"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
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.