Training

"Am I Ready to Train Away from Home Year-Round?"

Tyler Donatelli, shown here in Etudes, initially turned down an offer to train at Houston Ballet Academy. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

Harper Ortlieb knew something needed to change. Her three-hour commute to daily classes at the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre was unsustainable, and her obsession with ballet was intensifying. The family considered “away-from-home" training, but when Ortlieb, then 14, was accepted to the Bolshoi Ballet Academy's year-round program in Moscow (after attending their summer intensive in Connecticut), they were caught off guard. “Harper had an unshakable dream of training in Russia, but until that point it was just that—a dream," says Layne Baumann, Harper's mother. “We knew time was moving swiftly, and this was one of those rare opportunities that can truly shape your future."

The idea of moving to Russia to study is huge, but even in less-extreme situations the factors to consider are the same. Often, summer intensives lead to offers to stay for a school's year-round program. It's an exciting honor to be asked, but leaving home to train is a big deal, no matter how near or far. With so much at stake, it's a time for honest conversations between students, their families and their teachers to assess whether they're ready to leave home.




Ortlieb poses outside Red Square in Moscow after being accepted to the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. Photo courtesy Layne Baumann.


Are You Mature Enough?

Bo and Stephanie Spassoff, co-directors of The Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia, first ask potential students to define their goal. “Assess the situation objectively," says Bo Spassoff. “Do you really want to be a professional ballet dancer? If yes, the only way that's going to happen is with a very good sense, from the get-go, of what it's going to take and how much work it's going to be."

While serious students know what hard work is, training full-time without the comforts of home or parental support adds a lot more pressure. Living 24/7 with peers might sound like a blast at first, but what about balancing dance, academics and household responsibilities? Houston Ballet corps member Tyler Donatelli says her mother needed evidence that she had the maturity and organizational skills to handle it. “She made it very clear that I was staying home until I was 16 and could prove I could live in a somewhat adult environment," Donatelli remembers. “I didn't really agree with her, but now I realize she was right. At 16, I could make better decisions about things I would have questioned if I'd been younger."

An important gauge of a student's readiness is emotional maturity— which may differ from their sense of responsibility or independence. Will residential life make it hard to stay focused? “It's impossible to hide poor social skills or bad behavior in a residential setting," says Donna Mattiello, academic director of The Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory in Torrington, Connecticut. “So if a student struggles at home with poor judgment, following rules that they don't agree with or self-discipline (like keeping their room clean and doing homework), those issues will be magnified at school."

Artistic director Victoria Mazzarelli agrees, saying even students who've attended Nutmeg's summer program should visit during the school year. “It's just completely different. Spending a couple of days to pick up on the vibe and see how it feels will reveal a lot. It tells you pretty quickly whether it's the right experience for you, because emotional readiness is the most important thing. Without that, everything will fall apart."


A student dorm at the Rock School for Dance Education.


Handling the Workload and Competition

For those offered year-round study, both Nutmeg and The Rock School conduct in-person talks with the whole family, if possible. The Spassoffs want to make sure everyone is involved and committed. “We listen to their concerns and never try to manipulate their decision," says Stephanie Spassoff. “Sometimes a student is very enthusiastic about coming, but just doesn't want to leave home yet—and that's fine."

The increased number of dancing hours will be physically strenuous, but Bo Spassoff also notes dancers must transition mentally when going from a regional school to a larger one. “Students have to realize that here, they may not be the best in their class. They need to accept the challenge to work hard. Some can't come to grips with that and are unhappy."


Pointe class at the Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory. Photo by Don Perdue, Courtesy Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory.


Weighing Pros and Cons

Even if you feel you can handle the workload, responsibility and emotional strain of living away from home, it's important to consider what you'd truly gain—or stand to lose. Donatelli knew that along with the great training she was already getting at her home school, Southland Ballet Academy, there were other valuable benefits that gave her extra confidence when she joined Houston Ballet II. “Because it's a smaller school, I got to do bigger roles in our productions," she says. “In a professional school, dancing the lead in a full-length ballet isn't something you'd find yourself doing."

Focusing on what's truly best for you—and your family—will make the choices of whether and when to leave home much clearer. The Ortlieb family had heart-to-heart talks about logistics and finances, extensively researched what life in Russia would be like and decided the time was right. Donatelli's plan worked because she trusted that turning down an offer to stay at Houston Ballet Academy wouldn't mean shutting that door forever. Communicating with the school's director and expressing her interest was key. “We kept in touch, and I got the HBII contract two years later. They knew I'd come when I was ready."


Tips: Have A Family Conversation

Because it's hard to predict how you'll feel once you move away from home, it's critical to dig deep before you make a decision. What should you and your family talk about? Here are some starters:

  • What makes you excited about going to this particular school?
  • How do you feel when you imagine leaving your family, pets, teachers and friends?
  • How structured is the school's residential program? Do thoughts of adhering to rules, following a set schedule and being monitored by someone other than your parents make you squirm?
  • How hard will it be to miss out on birthday celebrations, family events and holidays?
  • What would you do if you and your roommate disagreed about bedtimes, cleanliness, socializing?
  • How do you handle stress? Boredom?
  • What will you gain by moving away from home to train? Is there anything you stand to lose?
  • It's expensive to live away from home. Can this opportunity wait a year while you save up and make a financial plan? —GL
Career
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I want to be a professional dancer, but my parents won't listen. They either don't think I can do it (contrary to what my teachers have said) or they won't let me take the necessary steps to become a professional. Please help. —Audrey

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Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.

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Videos

They say that pigeons mate for life—perhaps that's why these birds naturally symbolize the young lovers in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Two Pigeons. In these two clips from a 1987 performance in Pisa, Alessandra Ferri and Robert LaFosse—then stars with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, respectively—dance a rapturous pas de deux at the end of Act II. With tiny pricks of her feet and bird-like flaps of her elbows in Part 1, Ferri marks her anguish, thinking she's been abandoned for another woman. Later, both she and LaFosse grow more and more entangled as they reconcile, Ferri dancing with the passionate abandon she's famous for. I love how in Part 2 (0:20), they can't seem to get enough of each other as their necks arch and intertwine. At the end of the ballet, two pigeons fly in to perch symbolically on the chair—er, there's supposed to be two. It looks like one missed its cue at this performance! No matter—Ferri and LaFosse's dancing make it clear that these young lovers are meant to be together for life. Happy #TBT!

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Summer Study Advice
The author at 13, rehearsing at her home studio, Ballet Arts Theater, in Endicott, NY. Courtesy McGuire.

This story originally appeared in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Pointe.

As a young student at a small ballet school in upstate New York, I was obsessed with getting into the School of American Ballet. From the age of 10, I entered class each day with the ultimate goal of studying at SAB dangling before me like a carrot on a stick. Every effort I made, every extra class I took was for the sole purpose of getting into what I thought was the only ballet school that really mattered.

I auditioned for SAB's summer program for the first time when I was 12. In the weeks that followed, I became a vulture hovering over my family's mail, squawking at my mother if the day's letters were not presented for my inspection when I walked through the door. The day the letter finally arrived, it was thin and limp. I cried for a week as I dealt with the crushing feeling of rejection for one of the first times in my life.

My mind filled with questions and self-doubt. What was wrong with me? Why wasn't I good enough? I figured I must be too fat, too slow, my feet too flat. I had worked so hard. I had wished on every fallen eyelash and dead dandelion in pursuit of my single goal, just to have a three-paragraph form letter conclude that I was a failure. For a while, I let myself wallow in the comfort of my resentment, content to believe that success should have come easily, and that to fall was the same as to fail.

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Pointe Stars
Photo by Theo Kossenas, Courtesy The Washington Ballet

You made a deal with your mom to take ballet classes in exchange for a ride to tryouts for the football team. How did that work?
I thought that I would take ballet for a couple months, become a master and then leave that alone and concentrate on football. Ballet had other ideas, which perplexed me, and ultimately, I think, made me fall in love with it.

How is The Washington Ballet evolving under Julie Kent's leadership?
It's still early, but I think that the company is growing stronger classically. And we have Julie, Victor Barbee, Xiomara Reyes and Rinat Imaev—a great team of people who are giving their input and expertise, which is quite helpful.

Mack in 'Swan Lake.' Photo by Theo Kossenas

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Summer Study Advice
Summer intensive students at the School of American Ballet. Photo by Rosalie O'Conner, Courtesy SAB.

As a young student, Shea McAdoo's classes at the Master Ballet Academy in Scottsdale, Arizona, were “strict, straightforward, very classical and purely Vaganova." She appreciated the Russian rigor and precision, but when she was accepted to the School of American Ballet's summer course at 13, she leapt at the chance to learn something new. The vastly different emphasis on Balanchine technique at SAB was illuminating: “It changed my whole way of thinking about musicality and accents. I'd never known there were so many ways to do a tendu! And the épaulement—I loved how they talked about light hitting your face, tilting your chin to show off your diamond earring."

McAdoo's experience was transformative, even when she returned home. “Of course, I lowered my arms back down in second and didn't cross my wrists," she says, “but there were stylistic choices I brought back with me." Today, as an apprentice with Oregon Ballet Theatre rehearsing Balanchine's Serenade, she credits her ease with the ballet's fluid port de bras to her summer at SAB.

Learning about ballet's various styles and techniques is an important part of a dancer's development. With summer intensive auditions approaching, it's a perfect time to consider broadening your training. While it can be initially confusing, immersing yourself in a style outside your comfort zone can be eye-opening and influential for your future training and career. And the benefits of diversifying your training can last beyond a single summer.


Shea McAdoo in OBT's production of "Paquita." Photo by James McGrew.

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