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Arts / Performing Arts

Behind the Scenes with a 20-Year-Old Houston Ballet Dancer

The Pressures and Pleasures of Being On Pointe

BY Lawrence Knox // 03.24.17
photography Lawrence Knox

A collective gasp from the audience filled the theater as the curtain rose, revealing a scene of pristine serenity. Sheer draperies framed the stage, and four female dancers, clad in skin-toned leotards, stood motionless in the far left corner of the otherwise bare stage.

It was opening night of Houston Ballet’s Legends and Prodigy, and Hans van Manen’s Grosse Fuge set a striking first impression. Among the stone-faced women was the recently promoted demi-soloist Bridget Kuhns, a 20-year-old Ohio native who performed the same role two nights earlier during a dress rehearsal.

The week leading up to a performance is often more hectic than usual as dancers rehearse late into the night, adjusting to the atmosphere of the theater. This time, however, the company was already deep into the swing of things, having performed the final show of Stanton Welch’s Cinderella the previous Sunday. With only one day to rest, the dancers jumped straight into the next rep.

“It’s nice having already been on the stage,” Kuhns says, but she acknowledges that the different choreography also presents another set of challenges. “It’s like you’ve been sitting in a hot tub for 30 minutes, and then you’re like, ‘Let’s jump in the pool.’ So you go from comfort to something entirely new.”

Tuesday began like any other day with a ballet class followed by a few hours of rehearsal. After a brief dinner break, Kuhns, like many of her fellow dancers, made her way across the open-air skybridge to the theater. She checked the call board before retreating to her dressing room, where she applied full stage makeup, fixed her hair and got into costume.

Bridget Kuhns greets another dancer in the halls.

Kuhns prepared for the dress rehearsal as she would for a performance, a process so natural that it seemed as if she could have done it with her eyes closed. Like many young girls, Bridget Kuhns started taking ballet classes at a young age. Although she took a brief hiatus to test her soccer skills, she quickly found her way back to the studio.

After studying at a small school for two years, she trained at BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio, about an hour away from home. Then, at 15, she attended Houston Ballet’s summer intensive, having received a scholarship on the spot at her audition.

“And I’ve been here ever since,” she says. “I love how hard the dancers work here. It’s such a great environment with all these amazing artists pushing each other every day. It’s really special.” During the summer, Kuhns was accepted into Houston Ballet’s year-round program, and a year later, she joined the second company. She continued to move up the ranks, from apprentice to corps de ballet and now demi-soloist.

Bridget Kuhns, demi soloist at Houston Ballet, takes a moment off stage.

The promotion, she said, came as a complete shock. After class one morning, the company manager informed her that artistic director Stanton Welch wanted to meet with her. Panicked, she began to replay the last few weeks through her head, wondering what she had done wrong. Needless to say, the meeting ended especially well.

“Afterwards, I just started crying,” says Kuhns, who told her roommate and fellow dancer Hayden Stark before calling her parents shortly after. “It makes me feel like I need to work even harder now because I don’t want to let myself down in the sense that you get promoted and then you get comfortable. I don’t believe in that.”

Despite the years of performances, this ballet dancer still gets nervous, but more out of excitement than unease. “The nerves definitely leave the more you keep dancing,” Kuhns says, “whether you dance them out because you start to get tired, or you just get more comfortable, I’m not quite sure.”

When asked about her pre-show rituals, she was more certain. “I’m not like brush your shoulder, touch your toe,” she says, laughing as she mimicked those movements. But Kuhns does have a thing about fresh breath onstage, she explained. She always brushes her teeth and then chews on a piece of gum until the stage manager delivers the two-minute warning call.

Also, while waiting in the wings, she says a quick prayer. “Let no one get hurt and let us just feel together and enjoy this gift that we can give,” she says. “I think it’s important to remember that it’s special what we get to do, what we get to share with people.”

Click through the complete photo gallery above this story to get the full picture of Kuhn’s day.

Catch Bridget Kuhns and the rest of Houston Ballet in its Legends and Prodigy program, which also features Jiří Kylián’s Stepping Stones and Justin Peck’s Year of the Rabbit, running through the weekend at the Wortham Theater Center.

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