Teaching Tips

Students of the Kirov Academy of Ballet Learn That Job Readiness Is More Than Stellar Technique

Runqiao Du teaches his career preparation course at the Kirov Academy of Ballet. Photo by Matteo Galli, courtesy of Kirov Academy of Ballet

As well-trained as pre-professional students are, how many are ready to move into a company environment at 17 or 18 years old—and succeed? Runqiao Du, artistic director of the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC, has seen many dancers struggle as apprentices and first-year corps members and notes that some don't make it beyond that. "Physically and mentally, they're just through," he says. That's why Du has instituted a weekly career development seminar to "prepare young dancers for their transition from a student mind-set to a professional mind-set," he says.


Born and trained in Shanghai, Du recalls his own challenges joining The Washington Ballet at age 18. Beyond a new country and language, he says, "my attitude in general toward rehearsal and toward class was different. I had to learn."

Du wants his 12 Kirov seniors to be ready. His career preparation course, which meets every Friday afternoon, covers different aspects of professional life, from the job-search process to interacting with colleagues and artistic staff. Here are a few takeaways.

Preparing for Auditions

Du's course begins where the students must: preparing for the job hunt. "There are so many prodigies," he says. "But companies are careful about hiring. Just because a dancer can do a brilliant solo doesn't mean they can cope in long-term company life."

Du walks his dancers through the process of conducting a focused job search, crafting a resumé and video reel, and scheduling auditions. He encourages them to research the organization's history, style, social-media accounts and artistic staff to better understand the type of work the company does, and prepare themselves accordingly. Interviews also matter, so dancers learn how to ask perceptive questions to demonstrate their intelligence and interest.

Du also covers the aftermath of audition season: signing a contract—and fully understanding the legal language and obligations of both parties—and handling rejection. (His advice? If your A-list company doesn't hire you, move on to plan B—even if that means expanding options, like college.)

"Mr. Du told us even little details about how to communicate with the company," says Andrea Sandoval, an 18-year-old student from Mexico City. "He makes you realize how important these things are."

Knowing Where You Stand

Once hired, navigating the complexities of company life can make or break a dancer's career. Du even lectures on something as seemingly innocuous as stepping into the first company class, noting that a newcomer shouldn't encroach on a senior dancer's position at the barre.

Du also wants dancers to understand that a company's focus is on the bigger picture. Artistic staff are concerned about the company's entire look, but they won't spend much time working on individual dancers' technique, strength and stamina. "In ballet school, your teachers look at everything—your fingers, your hair, your placement," says Du. "In a company, you're responsible for that. You're on your own."

He also emphasizes that many first-year hires have a less rigorous schedule than they did during their preparatory training, and they lose technique and stamina. "I was surprised to hear that, and that company teachers and coaches may not pay much attention," says Ariadne Fernandez, an 18-year-old student from Laguna Beach, California. "Here, they correct us on every little thing."

Thriving in a Company

Dancers may only be teenagers when they start their careers, but they are expected to present themselves professionally in class and rehearsals, at fundraising events and even on social media. "Stay out of company politics and avoid gossip," Du tells his dancers. And like a Boy Scout, he adds, always be prepared. That means showing up with a fully packed dance bag—bringing their own food and water to work and packing extra supplies and a second set of dance clothes.

Elena Karaviti, a 20-year-old student from Greece, says the seminar has helped her understand that keeping a dance job is about more than her technique, which is a given. "It's important how we act with our colleagues," she says, adding, "I was surprised that artistic directors look at our social media."

Du also alerts dancers to company life's faster pace. In a conservatory, he says, students might work on a 90-second solo for six months. A professional must learn complete ballets or new works in a few weeks or even days. Rehearsals, he says, are challenging for new dancers who may be cast as understudies and must learn a part from the back or even by a video. Du also emphasizes that the company is a business, so arriving mentally prepared for rehearsals is key—if the répétiteur has to repeat material, that wastes time and money.

Du's students diligently take notes and ask questions throughout his course. "It's been helpful to get to know about company life before I get there, and I can hear it from someone who had professional experience," says Kuan-Lun Li, 18, a third-year Kirov student from Taiwan.

"I want the students to have this education," says Du. "It's about the duration of your company life—you have to last season after season. We see some dancers who are brilliant, but after one season, they're done." He wants his students prepared for the long run.

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.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

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.

Keep reading... Show less
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.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.