Theater & art

history repeating

A lot in common for past, present Boston Ballet stars

Laura Young in “Sleeping Beauty,” circa 1979.
file/circa 1979
Laura Young in “Sleeping Beauty,” circa 1979.

In 1963, when Boston Ballet got its feet off the ground, Laura Young was there — dancing. Today, as the company continues its 50th-anniversary celebrations, Laura Young is still there, teaching in Boston Ballet School’s Newton studio. She has the longest professional career in Boston Ballet history.

“I danced until I was 42,” says Young, now 67. “Right at the beginning, you have to invest so fully, if you hate it, you got to find a way to like it.”

Young started dancing when she was 6 in Milton. Her first teacher was Cecile Baker — cousin of Boston Ballet teacher Sydney Leonard. After Young got to the top of her first ballet class, both Baker and Leonard said to her, “You should go to Boston and take this further.” And she did.


At 13, Young auditioned and joined the New England Civic Ballet, which would later blossom into the Boston Ballet Company. There, she trained with E. Virginia Williams, Boston Ballet’s founder.

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“Virginia believed ballet wasn’t the only thing to do,” said Young. “She brought in modern and contemporary works with choreographers. We were doing a lot that hadn’t been done by ballet companies ever.”

Williams made frequent visits to New York, learning from such renowned choreographers as George Balanchine, whose neoclassical style strongly influenced Boston Ballet.

“We were pioneering night and day,” said Young. “That’s when we turned professional, with the benefit of Mr. Balanchine’s teaching.”

By 18, Young was promoted to principal dancer — front and center, with all eyes on her. She performed in an array of works, from classical to contemporary, eventually retiring in 1989 to teach.


Williams and Leonard inspired Young in her career. Now Young serves the same role for such current company dancers as Kathleen Breen Combes.

“Laura Young has been an inspiration to me,” said Combes, a principal dancer who was once Young’s student in the Boston Ballet Summer Program. “Her legacy with Boston Ballet is incredible, and to get to share the stage with her, hear her stories, and be taught by her has been inspiring to my career.”

Combes, 32, has been dancing since she was 3 in Rockville Centre, N.Y. This marks her 11th season with Boston Ballet, performing as a principal dancer since 2009.

“It’s a lot of pressure,” said Combes. “You are the main person and have to carry a full-length ballet. You work towards this your whole life.”

Gene Schiavone/file
Kathleen Breen Combes in “The Second Detail” in 2012.

Like Young, Combes appreciates the diverse styles of dance that Boston Ballet has embraced. Combes says that artistic director Mikko Nissinen has propelled that idea even further, believing the highest caliber of achievement for a dancer is to do all of it.


During practice, Nissinen has dancers work through a multitude of techniques, from classical to neoclassical to contemporary.

“The main thing is creating a level of doing everything well,” said Combes. “It’s hard, but keeps us alive, wanting more. The company has to maintain relevant and interesting.”

Combes was featured in “Close to Chuck,” the company’s most recent program, which closed Tuesday at the Boston Opera House. The program of contemporary ballet featured Jirí Kylián’s “Bella Figura,” Jorma Elo’s “C. to C. (Close to Chuck) Reborn,” and a world premiere of “Resonance,” by José Martinez, artistic director of the Compania Nacional de Danza in Spain.

Next, Boston Ballet takes on a timeless classic — and a company premiere — Sir Frederick Ashton’s “Cinderella,” with music by Sergei Prokofiev. The program runs March 13-23 at the Boston Opera House. Other programs to come at the Opera House include “Pricked” (May 8-18) and “George Balanchine’s Jewels” (May 22-June 1), followed by company performances at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the Koch Theater at New York’s Lincoln Center in June.

The tour draws from a range of company repertoire, including George Balanchine’s renowned “Symphony in Three Movements” and William Forsythe’s “The Second Detail.”

Alexandra Stills can be reached at