“Fondu, passé, arabesque, passé!” the instructor shouts from the front of a mirrored room to a cluster of focused dancers. With every variation he spouts, they make slight movements with their hands, out and in and back and forth, preparing for actions they will take with their bodies. “Now dancers, DANCE!” he calls out as the pianist begins playing. The men and women spring to the center of the room. They leap and move their feet with what looks like little effort while they stare at themselves critically in the floor to ceiling mirror.
With each flutter of their feet, they appear oblivious to everything else around them- the reverberating sound of their teacher clapping to the beat, the honking of cars horns, and police sirens blaring from Broadway just a few floors below. The dancers are completely fixated on perfecting their craft.
Every morning at 10:15 AM, this warm-up class is how the dancers of the American Ballet Theater begin their day. The practice continues until 7:30 PM, with only two breaks. This cycle repeats six days a week- seven during the weeks of performances.
ABT’s tradition of dedication and hard work has persisted since Mikhail Mordkinfounded the company in 1937. Since then, it has grown to be recognized as “America’s National Ballet Company.” Led by creative director Kevin McKenzie, the company’s eighty-nine Principle, Soloist, Corps de Ballet, and Apprentice members tour globally and return to NYC for an eight-week Metropolitan Opera House season plus winter performances of “The Nutcracker.”
“It’s exhausting, but I love it,” Cassandra Trenary, a third-year Corps de Ballet member at ABT, said with a smile. “You’re really tired at the end of the day but you worked hard, so you feel accomplished.”
For Trenary, exhaustion wasn’t the only sacrifice of becoming a professional dancer. After studying ballet in Georgia since she was three years old, her entire family moved to New York when she earned a spot in ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (JKO) ballet school at age fifteen. Two years later, she was offered a position as an Apprentice and was later promoted to the Corps de Ballet.
Jamie Kopit, another third-year member of the Corps, similarly diverged from the path of most teenagers. At age 15, Kopit left her home in California to attend the Royal Ballet School in London. Then before her schooling was even complete, she was recruited to apprentice at ABT at age 17, then a year later asked to join the Corps.
In the blink of an eye, Trenary and Kopit’s bodies transformed from solely their instruments of artistic expression to their livelihood.
“I’m always focused on improving my body,” Kopit said. “It’s like you have a sculpture and each day you tone and sculpt it more and more.”
But no amount of sculpting takes away the fear of injuries, “One thing I’ve learned is I need to cross train with gyro-tonics, Pilates, and the gym,” explained Trenary. “It depends on how long you want to dance- you have to take care of your body.”
In conjunction with physical stress, explained first-year Corps de Ballet dancer Claire Davidson, is an immense amount of emotional stress, “I haven’t heard of a dancer who didn’t think of quitting at times. There’s just a lot of mind games and pain.”
Davidson, whose parents were ballet instructors in Colorado, was initially weary about the sport. Eventually she gave ballet a chance and found it gave her an “inexplicable happiness.” After moving to New York to attend JKO, Davidson earned an apprenticeship then position in the Corps.
As a new member, one of the biggest challenges for Davidson was learning many of the unspoken rules of the company’s seniority. “You start to understand things like ‘That’s her spot,’ ‘don’t even look at her,’ ‘get out of her way.’ A lot of it is stupid and catty, but it’s tradition I guess.”
Trenary attested, “ABT has the reputation of believing the best dancer is a seasoned dancer.” No matter how hard the younger Corps de Ballet members work, they must wait patiently before having a prayer of taking the spotlight from Gilian Murphy, Marcelo Gomes, or any of the other sixteen Principle dancers.
“It’s hard to not get discouraged,” Trenary explained. “But we have to try not to, otherwise we won’t be our best selves.”
While the internal pressures of ABT can be overwhelming, being a dancer in New York City comes with its own challenges, especially as an NYC transplant.
Trenary reflected with a slight laugh how hard it can be to stay focused and create art in a place so congested with people: “Sometimes we’ll be rehearsing and suddenly there will be sirens outside. You just think ‘get me out of here!’”
But Kopit believes the energy of the city is one of the main reasons ABT attracts “the most eclectic, exciting, bold dancers.”
“I feed off of the energy. I don’t drain from it,” said Kopit as she pulled her hands toward her chest, as if to pull the life of the city inside of her. “I think it’s exciting. It’s the audience that gives you energy, and what better place for an audience than New York.”