American Ballet Theatre boasts one of the greatest lineups of male dancers in ballet history. How lucky we are to enjoy such riches. But artistic director Kevin McKenzie is quick to emphasize ABT's equally splendid ballerinas. "Our women today have a great sense of self, which to me is the most important quality in a dancer," he says. "They also have astounding technique and fantastic élan and musicality."
While Ballet Theatre has never lacked for great women dancers, McKenzie notes a big change in the last 10 years. "Our ballerinas now become confident at a much earlier age," he says. "They also are amazingly versatile. In the past, most dancers only excelled in one type of role. Our women do them all, everything from the Swan Queen to Tharp, Kylian, Graham, and Taylor. They relish exploring unknown territory, and dance as freely in jeans as in a tiara. This goes on at every level‹corps, soloists, and principals. They are redefining what makes a good ballerina."
Principal dancer Alessandra Ferri, who has been a member of Ballet Theatre for almost 20 years, shares McKenzie's admiration for the women. Every season when she returns to the company, she says she is overwhelmed by their high caliber. "They are such good and intelligent dancers," she says, "and show unusual sensitivity to each choreographer's intentions. The men's amazing technical abilities have only inspired them to greater heights. There could be a danger in this‹that they would place technique over portraying emotion‹but they haven't forgotten that ballet is an art form. They use their technique to tell the stories. It's an incredibly stimulating environment for them all."
Looking to the future, Ferri says she would like to teach what she has learned to younger ballerinas. "It takes total commitment to be a dancer," she says, "and a lifetime to really grasp many of the roles. I'd like to pass on what is now a part of my own skin, particularly dancing Giselle and Juliet. I want to do it so everything I've learned is not wasted. I love watching the young women go through the steps in their career. They are like race horses getting ready to go. I understand that. It's been a great life to dance every day. I wake up every morning excited all over again. There are always new things to learn. And now I feel so free on stage. Having my two little girls marked a turning point for me. Being a mother informs all of my dancing."
The younger dancers know how fortunate they are to share the roster with ballerinas like Ferri. "Growing up, I was lucky enough to see some of ABT's great talents," says soloist Stella Abrera, who joined in 1996, "people like Amanda McKerrow, Susan Jaffe, and Alessandra. They are such seasoned artists. I got to know the company history, and the legends born there. It's why I stuck with ballet. I learned from them the importance of persevering. Dance has given me so much, especially a sense of discipline and order in life."
Abrera says people are not always aware of how much is asked of a ballerina. "You have to be delicate and strong and athletic," she says, "and sensual and coy, sometimes all in one role. And, of course, you have to be able to tell a story with just your body, and very often carry a whole ballet and keep the audience moved for two and a half hours." How does she prepare for this responsibility? "Usually the mornings when I am going to dance a big role," she says, "I wake up with a strong sense of purpose, which seeps into my whole day. Right before, as I put on my makeup and warm up, I listen to jazz, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, or Charlie Parker. It puts me in a good frame of mind."
For soloist Michele Wiles, Ballet Theatre's history has also been an inspiration. "You never forget the great dancers who have been here," she says. "But what's new is that we are trained in so many techniques. It keeps you learning, and makes you stronger physically. Last season, I did Tudor's Pillar of Fire. It was so demanding dramatically and physically. I love that combination. Then, I can let it all out."
Both Karen Ellis-Wentz and Melissa Thomas are new corps members. "It's great to get advice from the older dancers and coaches," says Ellis-Wentz, who previously danced with the Boston and Dutch National ballets, "and I love being able to watch Paloma and Julie and all the other great women, every one with different strengths. But it's even more important that we in the corps are so supportive of one another. Because we're a close-knit group, we do better. It takes a lot to stay together in many of the ballets. Everyone pulls their own weight and takes care of each other."
Both women agree that Ballet Theatre brings out the best in them, "Being here," says Thomas, who trained at the Alabama Ballet School, "you push past your expectations. I can't get enough of that excitement on stage. I love seeing someone spill out their soul. The only problem I've ever had is in class. There are so many incredible women dancers that I sometimes catch myself just watching them and not concentrating on what I'm supposed to be doing."