Short Stature, Long Career
“Well, Baryshnikov is short.” I’ve been hearing that since age 10, when I moved to NYC from Israel to study at the School of American Ballet. Great! All I have to do is be as good as Mikhail Baryshnikov—why didn’t I think of that? I’m now 26 years old and 5′ 5 1/2″ tall (yes, the half makes a difference!). I’ve traveled the world as a professional ballet dancer and I recently founded my own company. Launching my career was a struggle—often because of my height. I realized that I had to stop thinking of being short as a limitation and start thinking of it as a challenge. Ever since changing my perspective, I’ve been facing that challenge head-on.
Soon after arriving at SAB I was cast as Marie’s brother, Fritz, in New York City Ballet’s The Nutcracker, and later as the Nutcracker Prince. I continued to play the Prince until I was 13 years old because I was still small enough. (Usually, boys outgrow the costume by 11 or 12.) I was happy to hold on to a featured role, but also beginning to realize that I wasn’t growing. Around this time, one of my teachers informed me that I was probably going to be too short to have a career in ballet, and if I wanted to quit, now might be a good time. I was shocked. Quitting ballet had never entered my mind. Dancing was my passion.
When I finished school at SAB, I was a good dancer, but I wasn’t Baryshnikov. I needed professional experience. However, landing an entry-level position in a company is not easy, especially for a male dancer of my height. When you’re three inches shorter than the other corps dancers, it looks better if you’re in front or alone. While my taller peers could get jobs in the corps de ballet and develop slowly, I had to be ready to take on soloist roles, such as the peasant pas de deux in Giselle. So what’s a short, inexperienced 18-year-old to do?
After tirelessly auditioning, I landed my first job: a 14-week contract with Sacramento Ballet for The Nutcracker and Giselle, their only repertory pieces with roles for a man of my size. When my time there ended, I landed a temporary gig with The Washington Ballet.
Then, from ages 19 to 25, I worked constantly, dancing with various companies. I had some incredible high points—my favorite was dancing Puck in Frederick Ashton’s The Dream with The Joffrey Ballet. Though my partner work was infrequent, there were times I was paired with a shorter girl, and I enjoyed that. But there was a trade-off: While my taller corps de ballet friends were getting weekly paychecks, I had no job security. My success was tempered by my constant search for work, which was frustrating. On days off, I relentlessly sent out videos and flew to open and company class auditions, often hearing, “You’re too short,” before the class even started. I would just shake my head and look sympathetically at the 5′ 10″ female dancer standing next to me with the opposite plight [see sidebar below]. Wasn’t my height on my resumé? Why did they waste my time and money and invite me to audition? If I felt that my height was the only issue, I would simply put my frustration aside and try to keep in touch with the company. Often, when the time was right, I would get a call and a job offer. After six years of bouncing around (I danced with 11 companies during that time period), I was exhausted. In my burnt-out state, I decided it was time for a change.
A Different Approach
In 2008, while continuing to perform as a freelance dancer, I started my project company, Avi Scher & Dancers, to take charge of my own career. I also wanted to make ballet accessible by creating high-quality works that could be presented in smaller venues for affordable ticket prices. I had always had the desire to choreograph, and when I made my first piece at 16 for SAB’s choreography workshop, I knew I had to pursue it. At 18, I created a piece for the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company, and shortly afterward made works for the annual showcases at the Miami City Ballet School and San Francisco Ballet School.
Avi Scher & Dancers has proved successful and liberating. As a choreographer, I’ve created pieces for many of my favorite dancers, such as American Ballet Theatre principal Marcelo Gomes. When casting my shows, I try not to look at height too much, but in reality, there’s no getting around it: Sometimes I can’t hire a man I like because he’s too short. But I’ve also tried to embrace dancers’ height differences, and recently created a duet called Touch designed for a tall woman and a small man. I’ve had three different casts perform this piece, one of which included Robert Colby Damon, a dancer shorter than myself, who performed with 5′ 8″ ballerina Victoria North.
In the end, thinking about Baryshnikov is actually quite helpful. After getting past the frustrations and, let’s be frank, bitterness about my height, I now realize that every dancer deals with challenges. The key is to use them as motivation to work as hard as possible. Being short forced me to take a difficult, unusual path, but because I never gave up, I’ve found unusually rewarding success.
Ballet West’s Christiana Bennett with Michael Bearden in “Swan Lake.” Photo by Ryan Galbraith.
By Katie Rolnick
Traditionally, ballerinas are petite, with the average height hovering around 5′ 5″. But at 5′ 9″, Ballet West principal Christiana Bennett breaks convention.
During Bennett’s teenage years, when she surpassed her peers in height, some teachers advised her against pursuing a ballet career. Bennett was prepared to go to college, but her love for ballet was reignited when she attended a summer program at Pacific Northwest Ballet—a company known for welcoming statuesque ballerinas, such as 5′ 11″ principal Ariana Lallone. PNB invited Bennett to stay and train with the company for a year; she took the offer and her body image changed. “I was surrounded by these amazing women who could do anything you asked them to,” she says. “Even though they were taller than me, you never heard, ‘You’re too tall.’ It gave me so much confidence.” After her year training with PNB, Bennett was offered a job with Ballet West.
Bennett says tall ballerinas are typically cast in “roles that are featured, but not necessarily the star,” such as the Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty. But at Ballet West, Bennett has danced soloist and lead roles, including Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. So how does she change preconceived notions about where she belongs? “I try to get the essence and quality of the movement and go for it,” Bennett says.
What about the challenge of finding a partner who can work with a ballerina who’s over 6′ tall on pointe? “Some of my favorite partners are shorter than I am,” Bennett says. In such pairings, she says, communicating with your partner is key.
So if you think you’re too tall for ballet, think again. “Tall is beautiful,” Bennett says. “Be proud of who you are.”