Higgins is 'en pointe' in dance career

At just 18 years old, Katherine Higgins has been offered a four-month contract with the prestigious Paris Opera Ballet. While 120 dancers auditioned, only 16 made the cut, and only two of those 16, including Katherine, are Americans.

While most of her Wilton High School classmates are college-bound, Katherine begins her career as a professional ballerina, her dream since the age of 3, on Aug. 28. In pursuit of this dream, Katherine has danced across two continents and received five prestigious international awards.

“I’m looking forward to the challenge of proving myself,” said Katherine of her long-awaited opportunity.

To reach this point, Katherine has undergone years of intense, arduous training. She began as a young girl with weekly classes at Wilton Dance Studio, and then spent two years under the tutelage of Michael Shannon at the Greenwich Ballet Academy. Through Mr. Shannon, Katherine was recruited by the Royal Ballet School Antwerp in Belgium after her freshman year at Wilton High, making her the ballet school’s first American artistic and academic scholarship recipient and graduate. After spending two years in this program, Katherine continued to train at the Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York City.

At 12, Ms. Higgins competed in her first international competition at the Youth American Grand Prix. Since then, she has participated in this competition twice, winning the Youth Grand Prix in the junior division of the semifinals in 2011 and the Grand Prix winner in Paris in 2013. She was awarded a bronze medal in the 7th Helsinki International Ballet Competition in 2012, and was also the youngest finalist in Switzerland’s Prix de Lausanne that year. She was awarded another bronze medal in the Moscow International Ballet Competition in Russia in June 2013.

Katherine’s ballet career has taken her to eight countries in competition, including Belgium, Canada, Germany, Finland, Russia, and Bulgaria.

“I guess I’ve done my fair share of traveling,” Katherine said of her extraordinary journey. Through her travels, she’s learned to speak Dutch, French, and even a bit of Russian.

Katherine said she chose to pursue her career abroad “mostly because I didn’t feel that I’d finished my training yet and wanted to stay close to my coach.” When Mr. Shannon went abroad to Belgium, Katherine followed, continuing under his tutelage for the next two years. Moreover, most dance schools in Europe are publicly funded, which made them a better option economically for the Higgins family.

After graduating in June last year, Katherine was offered a full-time position with the legendary Bolshoi Ballet in Russia. However, due to political unrest there, her visa failed to materialize.

“I was pretty heartbroken when things just weren’t working out with my visa … it was such a surprise getting the contract, but I think I needed this extra year of training. I think the whole experience helped me grow and I turned out for the better. Everything worked out as it should have, I think. I feel blessed that things worked out the way they did.”

Subsequently, she scored her current position at the Paris Opera Ballet after a 21-day audition trip in Europe earlier this year. This troupe is the oldest national ballet company in the world; many European and international ballet companies can trace their origins to it. It has become an icon over the years for the strict, traditional dancing styles that its ballerinas maintain. Typically, the company only takes dancers trained from a young age from its own dance academy or dancers from within the city of Paris.

“The dancers [of the Paris Opera Ballet] are incredibly inspiring,” Katherine said of the company that she’s admired for years. “They’re so elegant, their technique is so clean. I really admire the artistic choices they make. I was really surprised when they offered me a contract …  traditionally, they only take dancers from Paris.”

Although she is ecstatic to live in the middle of what she calls a “magical city,” moving to Paris will be a daunting step for her, as she has never lived abroad without a host family to support her. Although living away from her family in Wilton is old news for Katherine, parting is always difficult.

“When I first went to Belgium, I was away from my family for longer than I’d ever been,” said Katherine, “It was tough; our family is really closely knit. I always knew that we were thinking about each other, though, so we were always connected.”

Katherine attributes her success to the support of her family — mom Mary, dad Jory, and sisters Caraline, 16, and Sheila, 15 — to her coach Michael Shannon, to her host family in Belgium, and to her “ballet mom” Vicky Pallemans.

To other aspiring dancers, Katherine says this: “Something that I’ve learned is to be yourself. Young girls pick a particular dancer and try to be just like them. By being yourself, you can differentiate yourself from all of the other little girls who want to be ballerinas. You need to remember why you love it. Performing, sharing how I feel with the audience, hearing that someone was moved or touched by my performance, it’s what I think about when it’s hard to wake up in the morning. Anyone who dances is blessed to get to share it with others. It’s why I dance. That’s what you need to focus on.”