non-strict classical repertoire.I guess she never danced a Petipa Swan Lake or a Kitri....or maybe she did only at the beginning of her career.

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How many similar types of roles (more or less) do dancers learn as your described above in their careers? At what point have they developed all these roles (how many years on)?

SanderO, for what i know, at least in Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the dancers are expected to learn certain roles since they're dancing in Corps. As dancerboy stated, this knowledge also comes from the PDD classes, but i think that even those depend on how familiar certain PDD's are within a company. For instance, for what they do in classes, or even in international competitions, i can tell which PDD's are more familiar or well liked among them: DQ, Sugar Plum Fairy PDD, Diana& Acteon, Black Swan, Flames of Paris, Tchaikowsky PDD, PDD Clasique and in less scale Corsaire, Paquita, Balanchine's Sylvia PDD and Esmeralda. Rarely Raymonda, Bayadere or Sleeping Beauty. Other ones that are very popular in other places are kind of unknown, like Satanella PDD. About whole ballets, all the Balanchine repertoire is an unknown territory for the cubans, (maybe it has to do with the Trust), with the exception of TPDD and Theme and Variations PDD.

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There seems to be a wide variety of ways in which dancers are chosen and coached. There are numerous clips in videos and DVDs from Russia where a dancer has a mentor who coaches him/her through roles in the repetoire. In the "Sacred Stage" DVD, Makhalina is seen coaching Tkachenko, and from numerous comments here on Somova, Chenchikova, who danced Odette/Odile in "Swan Lake" on tour to Wolf Trap in the 80's that was televised on PBS, is her mentor.

Then, there's NYCB. You read in Merrill Ashley's book how a dancer walked her through a role, outlining it briefly, and concluded she had taught it to Ashley, how she lost a role because she was on her way home when a replacement was needed, and how she envied Colleen Neary, who the company knew was a quick study. Peter Martins wrote in his book that he got a lot of roles because he, too, was a quick study, but noted that he forgot them quickly as well.

Particularly because of the huge repetoire and long seasons, injury takes its toll and forces casting. There was one season in the 1980's where there were so many injuries, I think Heather Watts danced just about every female principal role. In Joseph Mazo's "Dance Is a Contact Sport," he describes the changes in casting for one performance, noting the long list in the program insert, and he describes the mind-bending puzzle of trying to cast the performance.

Balanchine, until his last years, not only demonstrated roles -- to Melissa Hayden's delight, he demonstrated Odette -- but he also took the role of one of the partners in pas de deux. It was fascinating to read in Duberman's "The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein" that Balanchine felt that Fokine lost his ability after he stopped demonstrating; in his opinion, the choreographer must be able to feel the dance in his own body.

Francia Russell ducked out of one post-performance Q&A after a matinee, because, as Kent Stowell explained, she had to do an emergency rehearsal before the evening performance, to teach a role to the replacement for an injured dancer.

Dancers often speak about being cast in a role as a last minute replacement, with a quick, behind-the-curtain rehearsal, with one partner literally talking the other through the performance.

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