Press: ‘Sleeping Beauty’ through the eyes of two Louisville Ballet trainees

By Eli Keel for Louisville Insider

April 4, 2017

This weekend, the Louisville Ballet will wrap up an incredible season with the classic story ballet “The Sleeping Beauty.” The story of Princess Aurora, the evil fairy Carabosse and Prince Florimund caps a season that featured a laser-light “Swan Lake,” new magic in “The Nutcracker” and the incredible new ballet “The Human Abstract.”

Those shows all featured standout performances from the principle dancers and company members. But if you look past the established professionals, you’d see the 15 members of the ballet training program.

“Sleeping Beauty” marks the end of the Louisville Ballet’s season and the departure of many of its trainees. Insider spoke with trainees Madelyn Nelson and Natalie Nguyen about the trainee program, what they’ve learned in Louisville, and what they are looking forward to in this weekend’s performances of “Sleeping Beauty.”

Nguyen and Nelson are both recent graduates of ballet-focused college programs. Nguyen graduated from Indiana University in 2015 and has spent the last two years in the trainee program. Nelson just graduated in December, thanks to a special program offered through the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and the Louisville Ballet.

“I co-opted — that’s what they call it — for my last semester, so I was getting credit for taking class here. I graduated, and now I’m just real-world people,” says Nelson.

The trainee program at the ballet offers young dancers a chance to further hone their skills as they prepare to enter the highly competitive world of professional dance.

For the trainees, as with many dancers, their days start with class. But unlike the company here and in other professional ballets, the trainees don’t take company class.

“Instead of taking company class, we take our seperate class, and it’s a set class, so we’ll learn one class on Monday, and then do the same class and build on it for two or three weeks,” says Nguyen.

This allows the trainees to focus in on specific skills and improve individual moves and styles. At the end a few weeks, they record their class to gauge how much they’ve progressed. The trainees even have midterms and refer to different portions of the year as semesters.

But after morning class, the trainees get down to business and focus on learning parts and pieces of upcoming works for the ballet.

“So I think that’s one of the cooler parts about being a trainee here — you’re not just a student, you’re expected to do as much,” explains Nguyen. “You just have to keep learning.”

Nelson says the amount of stage time the trainees get varies.

“It depends on the production and the pieces that we do,” she says. “If it’s a story ballet, it requires a big corps de ballet … then yes, most if not all trainee women are used in the corps de ballet.”

So almost all the trainees got stage time in the corps for “Swan Lake,” “The Nutcracker” and the upcoming “Sleeping Beauty,” which they’ve been prepping for months.

“The biggest corps role is nymphs, in the vision scene in Act Two,” says Nguyen. “We started rehearsing that in February.”

Most parts of story ballets — some of which feature music and choreography stretching back hundreds of years — have short names attached to almost every individual element of the ballet, so if Nguyen says “nymphs in Act Two,” anybody who’s done “Sleeping Beauty” before is going to know what that means.

Some of the ballet classics they learn, like works by George Balanchine or Twyla Tharp, are only decades old, but that familiarity with a broad range of classics is part of what trainees take away with them when they leave the ballet.

“I think if you’ve done, you know, a ballet or an excerpt, you gain so much knowledge in a short amount of time rehearsing,” says Nguyen. “It’s so helpful even just knowing the music, being familiar with the music, being familiar with the counting the phrasing. All that ties into how efficient you can be in a rehearsal.”

The number of ballets and classic dance pieces a dancer knows goes right on their résumé, and in the future it will help the trainees get jobs. It’s a future that can come too fast for some trainees, who’ve fallen a little bit in love with the Louisville Ballet.

“This is my last year — it went too fast. I feel like I’ve learned so much in my short time here,” says Nelson.

Nguyen agrees.

“It’s bittersweet … when you’re putting a lot of energy and time somewhere, you of course get invested,” she says. “But I think there is also a lot of things to look forward to. I think ballet can take you anywhere.”

But before ballet takes Nguyen and Nelson back out into the big world of dance, it’s going to take them — and “The Sleeping Beauty” — to the Kentucky Center’s Whitney Hall Friday and Saturday, April 7-8.

The trainees are excited to put the ballet, with its costumes and large sets, in front of an audience. But both joke about some of the final hurdles between now and Friday’s opening, like adjusting to that big set.

“We’ve just had marks in the studio, pretending to walk down stairs, and it’s never the same,” says Nelson.

Nguyen laughs and adds, “You never know what column you’re going to run into or step you’re gonna slip on.”

After discussing their training, what they’ve learned and how much they appreciate their time at the Louisville Ballet, the trainees had one thing left to say: “Come watch ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ It’s gonna be such a beautiful production,” says Nguyen.

“The Sleeping Beauty” runs Friday, April 7, at 8 p.m., and Saturday, April 8, at 2 and 8 p.m. Tickets start at $35.