Ballet Star Visits Longview Beginnings
Beckanne Sisk and Chris O'Connell perform in the lead roles in Ballet West's Cinderella in 2018.
When Beckanne Sisk was a little girl, she wanted to be a ballerina. She was three years old, though, and too short to reach the barre at the Studio for Creative Arts in Longview.
So she took tap and jazz lessons until she was five, when she was tall enough to reach that handrail that dancers — and dance students — use during warm-up exercises.
As she grew up, she learned that ballet is not easy work. Audiences don’t see the sweat — the physical stresses and the boring repetition — and yes, sometimes the tears. The 2010 movie Black Swan showed — and certainly exaggerated — the emotional pressures that can accompany waking up in pain so many mornings after eight hours in the studio five or six days a week. Even on performance days, rehearsals can last three or four hours.
Ballet is competitive, too, sometimes filled with ego and petty jealousies.
After years of work to become a top dancer, careers are short, often ending in the early or mid 30s.
But there are also moments of transcendent accomplishment and beauty.
The recent TV show, Breaking Pointe, which prominently features now 19-year-old Beckanne, shared, even with its provocative title, a more realistic view of dance than that movie did, even with its reality show tendency to focus on the most dramatic people and situations.
Amidst the occasional drama, Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute described Beckanne as “the good-natured little girl,” and praised her dancing.
Beckanne still isn’t at the top of the ballet world, although she’s fairly high up the ladder in her first year in the respected Ballet West; the positive TV exposure helps, too. [Update: Beckanne has served as principal artist with Ballet West since 2010.]
Her success began in the compact studio in Longview and onstage with Longview Ballet Theatre.
In a way, it began 42 years ago when Pat George Mitchell, Beckanne’s first ballet coach, founded the Studio for Creative Arts and, two years later, the ballet company that has seen some of its alums go on to prestigious programs including New York City Ballet, School of American Ballet, the Martha Graham School of Modern Dance, the San Francisco Ballet, Miami City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Joffrey Ballet School, American Ballet Theatre, and the Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia.
Beckanne left Longview for the Rock School when she was 14.
Recently, she and Pat reunited for an afternoon as wide-eyed young dance students patiently waited for autographs and a few minutes with one of their idols.
Pat said she knew very quickly that then-five-year-old Beckanne was special.
“Beckanne Sisk is a dream kid,” she said. “Longview should be excited to see her turn into a butterfly with a lot of work. Greatness takes time and experience.”
It takes hard work, too, Beckanne said, which made Pat smile.
“I pushed her,” Pat said. “I worried I was going to lose her. It came easy for her and repetition is very boring for a 13-year-old. She had lots of friends putting pressure on her. But from East Texas to Philadelphia she blossomed.
“Beckanne’s body is more flexible than most dancers’ bodies. They had teachers in Philadelphia who could work with that. A dancer has to be able to control that flexibility. It’s amazing how she’s able to, and learned to, control her moves.”
She won a full-scholarship to the internationally prestigious Rock School, and graduated in 2010, spending one year with the incubator Ballet West II before moving to the “parent” company.
Leaving her mom and four siblings at age 14 was hard, she said, smiling.
“The first two years, I secretly enjoyed it, but I didn’t want my mother to know that.”
In Salt Lake City, she’s already had prominent roles in several ballets, including the lead in “Don Quixote” as Kitri, the innkeeper’s flirtatious daughter who Quixote believes is the beautiful Dulcinea, the woman he’s seen in his dreams.
“I liked her personality. She’s young and spunky and carefree,” Beckanne said.
The TV show “Breaking Pointe,” a BBC Worldwide production that ended its first run in early July, was fun, she said. Promotions said the show “rips back the curtain on the inner workings,” “obliterates the notion that ballet is a dated art form,” and “shatters pre-conceived stereotypes about the men and women who give their lives to the world of ballet.”
“Beneath their perfect exteriors, these dancers have the toughness of linebackers, punishing their bodies to achieve perfection and dancing through injuries and pain,” promotions said, claiming insights into “the jealousy, competition, and intensity that exist behind the scenes.”
There was some drama, sure, but, given the nature of so-called reality TV, there was more admiration than fireworks, perhaps.
“I was a bit nervous because I knew our lives would be out there for the whole world to see,” Beckanne said. “Initially, I didn’t want to be on camera. It made me really nervous. But once they started featuring and interviewing me, it was really cool and exciting. It’s every little girl’s dream to be on TV, and to be a ballerina.”
One soloist, Ronnie Underwood, said, “There’s a phenomenon that can come around sometimes that just blows everybody out of the water like 19-year-old Beckanne.”
Her female colleagues “probably want to put glass in her pointe shoes,” he said.
“I was really intimidated by Beckanne when she first came here,” said another dancer, Katie Martin. “I think I wanted to not like her, but she’s so nice. You almost wish someone with that much talent was a brat, because then you would feel better about being jealous of her.”
Beckanne wishes there had been more focus on the dancing itself, to help grow the art’s fan base.
“We’re real dancers. We’re real people. The art isn’t appreciated enough, especially in the United States,” she said, hoping that the show is picked up for a second season to continue to showcase ballet.
Between adventures — the end of the show’s taping, her finishing third in the Beijing International Invitational Ballet Competition and starting a summer job as a resident assistant at the Rock School — Beckanne spent a couple of rare weeks back home in Longview.
“I miss my friends and family,” she said. “And Tex-Mex. They have Tex-Mex in Salt Lake City, but it’s just not the same.”
She didn’t beg for the time off, she said, but she admits to pleading.
“I like Ballet West. I like the artistic director and we agree artistically. I want to stay there and bloom,” she said.
There is time — but not much — for personal lives in the competitive world of classic ballet. Some interests, such as writing and photography, are left behind with other childhood dreams.
“I remember being here young and seeing all these pictures of dancers and wanting to meet them,” Beckanne said as the Studio for Creative Arts students waited patiently in the small lobby for her interview and photo session to end. “I can see myself in these girls, wanting to be a ballerina above all else.”
She knows her time in the limelight is fleeting.
She knows she might transition, like her first coach, Pat George Mitchell, back into the studio influencing those girls.
In a way, she already does influence them.
“Beckanne inspires them to work hard,” Pat said. “It’s a lot of hard work, and students always have a love/hate relationship with dance.”