Next spring during American Ballet Theatre’s season at the Metropolitan Opera House, take a closer look at the young dancers in the background of each scene. Though they may not be dancing, the bread sellers, beggars and fish mongers dotting the sides of the stage could very well be the next generation of ballet stars. These young dancers are members of ABT Studio Company, a group that has come to shape the talent of America’s National Ballet Company® more heavily in recent years. Currently, over two thirds of ABT’s 92 dancers (63 to be exact, including 7 apprentices) began their careers as members of this select troupe. Often described as a bridge between student and professional life, the Studio Company serves a critical transitional period that allows young talent to mature into thinking artists—and learn valuable life skills along the way.
Most ballet dancers begin their professional lives as teenagers, often forgoing college to maximize what is ultimately a short career. But while students are accustomed to training intensely under the watchful eye of their teacher, professional dancers are expected to be more self-disciplined and self-directed. The transition, especially in a company of ABT’s size and caliber, can be overwhelming.
“Once you’re in the main company, you’re off and running,” says Kate Lydon, a former ABT dancer and the Studio Company’s Artistic Director since 2013. “You’re not going to get as much feedback or as much attention. But in the Studio Company we can prepare them to be ready for that fast-paced environment.”
Founded in 1970 by former ABT dancers Gage and Richard Englund (then under the name American Ballet Theatre Presents: Ballet Repertory Company), the Studio Company is an elite group of 12 dancers. Each year, artistic staff from ABT and its affiliated Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School (JKO) scout young dancers from around the world, through JKO’s school, Summer Intensive and National Training Scholars program; at international ballet competitions; and through video and in-person auditions. What they’re looking for, says Lydon, is a blend of natural gifts and talent—two elements that she says ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie makes a clear distinction about. “Gifts are things you are born with, and talent is your ability to bring those gifts to fruition,” she says. “And we’re looking for a sparkle, that little special something.”
Studio Company dancers are considered the top level of the JKO School. The first half of their year emphasizes training and immerses the students in ABT’s style. The dancers take a two-hour daily technique class, as well as classes in pointe, men’s technique, variations, pas de deux, Pilates and strengthening. The intensity of their day allows time for artistic staff to refine details and help them improve skills necessary for professional life, such as partnering. “Because it’s such a small group, we can individually focus on what they need,” says Lydon. “And beyond that, we’re pushing them to become comfortable doing more technically and artistically challenging things.”
The dancers are learning more than just ballet. In addition to offering acting, nutrition and wellness workshops, Lydon and her team also help them adjust to living on their own: setting up a bank account, finding an apartment, hiring an English tutor for those who don’t speak the language fluently. The Studio Company also serves as ABT’s main outreach arm, offering master classes and lecture demonstrations to area public schools. “It’s a really good opportunity for the dancers to learn how to show audiences what we do,” says Lydon.
Throughout the year, ABT Studio Company members also learn a varied body of repertoire for their own performances in the spring. “The main company is our guidepost when putting together our programs,” says Lydon, noting that they always learn a classical suite, as well as works by other choreographers in ABT’s canon, such as Antony Tudor. The dancers also learn ballets by Artist in Residence Alexei Ratmansky, whose fleet-footed choreographic style is increasingly influencing their training. “Our dancers need to be ready to perform his work when they join the company,” says Lydon. “They need to be fast, strong and precise.”
By December, the dancers are working beside the main company in Ratmansky’s The Nutcracker. Corps de ballet member Rachel Richardson, a Studio Company member from 2013–2014, remembers feeling intimidated, especially since this period serves as an informal audition for ABT. “You know that people are watching you: ‘Would she work? How does she fit in here?’” she says. “But that experience helped me adjust so that once I joined the main company, I knew the ballet staff and dancers already, and understood a bit about how it all worked.”
Another important component of the Studio Company experience is having ballets made on them—and growing more comfortable with the creative process. Richardson notes that working with different choreographers is a big part of professional life. “It was so useful to be exposed to the creative process in the Studio Company and sort of get a handle on it—understanding how to adjust to movements you’re not comfortable with or having trouble picking up.”
In its new commissions, the Studio Company has an added impact as an incubator for emerging choreographers. Many have been women, often underrepresented on ballet stages, including Julia Adam, Dana Genshaft, and Azure Barton. This November, the dancers will premiere a new work by New York City Ballet principal Lauren Lovette.
For long-established choreographer Jessica Lang, her first commission with ABT’s Studio Company in 1999 proved an especially important stepping stone in her career. “I knew I was interested in choreography at the time, but I didn’t know I had the potential to become a choreographer,” says Lang. “That experience directly exposed me to my next opportunity.” She has since created nearly 100 works, including Her Notes for ABT in 2016. Lang is currently creating a pièce d’occasion with ABT’s apprentices, Studio Company dancers and JKO students, for the 2017 fall gala.
By spring, the dancers will be taking what they’ve learned on the road, performing in venues in New York City, around the country and internationally. And because of the smallness of the group, they will be dancing mostly principal and soloist roles. “They’re getting onstage and gaining confidence,” says Lydon, “so that when they start in the company as an apprentice, they know that when an opportunity comes along, they can do it—because they’ve done it before in Studio Company.”
Going forward, Lydon hopes to increase the number of dancers entering the main company, as well as to improve the group’s diversity “to more accurately reflect our home, New York City.” And her goals extend beyond the dancers. “I want to provide opportunities to dancers, choreographers, staff and faculty in order to help develop the next generation of leadership in the ballet world.”
“That’s the importance of the Studio Company,” says Lang. “Recognizing and finding the future.”
Amy Brandt is Editor in Chief of Pointe Magazine