Ballerina, New York City Ballet
Insight directly from the Sugarplum Fairy herself…
Kaitlyn Gilliland danced the role of the Sugarplum Fairy in the New York City Ballet’s “Nutcracker” last year — a role that every ballerina dreams of as a little girl. As the New York City Ballet (NYCB) prepares to open their world famous “Nutcracker” next Friday, November 27, Kaitlyn shares insider information about how the world of dance works.
I was fortunate enough to see Kaitlyn be magical in her ballet slippers — her dancing is ethereal and gorgeous to watch. The experience piqued my curiousity — how does someone rise from the local ballet class to ballerina in one of the world’s premier dance companies?
In Kaitlyn’s case, it probably helps that dance is in her DNA — her grandmother was an accomplished dancer/choreographer and her mother, who is still active in dance today, is a former member of American Ballet Theater. But DNA doesn’t land you “plum” roles — hard work, practice and a dedication that drives you to leave home for opportunities in New York at the age of 16 get you to the top. As the saying goes, stars aren’t born, they’re made.
I hung up my tutu a long time ago – after two years it was clear I wasn’t destined for pointe shoes. I’ve always had an appreciation for the rigor of ballet, but Kaitlyn’s insight has taught me much about dance and dancers. Of course, I had to ask her what she thinks of all those popular dance shows on tv…!
If you’re in New York, treat yourself to the NYCB’s “Nutcracker” — or enjoy one in your own neighborhood. And after you’ve read Kaitlyn’s interview, go to the NYCB website where can get an easy A-to-Z primer on ballet and enjoy listening to the pronunciation guide (I may never know what those words mean but it’s fun to hear!)
all NYCB photos by Paul Kolnik
What’s the best way to watch ballet?
Because each ballet you see is different, there aren’t really any guidelines to follow when watching a ballet. If there’s a story involved, like in “The Nutcracker,” some may prefer to read the story before watching the ballet. On the other hand, although I know the story very well, I like to watch it as though the dancers are telling me the story for the first time.
Even though abstract ballets don’t typically have stories, I find that I like to come up with my own interpretation of what’s happening, or simply allow myself to be part of the mood that the music and the steps create. Because each dancer is unique, the same ballet can look completely different when danced by two different people.
I don’t think, however, that there is a ‘best’ way to watch ballet. There are many aspects of any ballet that could appeal to someone — the music, the choreography, the dancers, the costumes — and that’s the beauty of our art form.
How and when did you start dance and what was your path to getting to your high achievement as a New York City Ballet dancer?
I started dancing when I was four years old. “Dancing,” at that time, was more along the lines of pretending to be an animal at the zoo, leaping over imaginary ponds, and generally exhausting myself in the studio. I became more serious with both my ballet and contemporary training when I was about eight years old (when the classes became more formal.) I didn’t really appreciate the difficulty of ballet until pointe shoes were introduced (around age 10).
As I got older, I continued my training in various contemporary and modern techniques, but also realized that ballet was the most physically demanding and precise. Because of the rigorous training schedule it required, I opted out of various after school activities (and an active social life) and dedicated all of my afternoons to dance and school work. I never really felt like I was missing out on anything because I had good friends in my classes at dance (who remain friends to this day). The opportunity to perform several times a year was also incentive for me to work hard.
When I attended my first summer course at the School of American Ballet at age 15, I was introduced to the New York City Ballet and its astounding repertory. After that summer, I was set on joining the company. The next year, I was accepted full time into their Winter Course, which meant that at 16, I was living in dorms in NYC and training to be a professional ballet dancer (I attended high school at Professional Children’s School). I was invited to join the company as an apprentice on my 17th birthday, and after a year-long hiatus from ballet to recover from a knee injury, I began my career with NYCB.
What do the different titles mean: soloist, principal, corps?
There are three levels, or ranks, in the New York City Ballet. The highest rank is ‘principal,’ which is a remarkable achievement. These dancers perform the most demanding and coveted roles in the repertory of the New York City Ballet. ‘Soloist’ is the second rank in the company, and these dancers often perform featured roles, as well as principal roles. ‘Corps de Ballet’ consists of both newer and older dancers, who make up many of the groups that you see in larger ballets.
New York City Ballet is unique in that it has many featured roles for corps de ballet dancers. The company also often gives members of the corps many chances to do soloist and principal roles. For certain corps dancers, repeated soloist and principal parts often lead to a promotion to soloist. For soloists, repeated principal parts may lead to a promotion to the rank of principal dancer. As far as promotions go, they are generally rewarded for consistently good performances, but there are no set requirements for a promotion. Generally, the ballet masters agree when it is time for a dancer to move up in the ranks.
What’s life like for a premier ballet dancer? How often do you practice and how do you stay conditioned when not practicing? How often are you performing, both with the NYCB and with different companies?
When the company is in season, we perform seven shows a week (one performance Tuesday through Sunday and two on Saturday). We have class at 10:30am to warm-up, then the rest of the day is reserved for rehearsals and then performance. Monday is our “off day,” the one day a week we get to rest our bodies.
Our seasons are 8 or 9 weeks long, with an additional five week Nutcracker season and a summer residency in Saratoga. I’ve also toured with the company to Paris, London, Copenhagen, Tokyo, and Chicago. We have a very full schedule during the year, and because I am in the corps de ballet, I perform almost every night. On our layoffs, I often come home and guest with the Minnesota Dance Theatre or travel with smaller company groups to locations including Madrid, Barcelona, Mallorca, and Mexico City. I prefer not to take a lot of time away from dancing because it makes it that much harder to get back in shape!
Once you are in a company like the New York City Ballet, do you still audition for parts in your own company’s performances? If you are cast without audition, who does the casting and how do they select the dancers for the parts?
New York City Ballet typically casts dancers in parts based on their work in class and in performance. They know us well as dancers, so rather than making us audition for parts, they instead will often call several people to a rehearsal and work with them on a part. If a dancer is not cast in something right away, they will usually get a chance to perform the role if another dancer gets injured (which tends to happen quite often) or in a later season. The ballet masters all continually watch class, rehearsal, and performance to help them determine who is right for certain roles.
When choreographers come in from outside the company, they will often watch class or performances to help them get to know the dancers and determine who they want to use. Sometimes, they come in with specific dancers in mind; on other occasions, they are inspired by what they see in the studio or on stage.
Because your legs and feet are so vital to your career, do you have to avoid certain “normal” activity to keep yourself safe — e.g., avoiding snowy sidewalks for fear of falling; avoiding crowds where your foot might get stepped on?
Our legs and feet are quite valuable, and because of that, certain dancers choose not to play sports or engage in certain activities that might cause injury. Many others in the company, however, enjoy tennis, swimming, waterskiing, golfing, and running. It often depends on the individual. As far as snowy sidewalks and crowds, ballet dancers are much tougher than we appear! I fall a lot (both inside and outside of the studio) and my toes get stepped on all the time. Usually, the falls are more funny than painful, and my toes are so tough from my pointe shoes that I can barely feel when someone else is crushing them!
Is ballet the foundation of all other dance?
Many contemporary and modern techniques are derived from basic ballet positions and movements. I don’t think it necessarily makes ballet the foundation of all other dance, but it has certainly provided inspiration for many other forms. Because ballet is arguably the most precise and exacting form of dance, many dancers choose to train in ballet to improve other aspects of their dancing. Ballet is especially good for posture, placement, strength, and flexibility.
What’s your most memorable performing moment?
Any time I get to come home and dance with Minnesota Dance Theatre it is always memorable because I love the company and the people. I recently danced next to my younger sister (who also dances) at an MDT performance and that was a particularly special experience.
I have also had many opportunities to do solo roles at New York City Ballet, and those are all memorable for (mostly) good and (a few) not-so-good reasons! My favorite ballet that I have danced to this day is “Piano Pieces,” by Jerome Robbins, which includes a beautiful solo for a girl. Last year, I performed the “Sugarplum Fairy” in New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker for the first time, and that was a terrifying, but glorious experience. If there’s one role every young ballerina wishes to dance, it’s that one!
Do you think anyone can learn dance or are dancers born (e.g., do you have to have a certain body type, etc.)
Body type does play an important role in most forms of dance, especially ballet. Another crucial aspect in the making of a dancer, however, is whether they have that ’spark’ that not only makes them beautiful or interesting to watch, but also gives them the drive to dedicate themselves to such a challenging profession. Anyone can learn and execute steps, but they must also have the magic that allows them to turn ’steps’ into ‘dance.’
At what age should we introduce dance classes to our kids? Are there certain classes kids should start with?
I started off with Creative Movement classes when I was about four years old. I think that’s a good age for children to begin moving around to music and exploring their imagination. Structured dance classes, however, should probably be delayed for a couple of years (until age 6 or 7 at least) because they require a lot more focus and coordination.
Any child interested in serious dance training should be involved in a good program that will train them appropriately according to personal strength and maturity (since it varies from child to child) and it is important not to start too late. Ballet classes (and any type of dance classes) can be a fun way for any child to develop coordination, discipline, and musical appreciation, even if they choose not to make it a career. Adults, too, often enjoy it recreationally as a satisfying form of exercise.
Girls have tutus to aspire to but most boys don’t seem to long to wear cool tights — any thoughts on how to get boys interested in dance?
It’s always helpful for boys who might be interested in dance to have good role models to provide encouragement, as well as have supportive parents. In many dance schools, boys might find themselves in the minority, often completely surrounded by girls. In that case, I think the best way to get boys interested in dance is to take them to see performances where they can see mature and respected male performers, and also to make sure they are in a dance class where they are continually challenged (and ideally with other boys who share their interest in dance).
Dance reality shows are so popular — is this good for all dance?
I think the popularity of dance reality shows is good exposure for dance, but not necessarily the best representation of its many forms. These reality shows emphasize dance as a competitive, ‘individual” activity rather than as an art form sustained by many professional companies throughout the world. I believe that these shows are beneficial if they encourage interest in dance, but they are not an accurate representation of ALL of the forms of dance, ballet in particular.
Proust Questionnaire for Kaitlyn Gilliland:
my favorite snack is: a cupcake from Magnolia Bakery
don’t ask me to: cook
i would put in a time capsule my: journal
my favorite place is: my apartment with my cat, Charlie
when i have a creative block I: listen to Jay-Z
my favorite mantra is: “Don’t fit in, fit out”