Participating in summer intensive programs has long been critical to dancers' advancement—whether still refining their technique or gearing up to make the leap to pre-professional. But amid the coronavirus pandemic and the disruption it has had on dancers' training around the world (which for many has meant months long Zoom classes from home), there's a new level of importance placed on the specialized approach of a summer intensive. Yes, dancers are eager to get back to in-person training, but doing so in a safe environment is of the utmost importance.
Orlando Ballet School (the official school of Orlando Ballet) has been leading the way when it comes to developing successful COVID safety measures without compromising on the quality of training. Working with Orlando health officials, faculty members, and the dancers themselves, school director Phillip Broomhead proudly notes that Orlando Ballet School safely held its in-person summer intensive last year, while the company maintained its full 2020–21 season.
"As dancers, we've always said in the studio, 'You make it happen,'" says principal company and academy teacher Yan Chen, who has been with Orlando Ballet since 1993. "And that's exactly what we did during this pandemic—we figured it out and we made it happen." Here's how Orlando Ballet School created its COVID-safe intensive, and how dancers can still earn a spot for summer 2021.
"I have a couple of different schedules out for the summer because of COVID policies and procedures," explains Broomhead of Orlando Ballet School's commitment to adhering to CDC guidelines. Currently, the school has developed two in-person programs (a two-week and a five-week intensive for women and men), as well as a two-week virtual course for students ages 11 and up. Both in-person intensives follow the same format, with classes held from 10 am to 5 pm, Monday through Friday, and half days on Saturday.
"They'll have conditioning first, which is anything from Pilates to floor barre or Progressing Ballet Technique with the Bosu balls," says Broomhead, who notes that the staff will be working closely with students on an individual level to avoid injury as they readjust to in-person training. "We want to make this a welcoming place for dancers, and our goal is to be able to help as much as we can to get them back in the studio," adds Chen.
After classes in ballet technique and pointe (or men's class), students will work on a mix of classical solos and repertoire, pas de deux, and a lesson in either contemporary, modern, hip-hop, African or character dance.
"Last year we also started to do extracurricular lessons in costume design with the dancers," Broomhead says of the intensive's comprehensive offerings. "This year I'm expanding that to theatrical design, which includes the stage setting and lighting. There will also be a choreographic workshop element for any interested dancers," says Broomhead, who notes the importance of introducing dancers to every element of the ballet from a young age.
Courtesy Orlando Ballet School
World-Class Faculty and Facilities
In addition to Chen, who formerly danced with American Ballet Theatre and The Washington Ballet, Orlando Ballet's summer intensive includes full-time and guest faculty from companies all over the world, across various styles of dance—something that second company member Kenna Gold notes is particularly advantageous. "I really enjoyed all of my teachers," says Gold, who attended the intensive from 2018 to 2020.
The 2021 intensive faculty roster will also include choreographer and director Jorden Morris, who is a former principal dancer of Canada's Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Morris' Peter Pan was most recently performed by Orlando Ballet earlier this month, while performances of his Moulin Rouge took place last winter.
"If you're seeking a position either in the academy or the second company, it's a great way to get a feel for what the program is like," Gold adds. "My first summer, I learned some pieces of the company repertoire, which helped me see what they were looking for and what kind of rep you might do as a trainee or a second company member."
Broomhead notes that he and artistic director Robert Hill (formerly a principal with American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet and The Royal Ballet) will be looking to invite dancers from this year's summer intensive into Orlando Ballet's trainee and second company programs.
Another highlight for the dancers (and Orlando Ballet's staff) is the newly constructed Harriet's Orlando Ballet Centre. Officially opened in January 2020, HOBC's spacious studios allow students to maintain proper distance from one another throughout class. It also allowed the faculty to get creative and hold a COVID-safe showcase for last summer's intensive students by transforming one of its studios into a theater—complete with wings. "Being able to move and travel in the studio after being confined to a living room for months was so liberating," Gold shares.
Courtesy Orlando Ballet School
CDC-Compliant COVID Regulations
Orlando Ballet Orlando Ballet was one of the first schools in the nation to be able to offer its summer intensive in person, and the school and company continue to work with Orlando health officials to ensure that their safety measures are in line with the CDC's latest guidelines. COVID testing is done weekly, and students are grouped according to their levels into pods that are then assigned one studio for the whole day.
"It starts with temperature checks before students even enter the building," says Broomhead, who notes that completing COVID safety questionnaires and wearing masks are also requirements. "When the students get to the studio, they'll find that it has been marked off around the room in six-feet increments, so they can put their bags down in one of those segments and go from there." Orlando Ballet's policies, which rely largely on the cooperation of the dancers, also include walking the hallways single-file and using hand sanitizer before and after class.
"The building is cleaned and sanitized multiple times throughout the day, so that makes us all feel very safe," shares Gold. "We even completed a full season at Orlando Ballet—obviously, it didn't look the same as it has in previous seasons, but we did every performance in a theater, and we all feel very grateful for that."
Orlando Ballet School will be accepting video audition submissions through May 15.
With its fairytale magic and ludicrous stepsisters, Sir Frederick Ashton's Cinderella is full of whimsy and charm. The choreography is also playfully challenging with quirky, intricate phrasing that illuminates Prokofiev's score. Antoinette Sibley, a former principal of The Royal Ballet, revels in the challenges as the titular Cinderella. A master of speed and staccato, Sibley is a frothy delight in her Act II variation in this clip from 1969.
Sibley takes the floor in a glittering white tutu, the belle of the Prince's ball. She showcases her footwork with precise petite changements at 0:25 and delicate walks on pointe at 0:58. When the tempo accelerates, Sibley moves with brilliant speed, her feet just skimming the floor. Ending the variation with dazzling turns en manège (two times around the stage!), it's a wonder she's not dizzy as she steps to curtsy with a beaming smile. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!
In the wake of rising hate crimes against the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community over the last year, many ballet companies have been posting messages of solidarity on social media and voicing their commitment against racial injustice. However, there is still work to be done in reflecting that commitment on stages. Phil Chan, co-founder of Final Bow for Yellowface, an organization dedicated to eliminating offensive Asian stereotypes in dance, says he would give ballet companies a letter grade of C-minus for their current diversity and inclusion work.
"I say C-minus because ballet companies have received the grade for participation, but not for excellence," explains Chan. "There are companies that are really doing a great job with this conversation and are at the front lines, but there are others still stuck in the 19th century. In ballet specifically, so many companies still perform La Bayadère, Le Corsaire or the "Chinese Tea" variation from The Nutcracker that continuously display Asian stereotypes or caricatures, also known as yellowface. They don't hire Asians to tell our own stories, to make work on our own terms. There is a really big imbalance."
To help ballet companies better walk the talk, and in honor of AAPI Heritage Month, Final Bow for Yellowface is raising visibility of some of the leading Asian choreographers of today through 10,000 Dreams: A Virtual Choreography Festival. Each day in May, a choreographer of Asian descent will be profiled on Yellowface.org and on the group's Instagram page, where viewers can watch a short digital work created by the featured dancemaker. Final Bow has challenged artistic directors who have signed its pledge to view the digital works and commission a choreographer of Asian descent by 2025.
"Some artistic directors have said to us that they haven't commissioned Asian choreographers because they 'can't find them' or 'they aren't coming to us.' So we thought if we want to ask these companies to commit to doing better by hiring Asian voices, let's help them out. Let's show them we are all here and doing great work," says Chan.
The festival was curated by Chan, New York City Ballet soloist and Final Bow co-founder Georgina Pazcoguin, and Jessica Tong, associate artistic director of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. The lineup includes choreographers from a variety of disciplines, including classical and contemporary ballet, ethnic/folk traditions, hip hop, breaking, funk and modern.
Only the Beginning
In addition to the daily featured choreographers, Final Bow has partnered with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to present Unboxed, in which three Asian and Asian-American dancemakers were invited to reimagine The Nutcracker's "Chinese Tea" divertissement. Yin Yue (May 10), Edwaard Liang (May 17) and Peter Chu (May 24) will each present their fresh take on the classic variation, hosted by Hubbard Street.
The festival concludes on May 31 with an archival screening of the late Asian-American choreographer Choo San Goh's Fives, presented by The Washington Ballet on Final Bow's website and Instagram page.
Beyond May, Final Bow is preparing to launch an Asian choreographic incubator with six major American ballet companies. The project will pair Asian choreographers with Asian composers, lighting and costume designers, and other creatives to help set their work on a partner ballet company.
Final Bow continues to grow, and the organization is currently working on establishing 501(c)(3) status. But to truly implement lasting change in the ballet world involves Asian dancers continuing to speak up, and allies willing to listen.
"For Asian dancers, don't be afraid to share your experiences and know they are valid," advises Chan. "Change can't happen if we stay silent. For allies, the most important thing you can do is to not center yourself in this experience. After the shootings in Atlanta, for example, people kept coming to me and saying, 'I feel so terrible, I can't believe this.' Instead, come to me and ask, 'How are you feeling? Do you want to talk about this? I am here for you.' You become a true ally, better advocate, and a more sensitive and empathetic person when you are able to center someone else's experience and remove your own ego from it."
To watch Jacques d'Amboise, the legendary New York City Ballet dancer who died this week at the age of 86 due to complications from a stroke, coach dancers in the roles he had performed over the course of his long career was to see an artist who not only possessed formidable insight, but also exuded an infectious love of dance, and of life. To watch him interact with the young dancers of the National Dance Institute, the arts education nonprofit he created in 1976, was to see someone who passionately believed in human potential, and who thrived at seeing it realized.
D'Amboise was born Joseph Jacques Ahearn in Dedham, Massachusetts, in 1934, in the midst of the Great Depression. Seeking work and opportunities for their children, the Ahearns moved to New York City, soon settling in Washington Heights. Jacques' mother, whom he referred to as "The Boss," dragged him to ballet classes at the age of 7 (along with his sister Madeleine), convincing him that ballet was "magical and very hard to do," as he wrote in his 2011 memoir, I Was a Dancer. It was also The Boss's idea that the family change its name to d'Amboise, her maiden name, because, as she put it, "it's aristocratic, it's French…and it's a better name."
After a few months with a teacher uptown, he was enrolled in the School of American Ballet, along with his sister, Madeleine. The school had been founded by the recently arrived Russian émigré choreographer George Balanchine. From that moment on, the two men's lives were intertwined.
At 12, the young Jacques d'Amboise appeared with Balanchine's Ballet Society, precursor of New York City Ballet. And three years later, in 1949, he joined New York City Ballet proper, where he became the company's first homegrown male star. In his 35 years with the company, he danced in everything from Concerto Barocco to Episodes to Afternoon of a Faun. Two dozen roles were created on him, in ballets that ranged from Western Symphony, in which he played a cowboy, to Stars and Stripes, in which he was a soldier with a sparkle in his eye, to the melancholy cavalier in "Diamonds." He brought warmth to the classical roles and a convincing gusto to ballets on American themes.
Most importantly, in 1957, Balanchine revived his 1928 ballet Apollo, considered one of the pinnacles of male dancing, for d'Amboise. Though the role is that of a young god, Balanchine insisted that he dance it in the style of an "American boy, a wild untamed youth," as d'Amboise told me in a 2018 interview. Immediately after saying this, he got up to demonstrate the steps. He was then 83.
His dancing in Apollo, captured on film, was grounded, spontaneous, jazzy, angular. In a word: exciting. This unpretentious, full-blooded approach made him a star in a country that mistrusted the idea of men who danced ballet. Here was an all-American guy who could make this European art many considered effete look like breathing. In so doing, he paved the way for other accessible American male dancers, including Edward Villella, Damian Woetzel and Robert Fairchild.
His dancing also brought the art of ballet closer to American popular culture. D'Amboise performed on TV showcases like Ed Sullivan's show, and, in 1954, appeared in the Hollywood musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. That film led to others: Carousel, and The Best Things in Life Are Free.
But his commitment to ballet was steadfast, as was his devotion to his onstage partners. In his three-decade career he was the preferred partner to most of the company's leading ballerinas, including Maria Tallchief, Diana Adams, Tanaquil Le Clerq and Allegra Kent. In 1963, it was d'Amboise who spotted the young Suzanne Farrell in the corps de ballet and suggested she appear with him in a new work by John Taras, bringing her to Balanchine's attention.
D'Amboise's memoir I Was a Dancer is one of the most vivid accounts of life at New York City Ballet, and an insightful, frank portrait of Balanchine and the other figures whose lives unfolded within the walls of New York City Center, its first home, and then the New York State Theater. (He could also do a mean impression of Mr. B, as I myself have witnessed.)
While still a dancer, d'Amboise founded the National Dance Institute, a program that brings dance education to kids in public schools. Over the last 45 years, it has reached more than 2 million children. After his retirement, NDI became d'Amboise's great passion, to which he dedicated his formidable energies. The offices of NDI, on West 147th Street, were where he could be found most days.
As Harrison Coll, a dancer at New York City Ballet who was mentored by d'Amboise from the age of 19, recently put it in an Instagram post. "The man lived LARGE and with the most open and loving heart."