Thriving in Transition: Advice from Artistic Director of ABT Studio Company and Summer Intensives Kate Lydon

Last month, we heard from American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet member Rachel Richardson about life and challenges in a studio company. To learn more about this vital stage in the careers of many professional dancers, The World Dances spoke with Kate Lydon, Artistic Director of ABT Studio Company and ABT Summer Intensive programs.

What are the driving philosophies and aims of ABT Studio Company?

ABT Studio Company is trying to prepare our 12 to 14 young dancers to eventually enter ABT. That’s the goal. We are constantly reevaluating, making sure that we are doing everything possible to best serve our dancers and ABT. Studio Company members are still training hard—taking technique classes, pas de deux, variations, men’s class, pilates, men’s strength, etc.—but they are also rehearsing varied repertoire (with their ballet master), working with choreographers on new pieces, and learning ABT repertoire. There are so many things that a young dancer needs to learn about being a successful company member and it really does go way beyond being able to dance a classical variation onstage. We are trying to impart discipline, respect for the art form and the self, and healthy habits. There’s never enough time!

What do you think are the greatest challenges for dancers in Studio Company and what advice would you offer for dealing with them?

The dancers in Studio Company are faced with many challenges—physically and mentally! The goal is to teach them how to be successful professionals. Making that leap is a difficult one and also not guaranteed. Even simple things can be challenging. For example, when they are in school, they have a uniform. In Studio Company, we let the dancers choose what they wear. The girls have to be in pink tights with tights inside their leotard, but they can choose their leotard and hairstyles. Boys select their outfits as well, as long as there are no large logos or words on their t-shirts. Believe it or not, this creative freedom can be challenging because they want to let loose, but they have to remember that the first order of business is to be clean so that their lines and dancing is clear to their teachers and themselves.

Really, what it all comes down to is discipline. My friend and colleague Carlos Lopez, former ABT Studio Company ballet master and current company ballet master, used to say it all the time—self-discipline is the key! You can get away with a lot if you try, but to be successful, you have to learn self-discipline. Another crucial element is respect for yourself and the people that surround you. Luckily at ABT we have so many incredible role models. Dancers who come to class every day ready to work—even during their season after late nights performing the most challenging rep! They are exemplary and our dancers are lucky that they get to learn from them.

How are dancers for the studio company selected?

We take dancers from JKO School, ABT Summer Intensive, and various competitions. We are looking for line, coordination, musicality, turnout, ability to jump, turn, etc. But rarely does one dancer possess every ability or positive attribute right from the start. So we are also looking for passion, drive, personality—that special spark that makes you believe that a dancer can become a great artist. Kevin McKenzie has explained it before as that magic combination of being gifted (having balletic qualities that you are born with) and talented (having the will, drive, and intelligence to turn those gifts into a professional dancer and artist.)

How is the repertoire selected for Studio Company?

I work closely with ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie to find repertoire that will strengthen the dancers, make them better, and give them a taste of the demands of being in the main company. Of course, we are also considering program length and variation—I absolutely want our audiences to be happy!

One thing that Studio Company has done since John Meehan was director is new works. Each year we try to bring in at least one choreographer to make a new piece. This process is beneficial for so many reasons. For one thing, the dancers have to be quick, open minded, and present in the rehearsal studio in order to pick up the choreography and try to mimic the choreographer and find his/her way of moving. They also have to remember steps and new phrases of movement from day to day and prepare in a different way, I think. They get strong. And they are so proud when they get to bring something new to life. They are really able to take ownership of what they are doing. Artistically, it is very fulfilling. So, we always leave room for new works and also emerging choreographers.

What do your positions entail?

I am the Artistic Director of ABT Studio Company and ABT Summer Intensive programs. That basically means that I try to bring Kevin McKenzie’s vision for these programs to life. For both programs, I work closely with Mary Jo Ziesel, the director of ABT Education, and our incredible artistic faculty and administrative staff to keep everyone on the same page, reaching toward the same goals. I manage the selection of the dancers, the repertoire, the daily class and rehearsal schedule, and am involved in planning the performing and touring schedule and so much more. Now that Cynthia Harvey is on board as the Artistic Director of the ABT JKO School, we also are also working as a team to continue to elevate ABT's training programs. 

What are your goals for the summer intensive?

The summer intensive at ABT has been an incredibly successful program for many, many years. The most exciting thing for me is when we find young talent. So many incredible dancers came through ABT Summer Intensive—David Hallberg, Misty Copeland, Cassandra Trenary—I could go on and on. Oh, you should see the Polaroids we have of some of these dancers—the best in the world—as young people auditioning for ABT Summer Intensive! It’s amazing. Rosalie O’Connor also has a treasure trove of wonderful photos.

No matter what program I am working on, I think my goal is always to elevate it. I have been a teacher in Summer Intensive since about 2006, but this is my first year in charge of the program so I plan on visiting each site—Alabama, Texas, California, Florida, and New York—to observe classes and rehearsals. And I’m just going to ask a lot of questions and take it all in.

How would you recommend students best prepare for their summer programs?

Take classes before you begin your intensive! You want to arrive ready so that you do not get injured or overwhelmed. Summer Intensives are intense!

You danced with both San Francisco Ballet and American Ballet Theatre during your performing career. What’s it like for you being on the other side of ABT?

Amazing. A gift. I feel so lucky to be able to able to have transitioned into these roles. I could never have planned for it. I came to ABT as a Summer Intensive student in 1988! As a young person, I was drawn to ABT because of the artists and the ballets that I saw on stage and to this day, the company has not let me down. It’s a magical place. By the way, Sascha Radetsky, who is now the ABT Studio Company Ballet Master and ABT/NYU Program Director, and Ethan Stiefel, who is now a Principal Guest Instructor at ABT and a choreographer (we did a ballet of his last year and this year), were also students that first summer of mine. Of course, they both went on to have storybook careers, and now I get to work with them again, which is unexpected and great. 

What are the greatest challenges and rewards of your work?

The dancers, and the dancers! Having them in our charge is a massive responsibility. I do not take it lightly and sometimes it keeps me up at night. But watching them grow up, and become artists, and have careers…it is literally the most amazing thing in the world. (Aside from watching my own two boys, Jack and Luke, grow up! I have to mention them, too!)

How has ABT evolved or changed over the course of your career experience with the company?

I can’t really say that I have that kind of perspective, but I do know that under the artistic direction of Kevin McKenzie and with our new Executive Director Kara Barnett, right now the company is on an absolute creative high. Alexei Ratmansky is driving the company and the art form forward, as Choreographer in Residence, in ways that are unexpected, fresh, and exciting and the dancers are better than ever. It feels alive. To be right in the midst of all the action is purely invigorating.

Photo: Lydon teaching an ABT Summer Intensive class. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor