Sydney: Highs, Lows and Unexpected Blows

Each summer for the past eight years, I have asked a group of dancers where they are with dance. I leave the question open-ended in order for them to answer however it resonates personally. My goal is to create a yearly check-in to chart how these women evolve through dance. This project began in 2013 when they were still in high school. Below is Sydney’s yearly update, as well as her shifting perspectives over the past eight years. Especially now, with so much in the air regarding the future of the performing arts, it is my honor to document Sydney’s path. I eagerly await what direction her path will lead in the future and what role dance will play. –Emmaly Wiederholt

2020: age 22

Oh, what a year this has been. It was a year of extreme highs, lows, and unexpected blows. From the very beginning of the school year, it was unusual for me. For starters, it was my last year of college! I had finished my degree the year before and was uncertain whether I was going to return for my fourth year. That summer, I had received an offer from Oklahoma City Ballet to be a trainee but, seeing as it was more of a training program than a job, I decided to return to the University of Utah in the fall. After speaking with my mentors, it seemed like the better option, especially because I was on full tuition scholarship at the U and would have had to pay for the traineeship.

It was my fourth year, and my (second) senior year! I was excited, I was riding the high of performing on Broadway with BalletNext, and I was in the best shape of my life, going to the gym, taking yoga classes, and dancing all throughout the summer so I would be at my best.

And then…I HAMMERED MY FREAKING FINGER. Yes, you read correctly. Hammered it. I was doing work in the garage with my mom, and literally slammed my finger with a rubber mallet so hard that the tendon on my left index finger completely lacerated (a super gross medical word I learned – it literally just means torn-clean-through. Yuck.). I had to get surgery immediately and was told that I wouldn’t be able to exercise or do anything that would produce sweat for SIX WEEKS. Obviously, to a dancer, especially one who had worked her butt off all summer to stay in tip-top shape, that was basically a death sentence. I was bawling in the doctor’s office, feeling as though I was witnessing every dream for this year fade away.

I drove back to Utah with my mom, knowing that everything was going to be different. After all, if I couldn’t even dance as a Ballet Major, what the heck was I supposed to do? About a week being back, I went to see my physical therapist they had assigned to me, and my world completely changed.

“What do you mean they said you can’t sweat? Of course you can. Just keep your brace on, and don’t be an idiot.”

“You mean I can dance?”

“Yes, go for it.”

WOOOOOOHOOOOOO! Once I got the green light to MOVE again, I was on a mission. After two weeks of completely no dancing, I was ready to get back into it, no matter how weird it was going to be. I took barre without ever actually holding the barre for about two months and made the most of the experience. Was it hard? UM, YES. But! I grew so much as a result of that body awareness. Life was hard one-handed, believe me, but I made it work as best as I could, and I made it out the other side with a lot more core strength!

During all that insanity, we also had auditions for the fall show, which included Act II of my favorite ballet of all time, Giselle. I was forlorn at the complication that my tendon and massive splint brought for auditions, but not hopeless. I was going to try my best and hope that the faculty could see that I would be healed in about a month’s time, which would be about a month or so from opening night. And I could still dance fully as long as there were no barres involved, so I figured it was worth a shot. During auditions, I was cut from the contemporary audition, as there was too much floor work and partnering for me to be able to do it with my healing injury. I was extremely upset but knew that didn’t necessarily mean I wouldn’t be considered for the ballet. And then, a couple days later, I got cast as the lead. My dream role was finally being realized. I was Giselle in Giselle. WHAT. I genuinely couldn’t believe it!

The rehearsal process was a dream. I have never felt so invested in a role, so immersed in the character and choreography, so in love with ballet. I worked hard and enjoyed every single second of it. The shows went well, and I can say with all certainty that it was the greatest performing experience of my life to date.

After Giselle, it was November! My splint had been off for about two months, and life was busy and back to normal. We began rehearsing for the next show, and I was choreographing a piece for the Ballet Student Showcase. I started to film all my audition materials, and began audition season in November, as I was looking to do European auditions as well as American ones. Things were busy, but things were good! I got into Grand Audition, which essentially is a massive audition with eight companies all viewing invited dancers at once. This year, it was in Barcelona! My mom and I booked the flights, and that was the first thing in the books for the season. I sent more emails than I have ever sent in my life. I sent my videos to every company I could find, abroad or not. My life was spread sheets, cover letters, resumes, CVs, headshots, and dance photos for like six months! I heard back from a lot of places, and got invited to do two other auditions in Europe, as well as multiple company class and invite-only auditions in the States, and was having so much fun traveling and dancing, chasing my dreams all the while.

And then, COVID-19 hit. And it hit hard. On March 16, I attended an audition at Richmond Ballet, and felt fantastic about how it went. Little did I know that audition would be my last of the season, and the last time I would be dancing in a studio for the indeterminable future. By the time I flew back to Utah, the rest of my senior year was put online, and we were under a worldwide lockdown for the pandemic. It was surreal, and honestly still is.

I began to give myself class in the kitchen, using my countertop as a barre, and doing as much center work as I possibly could. I was even doing pointe on a hardwood floor, being as careful as I could be, and trying, desperately, to stay in shape. In April, my mom flew out to Utah, we packed up my car, and we drove back home to Texas to be together during these uncertain times. I was devastated to leave my home of four years, my best friend and roommate, and my boyfriend. But the one perk? I got to make a little personal dance studio in my house! My mom ordered me a barre as a graduation gift, we bought some shower-pan liner to tape down as a floor, and we moved the furniture out of the way. I was open for business!

For the past few months, I have been training hard six days a week, and have even been able to do complete classes on pointe, thanks to my floor! It has certainly not been what I planned, with graduation being virtually online, finishing out all my classes on Zoom, and dancing in my living room, but I have made the best of it and am honestly proud of myself. I have gained so much awareness of my alignment and feel as though I have been able to grow as a dancer during quarantine, thanks to lots of online ballet class videos, lots of self-correcting, and lots of notetaking. By being forced to really be in-tune with my body, I have found that I am balancing better, turning better, and altogether more aware of what I need to do to improve. I have been doing workout classes, using ankle weights, and have been doing lots of Thera-Band exercises, Pilates, and yoga to make sure that I am in the best shape I can be during these insane conditions. I feel like I am staying in shape well, and have not lost any technique besides grand allegro, since I really can’t do that inside my house. It has been really encouraging to see that I am able to be disciplined on my own, and I am grateful that I have that as an artist.

Looking forward, it’s really hard to say what’s going to happen. For me, for a lot of people, life is kind of in limbo. I am going to be attending a small dance intensive in Chicago with A&A Ballet, which will be an audition to be considered for their main company, and that’s all I have planned for the time being. I sent them my materials during the year, and they expressed interest, but said they could only offer me a paid position after working with me, and it just so happened that they didn’t cancel their program. Safety measures will be in place, but soon, I’ll be in a studio again, and I couldn’t be more excited. Besides that, the cancelled auditions that I had in place are TBD on whether they will be happening this year or just saved for next season, and I am still waiting on some video submissions. Unfortunately, my final European audition in the Czech Republic for Brno Ballet was cancelled, which was devastating after making it through the pre-screening process. However, I know that all this is out of my control, and I am just trying to stay in shape and optimistic, knowing that everything will end up working out, one way or another.

In a speech that Brené Brown gave to UT Austin’s graduating class, she discussed her career path and how, though all the hardships she faced, things ended up working out for her. She assured us that the same would happen for us, “But it will not be on your terms, and not on your timeline.” That really resonated with me, as this entire situation is not on my terms or my timeline, and a lot of my path has been the same way. However, just as the beginning of this year worked out for me despite all the obstacles I faced, I know that my professional career will work out, one way or another. The only thing I can do is everything I can: stay in shape, stay determined, and let my love of ballet fuel every step I make. In Frozen 2, Anna has a whole song revolving around the quote, “Do the next right thing.” I think that just about sums it up. I have not, and will not, be beaten down by this pandemic. Yes, things look different than I expected, but there hasn’t really been a time in my life when that wasn’t true. I am here to take on the life that has been thrown at me, and I am here to make the best of it. In the words of Lin Manuel Miranda, “I am not throwing away my shot.” Bring it on 2020. You haven’t knocked me down yet.

2019: age 21

This year I began my transition into the professional realm of the world I’ve loved since I can remember. A crazy year indeed, but a great one nonetheless. It began with me deciding at some point last year to condense my studies at the University of Utah’s ballet program into three years instead of four, so I doubled up on my dance classes. On top of that, I participated in every show! I was casted as the soloist in Melissa Bobick’s Fractured, which we took to California to compete in a choreographic competition in November. Then, I worked with two of my best friends in their student choreographic works, while simultaneously getting thrown into Michele Wiles’s company, BalletNext, to rehearse for my New York debut! I was also fortunate enough to be cast as a gossip girl in Bruce Mark’s version of La Fille Mal Gardée at the U. We rehearsed nonstop for this full-length experience, and it worked out great in the end!

The day after La Fille closed, I was on a plane to the Big Apple for a costume fitting, rehearsal, then a week of shows at New York Live Arts in Chelsea. It was an incredible experience as we were fortunate enough to share the bill with Amar Ramasar and Maria Kowroski. Being able to watch these two perform a duet as well as being able to perform in two of Michele’s own pieces in my favorite city was something that definitely will continue to shape me as a dancer. We ended up having another round of shows in upstate New York at Kaatsbaan, which was incredible, and I recently returned to the city to have another round of shows at the New Victory Theater on Broadway! Working with Michele has been amazing for me and has really changed the way I approach movement, especially with turning. I will be forever grateful to her for everything she has given her dancers.

Additionally, the week after we returned to Utah from New York the first time, my audition season began. I had five in-person auditions and sent videos to many! Got a lot of great feedback and even more great experience, and I am currently in Oklahoma City with OKCB to get further evaluated for a job with the company! This will be the deciding factor as to whether I return to the U in the fall, but no matter what, I just gotta keep pushing for it. Something I learned this year through everything is that a lot of auditioning is being in the right place at the right time, and that some seasons are just going to be harder to land a job than others, whether that’s because of look, availability, or anything else. It is a HUGE lottery, but the important thing for me is to just try to do my best at all times, and take the waves as they come! I will find my place in the professional world, be it this year or next. I just have to show myself to the world and follow the tides.

Another thing I did this year was participate in my first (and likely last) ballet competition! I competed two variations, Giselle Act I and Raymonda’s Daydreams, as well as my own choreographic contemporary piece, Ellipsis, in the American Ballet Competition in early June. I ended up placing third overall in the classical division and got a scholarship to attend a Bournonville workshop. It was a really great experience to work closely with Christopher Alloways-Ramsey, who is on faculty at the U. I balanced these intense classes and rehearsals with him with working with Michele, which was challenging but do-able, and totally worked out in the end.

I am so glad that I participated in everything that I did this year, and taking a second to sit and write it all out shows me that I am capable of so much, and need to continue to partake in everything I possibly can in an effort to know that I am doing everything I can to get to where I need to be. That’s all I can do, and it will be enough. I’ll never settle. In the words of Billy Joel, “Only fools are satisfied.” What a year it has been.

2018: age 20

Six years into this project, and dance is still my bread and butter. I’ve never loved something so much or been so passionately involved in anything, and I know that I’m in the world I’m meant to be in.

This year was my sophomore year at the University of Utah’s ballet program, and it was transformative to say the least. From the beginning, I was met with unexpected challenges, and I truly felt as though I grew the most I ever have in one year’s time. I was moved up to the senior ballet level as a sophomore, so not only was I challenged in technique, but I was also on my own, completely unfamiliar with my peers and the new teachers. Being thrown into this environment was at first a little jarring, but I quickly realized that it was a sink or swim situation, and I was determined to stay afloat. Being able to look up to my older peers and learn through example as well as through the wonderful staff, I was pushed to grow each and every class. I also switched pointe shoe brands from Gaynor Minden to Suffolk Solo Prequels, which changed a lot for me for the better.

I also did a lot of performing, taking on not only ballet department programs, but extra shows through the modern department as well! I performed in Konservatoriet in the fall, coached by Jeff Rogers at Ballet West, then participated in a modern grad show thesis, performed in Jay Kim’s faculty work while struggling with Achilles tendonitis, and finally was a part of Nicholas Gibas’ senior piece, which was an amazing experience. We had danced in Petronio’s MiddleSexGorge the year prior together, so it was truly an inspiration to work with him again. I also found a love for choreographing, and will be exploring this side of myself more. In the choreographic classes in which I participated, my work was met with praise and constructive criticism, so I hope to continue to seek growth, change and developments in this facet of dance. This summer, I will be attending American Ballet Theater’s ballet intensive in New York, as well as the University of Utah’s summer intensive to get some ballet BFA credits taken care of while also staying in shape for this upcoming crazy year.

Another development in my dance life is that I made the decision to audition for ballet companies this upcoming year! This potentially would mean graduating early, which I am currently on track to do, and beginning my ballet career next year. I am extremely terrified but simultaneously eager and excited to put myself out there. This has been a dream of mine for so long, and knowing that I am on the cusp of beginning that professional journey is thrilling. While I understand there is a lot of potential for failure, I know that I will not stop trying until I make it, and that failure is only fuel for the journey. I look forward to the year ahead, and all the years to come. Somehow, everything’s gonna fall right into place, and I cannot wait to be planted and begin blooming into the artist I seek to become.

Sydney May 2018

2017: age 19

This past year has been one of the craziest and most exciting of my life! I started school at the University of Utah School of Dance as a ballet major, and was lucky enough to get to perform in every show! We did Les Sylphides in the fall, and I had a solo in a contemporary piece in the spring, alongside a duet in Stephen Petronio’s MiddleSexGorge in April.

I went through a lot of personal growth as well, realizing more and more that I am truly the only one who is in charge of where my life and dance career takes me. Though I cannot predict the future, all that matters is that my passion will never die and that my work ethic remains as strong as it can be. It is really nice to be supported by my faculty, and they give me valuable advice and corrections. They also gave me great feedback in conferences, and I look forward to continuing my time there, working toward my goals through my love of the art form.

I’m currently studying at American Ballet Theatre for the summer program, and have loved every moment. I think this would be my ideal place to dance when I’ve gotten older and better (fingers crossed), but I am keeping my options open, knowing that as long as I put my entirety into my endeavor, I will end up where I need to be. Lots of unknown, but I do know that I love what I’m doing, and that is enough.

Sydney-May

2016: age 18

Dance for me has been a continual passion that I don’t ever think will cease. I have loved it for as long as I can remember and I will continue to love it with all of my being. I just graduated from Booker T Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, which was the best thing that has ever happened to me (the school, not leaving it). I am continuing my dance studies at the University of Utah’s ballet program where I hope to become a trainee with Ballet West. I am on the waiting list for Juilliard at this point in time, and though that is my dream school, I know that if I don’t get in in the end, I will have another good option waiting for me. I am currently studying at Joffrey Academy of Chicago for the summer, and I’m having a great time learning from all of the faculty as well as my classmates. I can only push forward and hope that all that I am doing is propelling me towards where I want and need to be.

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2015: age 17

Dance is my soul’s way of getting out of my body. I have never felt freer or more alive than within the moments of movement that I am lucky enough to be able to do most days of my life. I am going into my senior year in high school at Booker T. Washington HSPVA, so I am dancing and growing every day. I am nervous about applying and auditioning for colleges, conservatories and companies this upcoming year. I hope for the best. I know I will end up where I am meant to be, and while that is in the back of my mind, the nervousness and anxiety is still present. I recently was Belle in my studio’s ballet production of Beauty and the Beast, which was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I truly had a fantastic time learning the part and being able to dance with my partner Paul again. I cannot wait to continue my passion for dance as long as I can, and I hope my career has just begun.

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2014: age 16

Dance is my passion, and has been for as long as I can remember. I can’t see a time where it won’t be. I hope to be a professional one day, and am currently at a performing arts high school where I am pursuing a career. I hope to grow as much as I can every single day and know to be patient with myself as growing is a process, not a destination.

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2013: age 15

Dance is my everything right now. I go to Booker T. Washington HSPVA for dance, and I hope that I will be able to have the wonderful opportunity of making it my career. I dream of dancing professionally, and I will do whatever it takes to make the dreams come true! Dance is my passion and has been for a long, long time and I never want to know what life is like without it.

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