Ballet Chicago Studio Company in Balanchine's Square Dance. Ron McKinney Photography, Courtesy Ballet Chicago.

The Ballet Chicago Studio Company Provides Hands-On Balanchine Training With a Taste of Professional Life

"You'll find people say that we're very demanding, but we're not mean," says Daniel Duell, co-founder of the Ballet Chicago Studio Company, a rigorous, Balanchine-based pre-professional training program located in the heart of downtown Chicago. Duell originally formed Ballet Chicago as a professional company, which disbanded after 11 seasons in 1998. Today, the organization is wholly dedicated to training and is one of the only pre-professional programs in the country entrusted with staging George Balanchine's ballets.

In addition to running the Ballet Chicago Studio Company (BCSC) and its affiliated school, former New York City Ballet principal Duell and his wife, Patricia Blair, who danced with Eglevsky Ballet, are répétiteurs for The George Balanchine Trust. The couple's investment in Balanchine's technique and repertoire has afforded Ballet Chicago a unique relationship with the Trust, giving BCSC dancers the opportunity to perform classic ballets like Concerto Barocco, "Rubies," Tarantella and Valse-Fantaisie.


Artistic director Daniel Duell. Ron McKinney Photography, Courtesy Ballet Chicago.

"It's become our life's work to do this. It keeps us close to our artistic roots," says Duell, who has created a successful pipeline to the professional world. He cites about 60 dancers throughout the program's 25-year history who have signed with ballet companies, including contracts with New York City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet and The Suzanne Farrell Ballet.

BCSC is a tuition-based program, but replicates a professional dance company in nearly every other sense. Duell and Blair hold an annual nationwide tour auditioning dancers for its summer intensives and year-round programs. Dancers who place into Level 6 or 7 during this process, ranging from approximately ages 12 to 23, are considered part of the Studio Company. (Those who are only accepted for the summer intensive may be reconsidered for the school-year programs at the end of the summer.) While there is no official audition process for performances, Studio Company members are considered for roles based on their performance in class.

BCSC dancers in Balanchine's "Serenade." Ron McKinney Photography, Courtesy Ballet Chicago.

BCSC dancers spend up to 30 hours a week in class and rehearsals, mostly during after-school hours and weekends. About one third of the group completes high school online and rehearses during the day as needed. The others squeeze in homework during free periods at school and late at night. The company presents three seasons a year, including 11 Nutcracker performances and a spring rep program featuring works by Balanchine and others, like Duell and resident choreographer Ted Seymour. While additional summer courses and advanced repertoire intensives are offered at Ballet Chicago each year (and attract dancers from across the globe), BCSC members are not discouraged from attending summer intensives held by professional companies.

Dana Coons, now a freshman pursuing pre-med at Northwestern University, is a longtime Ballet Chicago student who continues to train there. In addition to her demanding dance schedule, she took several difficult AP classes while attending a competitive Chicago high school. "A key quote from Ms. Blair is 'blood and guts,' " says Coons. "You've got to go for it. They push us to our maximums." This philosophy is applied to life as well as dance. "It's a tremendous commitment for not only the dancer, but the family," says Duell. "We chose to do it this way because when young people rise to challenges they don't necessarily think they can do, it creates a sense of belief in themselves."

BCSC members in rehearsal. Ron McKinney Photography, Courtesy Ballet Chicago.

BCSC alumni Jordan Nelson agrees. He spent more than two years training intensely at Ballet Chicago before launching his career with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, and he's also danced with Madison Ballet and Festival Ballet Providence and as a freelancer in Chicago. Reflecting on Duell and Blair's tough love, he says: "They always want you to improve. They want to push you past what you believe you are capable of. It's a grueling environment, but it shows you what the professional world is like."

Ballet Chicago Studio Company At a Glance

  • Number of dancers: 43 for the 2017–18 season
  • Age range: 12–23
  • Annual tuition: $7,300 for Level 7, $6,500 for Level 6, plus $75 registration fee. All subject to change as of September 2018. Merit and need-based scholarships available.
  • Performances per year: 20
  • Website: balletchicago.org

Audition Advice

The nationwide audition tour for Ballet Chicago's summer intensives and year-round programs begins in January. Video auditions are also accepted. Duell looks for ballet proportions, though potential and desire are as important as body type.

Related Articles From Your Site
Related Articles Around the Web

Latest Posts


Getty Images

The History of Pointe Shoes: The Landmark Moments That Made Ballet's Signature Shoe What It Is Today

Pointe shoes, with their ability to elevate a dancer both literally and metaphorically to a superhuman realm, are the ultimate symbol of a ballerina's ethereality and hard work. For students, receiving a first pair of pointe shoes is a rite of passage. The shoes carry an almost mystical allure: They're an endless source of lore and ritual, with tips, tricks and stories passed down over generations.

The history of pointe shoes reveals how a delicately darned slipper introduced in the 1820s has transformed into a technical tool that offers dancers the utmost freedom onstage today.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Getty Images

How Coming Back to Ballet After Years Away Has Saved Me During the Pandemic Shutdown

I was 4 years old when I took my first ballet lesson. My mom had dressed me in a pink leotard with matching tights, skirt and slippers. She drove me on a Saturday morning to a ballet academy in downtown Caguas, the town in Puerto Rico where I grew up. I don't remember much from the first lesson, but I do recall the reverence. My teacher Mónica asked the class if someone wanted to volunteer to lead. She was surprised I—the new girl—was the one to raise my hand.

I made up most of the steps, mimicking the ballerinas I had seen on TV and videos. At one point, Mónica stepped in and asked me to lead the class in a bow. I followed her directions and curtseyed in front of the mirror with one leg behind me and a gentle nod. I looked up to find myself in awe of what I had just done.

This was the same feeling I had when, after years away from dance, I finished my first YouTube ballet class at home in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
La'Toya Princess Jackson, Courtesy MoBBallet

Join Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet for Its 2020 Virtual Symposium

Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet, founded in 2015 by writer and activist Theresa Ruth Howard to preserve and promote the stories of Black ballet dancers, is offering three weekends of interactive education and conversation this month through its 2020 Virtual Symposium. The conference, titled "Education, Communication, Restoration," encourages participants to engage in candid discussions concerning racial inequality and social justice in ballet. While it is a space that centers on Blackness, all are welcome. Held August 14, 15, 21, 22 and 28, MoBBallet's second annual symposium will allow dancers to receive mentorship and openly speak about their personal experiences in a safe and empowering environment.

The first event, For Us By Us (FUBU) Town Hall, is a free community discussion on August 14 from 3:30–4:30 pm EDT via Zoom, followed by a forum for ballet leadership. The town hall format encourages active engagement (participants can raise their hands and respond in real time), but the registration invoice also contains a form for submitting questions in advance. The following discussions, forums and presentations include topics like company life as a Black dancer, developing personal activism, issues of equity and colorism in ballet companies, and more. Tickets range from free to $12 for each 60- to 80-minute event.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks