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Complexions Dancer Shanna Irwin Dishes on The Company's Crazy Schedule

Photo by Rachel Neville, courtesy of Irwin

Shanna Irwin vividly remembers her introduction to Complexions Contemporary Ballet. She was dancing Clara in the New Jersey Dance Theatre Ensemble's production of The Nutcracker. Guest artists from Complexions performed as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier, and from the moment Irwin saw them dance, she was hooked. Years later, as a senior at Marymount Manhattan College, Complexions co-artistic director Desmond Richardson invited Irwin to fill in for one of his injured dancers for the end of the spring 2014 season, and her long-held dream of performing with the company became a reality. She's been dazzling Complexions' audiences with her undeniable strength, full-bodied performances and eternally lengthened lines ever since.

See her perform June 17 with Complexions at the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts in Detroit.


How her teachers prepped her for a professional career: "My teachers were very strict because they understood the path I wanted to take with my career. I learned that I should be able to give a choreographer whatever they asked of me as a performer. They taught me to be a clean slate. They wanted every choreographer to clearly see the vision of what they were working for when they saw me dance."

On her rigorous schedule: "I start my days with an hour-and-a-half ballet class at 10 am. We have a quick 15-minute break before going into our long day of rehearsals. Depending on what rep we're working on for our upcoming tour, we'll either work all together as a company or in smaller groups with different choreographers. The full day of dancing ends around 6 pm, and then we start it all again the next morning. When we're on tour, we're usually gone for three to six days at a time. We spend a full day traveling to our venue, rehearse and perform for a few days, and then head right back home."

What she does to stay fit: "The most important part of my fitness routine is my warm-up. I usually start with abdominal exercises and go into simple leg exercises and hip openers (sometimes with added resistance). I then do a series of planks and hamstring stability exercises. Right before class starts I'll work through my feet and ankles with a TheraBand. Outside of my warm-up, I really like to do Pilates and stay active in general. I grew up near a lake, so I love to go kayaking and swimming."

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

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For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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