Pursuing a career in ballet is not for the faint of heart.
Those who aspire to it are passionate — not the type of kids who need to be nagged to leave the beach and strap on their pointe shoes. Rather, they’re bugging their parents to take them to the dance studio — every day.
And in Sallyann Mulcahy they’ve found a kindred spirit, teacher and mentor. In 2010 she opened the doors of Ballet Montana Academy, which is devoted to building professional ballet dancers.
Teaching wasn’t what she set out to do, Mulcahy admits. Rather, it found her.
Now she pours into her work the best teaching and mentoring advice she’s absorbed as a professional ballerina during her 20-year dancing career.
From an early age, Mulcahy was considered a gifted dancer. She fell in love with ballet at age 5 and by 11 was offered a full scholarship to attend the San Francisco Ballet School yearround. At 16 she moved to Canada to train with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and by 18 she was dancing professionally with the Royal Winnipeg’s corps de ballet doing solos. She would also dance with Finis Jhung’s Chamber Ballet USA and New Jersey Ballet, earning critical acclaim in the New York Times for her performance in “Le Combat.” Following a serious injury, she returned to live in Helena in 1991, teaching private classes and becoming an adjunct professor at Carroll College in 1994.
But it was in 1995, when a group of dancers from Milwaukee Ballet sought her out that Mulcahy fully embraced her calling as a teacher.
A short time later she founded Montana’s only professional ballet company, Artisan Dance, now known as Ballet Montana. Last year, she took the next step, establishing Ballet Montana Academy. Both company and academy are housed at Carroll College. Fall classes begin Sept. 6 (see box).
“When kids come to me, I need to rework their bodies, their mind, their direction,” she said earlier this summer when she and her students were interviewed during a class break. “My job is to undo things and redo things, like resetting a bone that’s not set straight. I resculpt things.”
What she teaches goes beyond technique.
“We build dancers here,” she said. “Those dancers are truly individuals that come from my work. It is not fantasy that makes professionals ... it’s being genuine within their craft. That’s the greatest milestone of the greatest actors, musicians and composers. The work comes out of them as they evolve as thinking people. They are responsible for the translation and emotion of life’s experiences.”
“You have to have important mentors who are real,” she added. “I have never worked with a child who has not responded beautifully. Just be honest.”
In her artist’s statement, she writes: “The teaching of ballet requires a continual renewal of passion for ballet, and a soul-deep belief in ballet as a complete form of artistic expression. Just as there can be no substitute for owning one’s soul, there is no substitute for having lived this passion as a professional dancer, for having earned one’s passion in work and performance, for having lived ballet itself. A good ballet teacher looks not at her students, but into them. She breaks down the work, not the dancer. She teaches, by example, that doing good work is what matters most of all, and that success in all the rest — in life as in dance — follows from good work. This is what it means to ‘build dancers.’”
Her teaching has earned her loyalty from her young students and respect and love from a host of professional dancers who gravitate to Helena to train with her every summer. Mulcahy has also worked with dancers suffering devastating injuries and helped them return to the stage. Academy students get to train side-by-side each summer with Ballet Montana professionals, and on occasion perform onstage with them.
Sallyann “has trained with the best and danced the best with the best,” said Jhung. “She not only understands cutting-edge dance technique but is able to demonstrate it. She is an artist of the highest caliber.”
But it takes more than a gifted artist and teacher to build a professional ballet dancer. In the wings is a family willing to sacrifice deeply to make their child’s dream come true.
Three Ballet Montana Academy dancers started out commuting from the Bozeman and Livingston areas, but wound up moving to Helena.
Mary Jo Ludin, mother of 17-year-old Malia Ludin, found a Helena apartment where she and Malia have been living during the week, returning to their family in Bozeman for weekends.
Starting ballet at 6, Malia knew by age 12 that this was her life. By 13, she began training with Mulcahy. She opted out of attending high school, choosing distance learning online so she could pursue dance wholeheartedly.
“With Malia, ballet became her passion,” said Mary Jo. “And the passion hasn’t waned.”
The turning point was a five-week summer training program with Pacific Northwest Ballet. “We thought it would be a good barometer,” said Mary Jo. “Does she have what it takes?”
Most kids can’t wait to have their summer free to play, but Malia just wanted to dance.
“I love this — this is what I want to do,” she told her family, when she returned from Pacific Northwest Ballet.
“I was looking for more serious training,” said Malia of why she sought out Mulcahy. “I knew I had to get into a better environment to give me what I need.”
“I have seen Malia grow enormously,” said Mary Jo. “Sallyann has given her great guidance. I’ve seen her technique greatly improve, and her ability to act has come out.”
“Sallyann is really good about giving a range of repertoires,” said Malia, including romantic, classical and more contemporary works.
“I think it gives you a good work ethic,” added Malia, who trains about 16 hours per week. “You work so hard at dance, you can apply it to other things in your life.”
What’s unique is “the bond that Sallyann creates with her students,” said Mary Jo. “She understands them. Ballet dancers are unique creatures. They have such passion and dedication. At 13-14, I never had that. Sallyann understands that and they have an immediate connection.”
“Under Sallyann, Malia has gotten into great programs. She’s trained with the Joffrey Ballet and Bolshoi Ballet and was invited to train in Moscow.”
The financial outlay has been considerable, admitted Mary Jo. But the window for pursuing ballet as a career is very small. “I never wanted to have regrets. I wanted to support her in her dream.”
“It’s almost like gambling,” said Mary Jo. No parent can know if their child will make it in the highly competitive world of professional dance, but she’s convinced that Malia’s work ethic and her love of dance will carry her through life.
Since her IR interview earlier this summer, Malia’s dream took a big leap to becoming reality; she recently began training at the prestigious Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet in New York City.
In an email last week, Misha Chernov, co-founder of the Kirkland Academy wrote, “Malia is from Montana? Wow! We think Malia is a big talent. Great work Sallyann!!!”
The gamble also appears to be paying off for Dakota Crist, 19, of Helena. Although she came to ballet late, at age 12, after training with Sallyann for three years she has accepted an apprenticeship with Sacramento Ballet, beginning this month.
“Sallyann is extremely intelligent about the body and mind in ballet,” said Crist. “I don’t think other teachers express it the way she could because she’s so knowledgeable about ballet.”
“She’s just a really good teacher,” said 16-year-old Natalia Nelson, who moved here from Bozeman to study with Mulcahy. “She gives a lot to her students that I don’t think many teachers think about. She doesn’t just build a dancer, she builds an artist, as well.”