Swan Lake: Combining Storytelling With Stamina

Fernando Bufala w Joseph Gatti in Corella Ballet

Ashley Ellis and Joseph Gatti in Swan Lake, photo by Fernando Bufala

Today Boston Ballet‘s Ashley Ellis joins us to talk about how she gets ready to dance the classic ballet Swan Lake. Read more from her in the coming months as she authors posts for us as a contributing writer to the site…

Dancing the role of Odette/Odile is an incredible challenge for any dancer. What steps do you take to prepare your body for this role?

Dancing the dual role of Odette/Odile is a challenge in various ways. There is the obvious technical challenge that most full-length classical ballets demand. However, Swan Lake is different in that to dance this ballet the ballerina is required to portray two characters that are completely opposite of one another.

When preparing to dance either Odile or Odette I like to start with my arms. The style of the upper body is quintessential to becoming a swan. Like with dancing any role, but especially Odette/Odile, I like to spend a bit of time before rehearsal or a show just to gear my body up for the specific style it will have to feel. I go through the movements so that when I have to dance it feels more organic. When I enter in the second act I don’t want to have to think about if my arms are making the right lines, I want to think about how I feel at that moment with my partner and the music.

So until I feel that I have these extreme and sometimes contorted positions feeling more organic in my own body I am constantly checking in the mirror to see what line the public will see. For me this comes with time as I’m working on the role. Each day my muscles remember more and I have to think less about the positions.

Then it is important to build stamina, so as we approach the shows, I like to run each act to build strength.

Black Swan Pas with Joseph Gatti

Ashley Ellis and Joesph Gatti dance the Black Swan pas de deux, photo by Fernando Bufala

What do you do to make each character (Odette and Odile) unique?

Each swan, the white and the black, the good and the evil, represents a completely opposite identity from the other. I try to embody the characteristics of each and do my best not to let them bleed together. I take on each role and try to let them shine through my movements. For example, Odette is a kind spirit, embodying love. However she is not weak, she is still a proud swan queen.

Odile on the other hand shows up in the 3rd act with Von Rothbart and carries out her actions under his command. Her mission is to trick the prince into swearing his love for her. To bring this role to life I try to use my eyes and more commanding movement to show strength and lure the prince in.

It does require a moment though to calm down going into 4th act after running off stage from the high of dancing the black swan–especially because in this act Odette is heartbroken.

When getting coached by the incredible, Larissa Ponomarenko, she constantly reminds me as I execute my steps that although I may be creating an esthetically pleasing classical line with my arms, that I look human, and “at this moment you are a swan.”

What is your rehearsal schedule like for this ballet?

Well, at Boston Ballet we are often working on various ballets at the same time. We just finished putting together Lady of the Camellias as well as various shorter pieces for later in the season. So things can get a little bit crazy, and some days going from contemporary into classical makes it especially challenging. The most important thing is to go into each rehearsal focused on the role to be mastered. So much of dance is about being mentally prepared.

As we get closer to the performances I like to run the ballet in order, beginning with second act and going to black and then back to white. It is so important to build stamina. It’s funny because I find that I tend to stress about not having stamina, but I know in the end I will get there. The feeling of not being able to get through a variation, ballet, or whatever is so daunting. It’s never easy, but it can get easIER.


Ashley Ellis as Odette, photo by Fernando Bufala

You have danced Swan Lake before, but Petipa’s version. How is Mikko Nissinen’s version different?

Like the version I danced previously, Mikko’s has the same classical base, with variations in the steps that he has chosen to apply to make it his own. I do find it interesting to see how the ending changes from version to version; if they die, or live happily after, or in some, they even die and then rise up into the clouds. I don’t think I’m supposed to reveal the ending of this version because it is NEW, and he probably wouldn’t like it if I spilled the beans. Haha!

There are many beautiful, interesting, and original touches in Robert Perdziola’s design and it is sure to be stunning. I can’t wait to see the production on stage; I know it will definitely be worth coming to see.

Swan Lake has such beautiful music. Is there a particular section of the score that you find you gravitate toward?

One of my favorite moments is the introduction to the Black Swan Pas de deux. The music begins while we are still off stage and then we fly on from the wing together. From the very beginning it gives me such a feeling of strength and command.

In terms of your pointe shoes – how do you prepare them for Swan Lake, and how many pairs will you use in a performance?

I definitely want good shoes, and will most likely wear a different pair for each act. Not a new pair for each act, because they will be broken in and worn just enough that they are ready to provide what I need. They have to have good support because there is so much technical dancing throughout the whole ballet.

As Odette I like to have supportive shoes but they should be well broken in. There is a lot of running around as well as movement that is very controlled so I need to be able to really feel the floor. As Odile I can wear a slightly harder pair. There are a lot of turns throughout the pas, variation, and coda and I need to know they will support me until the end.

sitting swan by Hoggerandco

Ashley Ellis in costume for Boston Ballet’s Swan Lake, photo by Hogger & Co.

What do you find to be the most difficult part of dancing this ballet, and what do you do to cope with it?

The stamina is quite hard, but it is more than just doing the steps and getting through to the end. It is so important to make everything seamless, while maintaining your portrayal of a swan, and on top of that telling a story. So the hardest part is doing all of this at once. I find that the best way to achieve this is to spend time on it.

It sounds simple, but spending time moving like a swan and listening to the music, and thinking of how the character feels at that moment within the ballet is the best way for me to prepare.

What is the thing that you enjoy most about dancing this ballet?

I love dancing both Odette and Odile so much, the challenge to becoming both is quite exciting. I love various aspects of becoming each character. On a physical level, although the dancing is very classical, the style feels quite freeing. Also, for me the music really brings both characters to life. You can really hear the emotions through each composition; from the tranquil feeling of Odette when she is all alone in her entrance to how frantic she is when the prince startles her, to the second act pas where she is falling in love, but is torn because of the spell cast on her. Tchaikovsky carries you through all of these emotions. Then for Odile, I feel thrown at a high speed onto the stage with the entrance of the 3rd act pas; the music screams grandeur and power.

Boston Ballet will be performing Mikko Nissinen’s Swan Lake from October 30th through November 16th. See Ashley Ellis bring Odette and Odile to life on stage. View the rest of the company’s offerings for the season here.

Boston Ballet's Ashley Ellis

Boston Ballet’s Ashley Ellis

Contributing writer Ashley Ellis is a principal dancer at Boston Ballet. Ellis hails from Torrance, California and she received her dance training at the South Bay Ballet under the direction of Diane Lauridsen. Other instruction included Alicia Head, Mario Nugara, Charles Maple, and Kimberly Olmos.

She began her professional career with American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company and later joined American Ballet Theatre as a company dancer. In 1999, Ellis won the first prize at the Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Award, and went on to become the recipient of the Coca Cola scholarship award in 2000 and 2001. She has performed in Spain with Angel Corella’s touring group and joined Corella Ballet in 2008 as a soloist. In 2011, Ellis joined Boston Ballet as a second soloist. She was promoted to soloist in 2012 and principal dancer in 2013.

Her repertoire includes Marius Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty; Mikko Nissinen’s The Nutcracker; Natalia Makarova’s  La  Bayadère;  Marius  Petipa’s  Swan Lake; Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse, VIII and Polyphonia; Harald Lander’s Études; Michel  Fokine’s  Les  Sylphides;  Rudolf  Nureyev’s Don Quixote; Christopher Bruce’s Rooster; George Balanchine’s  Serenade,  Coppélia,  Symphony  in Three Movements, Symphony in C, and Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux; Clark Tippet’s Bruch Violin Concerto; Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room; Stanton Welch’s Clear; Angel Corella’s String Sextet; Wayne McGregor’s Chroma; Jorma Elo’s Awake Only; Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free; Jiří Kylián’s Wings of Wax, Symphony of Psalms, and Petite Mort.


Technology, Live-Streaming And Sharing Dances

Margi Cole. Photograph by Eric Olson.

Margi Cole. Photograph by Eric Olson.

The Dance COLEctive has an upcoming performance series titled “Holding Ground.” You decided to do a live-stream so that it could be viewed by an additional audience. What made you move in this direction?

There are many reasons I’m interested in the idea of streaming a live performance. I want to share my work with students, collaborators and artists I have relationships with outside Chicago. In fact, we’re encouraging people in other states to organize viewing parties, which we’ll report on via social media. To date, fans in central Illinois, Ohio, Texas, Alabama, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Idaho, Tennessee, Vermont, Germany and the UK are already committed to watching! For those in Chicago, it offers another point of view on the live performance, perhaps even from backstage. I encourage Chicagoans to come to Links to experience the live version, then watch it streaming and compare.

Where will the live-streaming be broadcast, and how did you select that particular channel for it?

You will be able to watch the live stream from the TDC website. Our first priority is to drive traffic to our website, which is why it is important that it be viewed there. TDC is using YouTube to stream the event, which allows people around the world to also find the event there.

Live-streaming adds an additional component to the preparation for a performance. Can you talk about the challenges it presents?

My first concern is about quality—of the footage itself and the different views from which the work can be viewed. Right now we are talking about having three cameras. I think that could change this week when we get in the space. I think no matter how much we prepare that we still have to be ready for anything.

What do you think can be gained by incorporating this type of experience?

Besides engaging with the viewer virtually, it gives me a new lens to look through as a choreographer. While I did not have this live stream in mind when I created the work itself, I do think that having an understanding of the viewer’s experience will have an impact how I design and execute the work next time.

Do you think that anything can be lost by viewing dance via live-stream as opposed to in person?

Of course, dance is a three-dimensional form best viewed in person. I am hoping this will be the next best thing, especially for all our fans, friends and family who can’t be with us in the theater. But I have no expectations that this can in any way be the same as seeing something live!

Has preparing for a live-stream changed the way you choreographed your piece?

For this first experience, no. It has not changed the way I am choreographing the work. I feel, though, that “choreographically” and with the idea of live streaming in mind, Links Hall was an important venue to support the work and broadcast from. Not only does the intimacy of the space lend itself to the signature elements of our work, but I hope it will create a more intimate experience for the viewer.

Do you think you would consider doing this type of thing again down the line? Why or why not?

Like anything creative, I hope to learn from this experience and try again with the intention of doing it again in a more interesting and informed way. Maybe even make it a regular or exclusive part of the way in which we share our work with others. I feel as if I am only just skimming the surface of what the possibilities and technology can provide.

Margi Cole graduated from the Alabama School of Fine Arts and received a B.A. in dance from Columbia College Chicago and an M.F.A. in dance from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has taught and guest-lectured at numerous educational and professional organizations, including the Alabama Ballet, the American College Dance Festival, Ballet Tennessee, Northwestern University, Columbia College Chicago, Lou Conte Dance Studio, the Joffrey Academy of Dance, the American Dance Festival and other institutions throughout Illinois, the Midwest and the Southeast. She is currently on faculty at Columbia College Chicago, where she has served as a lecturer and associate chair. Awards and acknowledgements of her accomplishments include making the list of “Teachers Rated Excellent by their Students” in four consecutive semesters while on faculty at the University of Illinois. She has received two Choreographic Mentoring Scholarships from The Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago, two Illinois Arts Council Individual Artist Fellowships, a 2005 Chicago Dancemakers Forum grant and an American Marshall Memorial Fellowship (joining other leaders in their respective fields to represent the United States on a month-long tour of European countries). She won a Panoply Festival Choreography Award for Contemporary Dance in Huntsville, Alabama. Margi is active in the Chicago dance community, serving on grant panels and in public forums as an arts administrator, dancer and choreographer. In 2011, she was integral in organizing the Dance/USA and Marshall Forum annual conferences in Chicago. She has been a Chicago Dancemakers Forum Consortium Member for two years, is a member of the Marshall Memorial Fellowship Selection Committee and served as a mentor during the Thodos Dance Chicago New Dances Project in 2014. She was named one of The Players in NewCity’s “Fifty People Who Really Perform in Chicago” in 2012 and recognized by Today’s Chicago Woman among its 2014 “100 Women of Inspiration.”


Choreography: On Developing A Personal Philosophy


Madelyn Doyle, photo by William Frederking

You are choreographing for The Dance COLEctive’s “Higher Ground”, an upcoming weekend of performances in Chicago. Can you tell readers a bit about your piece and the idea behind it?

This piece is a look at the physical and mental necessities for an individual to develop a personal philosophy. The materials available to us such as media, literature and specialized individuals give us the ingredients to formulate ourselves, but what does one ultimately need in order to create their true individuality? Experience. Only then do we choose our path and honestly become what we are meant to be.

How did you work with the dancers throughout this process? What was that like?

I provided them with composition assignments, and free-writing prompts to generate movement and text. Then, I gathered the movement information and carefully sewed the pieces together in what I thought was the best way the dance would make sense.

In terms of music, how did you go about selecting what you would use for this, and did you choose it prior to or after your choreography?

After my choreography. I focused on the mood that I wanted to portray, and went from there.

What were the biggest challenges in terms of choreographing this piece?

Putting things together in a coherent fashion. There was so much beautiful movement that the dancers created, and using it in a way that made sense and created a story was difficult.

What has been the greatest learning experience for you throughout this process?

How to be on the other side.

What do you hope that the audience will see when they view your work?

That everyone should acknowledge the ridiculous things we do to better ourselves. As long as we are aware of them and realize that we should, in the end, rely on ourselves to do the work and make the choices.

BIO: Madelyn Doyle, a fourth year member of The Dance COLEctive, graduated from Columbia College Chicago with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance Education and received a K-12 Certification in Dance through the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. She has been a part of the We Stand Sideways Dance Co., Thread Meddle Outfit, and independent productions with artist Megan Adams. In addition to establishing the Dance Department of Lindblom Math and Science Academy in Chicago, she has assisted for the presenting series of Riverside Brookfield High School’s Orchesis and choreographed for numerous musicals and high school dance companies in the Northwest Suburbs. Madelyn is a Choreographer/Teacher/Producer for the Arlington Youth Dance Ensemble in Arlington Heights, and founded her company Demi Dancers in 2013 to support creative movement and pre-ballet in local preschools and montessori schools.


The Royal Ballet’s Manon


Manon was choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan in March of 1974, and it was danced by Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell. The ballet was well-received by audiences, and it became a staple in The Royal Ballet’s repertoire.

On October 16th, viewers all across America will have the chance to see it performed in theaters throughout the nation as part of The Royal Opera House’s Live Cinema Season. This version will feature Marianela Nuñez and Federico Bonelli in the lead roles.

the royal ballet's manon

©ROH 2014. Photographed by Alice Pennefather, dancers Federico Bonelli as Des Grieux and Marianela Núñez as Manon in Manon

The tragic story of Manon is quite different from the “fairy tale” ballet story where the woman is a pure, princess-like creature to be revered and adored. In fact, the role of Manon is more of an opportunistic one than a sweetheart–though she does fall in love. However, the young lady also lusts after luxury and wealth–and the pull of both prove to be quite strong…

manon by royal ballet

©ROH 2014. Photographed by Alice Pennefather, dancers Christopher Saunders as Monsieur GM, Marianela Núñez as Manon and Ricardo Cervera as Lescaut in Manon

This ballet has both grandeur (scenes for the entire company in Paris and New Orleans) and an achingly beautiful pas de deux that takes place between Manon and her lover Des Grieux. We won’t spoil the ending here, but we will note that there’s a lot of depth to this emotional ballet, and it’s a fantastic one to see performed by such amazing dancers!

Find out where you can go see this ballet at a theater near you.

the royal ballet

©ROH 2014. Photographed by Alice Pennefather, dancers Federico Bonelli as Des Grieux and Marianela Núñez as Manon in Manon

Take a look at the clip below to see more about The Royal Ballet’s Live Cinema Season offerings for 2014/15. They’ll be dancing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Swan Lake, La Fille mal gardee and The Winter’s Tale – all live on the big screen!

Stay tuned for more information on these performances on 4dancers and Dance Advantage!

Disclosure – 4dancers receives compensation for promoting this series


Dancing Christopher Wheeldon’s Swan Lake

Cara Marie Gary (far left) rehearsing Swan Lake with Christopher Wheeldon. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Joffrey’s Cara Marie Gary (far left) rehearsing Swan Lake with Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

by Cara Marie Gary

July began my third season with The Joffrey Ballet.

There was no easing into rehearsals when we came back from our summer break. Role responsibility was posted and we started full force with learning Christopher Wheeldon’s Swan Lake. Répétiteur Jason Fowler and our ballet masters spent several weeks teaching us the choreography for this four-act ballet. An average day consisted of me arriving at the Joffrey Tower around 9:00am and leaving around 6:45pm.

I like to arrive early to change, fix my hair, sign up for physical therapy and stretch. When preparing for a strenuous full-length ballet, it is important to take class in order to warm up properly before rehearsal. I take class from 9:45am to 11:15am to help improve my technique and build stamina. I then readjust my pointe shoes, grab a rehearsal tutu and head back into Studio A for a three-hour Swan Lake Act II and IV rehearsal. After an hour lunch break, I come back for three more hours of Swan Lake Act I and III rehearsal. My rehearsal day ends by 6:30pm.

My favorite moment during the rehearsal process was when Mr. Wheeldon came to Chicago to work with the company for two weeks. When a choreographer is in the room it changes the dynamic of a rehearsal. They have a unique ability to disclose their artistic vision for the piece they’ve created in a way that is different from a répétiteur or ballet master. Working with a choreographer is a special time that allows dancers to gain new insight about the intentions behind certain movements. When dancers have a better understanding of the choreographer’s vision, it challenges us to strive towards achieving this goal.

Christopher Wheeldon’s visit to a Degas exhibit at the Philadelphia Art Museum inspired this version of Swan Lake. It is differs from other versions in that it is a ballet-within-a-ballet. Act I is set in a ballet studio that appears similar to Degas’ paintings. It begins with dancers entering a studio before rehearsal.

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American Ballet Theatre Offers Chicago An “All American Celebration”

American Ballet Theatre dancing Bach Partita. Dancers: Polina Semionova and James Whiteside.  Photo by:  Gene Schiavone

American Ballet Theatre dancing Bach Partita. Dancers: Polina Semionova and James Whiteside. Photo by: Gene Schiavone

American Ballet Theatre is coming to Chicago for one weekend–October 3rd through the 5th. The company will be dancing Clark Tippet’s pas de deux, “Some Assembly Required,” “Fancy Free,” by Jerome Robbins and two works by Twyla Tharp’–“Back Partita” and “Sinatra Suite”. Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie put together this “All American Celebration” and it will take place at the Auditorium Theater of Roosevelt University.


Luciana Paris and Herman Cornejo in Sinatra Suite. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie

Sinatra Suite” consists of two dancers and five Sinatra songs–Strangers in the Night, All the Way, That’s Life, My Way, and One For My Baby (And One More for the Road). Misty Copeland and Marcelo Gomes along with Luciana Paris and James Whiteside will perform this work by Tharp during the Chicago engagement.

Clark Tippet‘s “Some Assembly Required” is also on the program for the evening. This pas de deux has been staged by the original cast (Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner) and is set to set to William Bolcom’s Second Sonata for violin and piano.

Another piece that will be performed is Tharp’s “Bach Partita,” which will feature live music, with violinist Charles Yang playing Bach’s Partita No. 2 in d minor for solo violin.

No “All American” program would feel complete without Jerome Robbins’ lighthearted “Fancy Free,” which was actually the first ballet he ever choreographed back in 1944. The audience tags along with three sailors on leave as they meet up with two girls in New York City. What could go wrong?

American Ballet Theatre

Herman Cornejo in Fancy Free. Photo by: Gene Schiavone

Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie
Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie
Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie”All American Celebration” will take place at the Auditorium Theater

This show is approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes long and it has two intermissions.



Jewels: A Multifaceted Ballet

Pacific Northwest Ballet

Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancer Jessika Anspach backstage, prior to a performance of Diamonds, choreographed by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo © Lindsay Thomas.

Today we are thrilled to welcome Pacific Northwest Ballet‘s Jessika Anspach McEliece to the site officially as a contributing writer. She’ll be writing about a variety of topics for us, starting with this post about George Balanchine’s “Jewels”, which the company will be performing, starting September 26th in Seattle.

by Jessika Anspach McEliece

It’s Tuesday but it feels like, um, I don’t know… not Tuesday. Coming back to work after a break always gives me that jet-lag feeling, no matter what time zone I’ve been in. PNB dancers are doing pirouettes across the grey marley floor of Studio C and between thinking about getting my foot immediately to passé and keeping my standing leg engaged, my rehearsal schedule for the day runs through the ticker tape of my brain. Confusion. Then holes. Then blanks.

I turn to the blonde girl with hyper-extension for days who’s patiently waiting her turn and ask, “Emma, do we have Rubies first or is it Emeralds?”

“I’m pretty sure we have Rubies 12-1 and Emeralds 1-2 but with the principal couple…” she replies. And yet I can tell that her ticker tape is following a similar pattern by her perplexed eyes.

“Oh yeah. That’s right… But I’m pretty sure Emeralds is only a half hour. I thought we had a break from 1:30 to 4, and finished with Diamonds. Is that just demi women or corps women too?” I reply.

“It’s demi and corps men and women. I think we’re piecing together the finale. Are you sure Emeralds is only a half hour?”

“Ha. I’m not sure of anything.”

Emeralds, Rubies and Diamonds – juggling these ballets can be a bit of a handful at first. Yes, Jewels is a full-length ballet. Yes, it has the same choreographer – the genius George Balanchine. All the costumes are designed by the same woman – the fabulous Karinska, and thankfully there’s not a single hair change during the performance… I think. But that’s about it when it comes to continuity.

No two stones are alike, and that is most definitely true of Jewels. Like any beautiful gem, we see the many facets of Mr. Balanchine’s choreographic prowess.

George Balanchine's Emeralds

Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers in Emeralds, choreographed by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo © Angela Sterling.


In Emeralds, set to the very French and very impressionistic music of Gabriel Faure, the movement is soft, yet sweeping. The curtain opens to a sea of emerald green: a principal couple dancing amid ten corps ladies who bourrée from one formation to the next, rarely coming off pointe. The effect: a floating, almost shimmering quality–like lily pads glistening on a glassy pond in one of Monet’s landscapes.

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