If you think a full-time pre-professional program might be right for you, it's never too early to start talking about the big transition. Deciding to forgo a "normal" high school experience for the chance to take your training to the next level is life-changing, and it's vital to have in-depth discussions with your family. Here's a checklist of topics to bring up—before the auditions begin.
1. What are my professional goals?
At the very least, you should feel sure that you want a professional dance career. But beyond tutus and dreams, it's important to understand what this means on a day-to-day level: the daily grind of technique classes and physical therapy, all-consuming workdays, and the endless pursuit of artistry and perfection. "I find a lot of students haven't done enough research on what a professional life is about—what it really means," says Denise Bolstad, managing director of Pacific Northwest Ballet School.
In addition, think about what kind of company you want to join and which schools can facilitate that. What's your favorite repertoire? Are you interested in a large company or a smaller one? For instance, Miami City Ballet corps member Ellen Grocki knew she loved Balanchine, so she researched schools where she'd gain extensive training in the style. She eventually left her home in Maryland at 16 to study at MCB School.
Summer intensive students at Pacific Northwest Ballet School. Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.
Since the start of her career at American Ballet Theatre, Misty Copeland has been committed to giving back. “Having taken my first ballet class at a Boys & Girls Club, there was no way for me not to forever keep it a part of my life," she says. Over the past few years, she has expanded her philanthropy. This past November, she traveled to Rwanda with MindLeaps, an organization that provides free dance classes to homeless youth as a way to introduce structure into their lives. Eventually, the program offers vocational training with computer and English classes and sponsors boarding school educations. Here, Copeland shares her weeklong experience in Rwanda, and how dance can transform lives.
I always say that dance saved my life—it gave me every opportunity and made me an intelligent and articulate person. Art can develop you as a human being, and I saw that through MindLeaps. In fact, I don't think I really understood the magnitude of the program until I was in Rwanda. MindLeaps is trying to stop the cycle of poverty, and it's amazing that it all starts with dance.
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By the time Washington Ballet dancer Andile Ndlovu was finishing his training in South Africa, he faced a risky decision. After attending a ballet competition in 2008, he received summer-intensive scholarship offers from The Washington School of Ballet and Dance Theatre of Harlem. But choosing between schools would determine more than his summer plans. The right intensive might lead to acceptance into a professional-level training program at summer's end, whereas walking away empty-handed would mean going back home, to begin again.
Many dancers on the cusp of graduation can relate. Summer intensives often serve as a lengthy audition process for year-round opportunities, a gateway to traineeships or second-company contracts that bridge the gap between student and professional. But choosing a summer program essentially means committing to a company school—before it's committed to you. If you're researching summer programs and know you want to move into a more professional sphere by summer's end, here's how to ensure that you're making a smart, career-minded decision.
Andile Ndlovu with Avana Kimura. Photo by Dean Alexander, Courtesy The Washington Ballet.
Assess Your Options
When prioritizing which intensives to audition for, start with schools affiliated with dream companies. But it's also important to investigate other options and to be very realistic about where you'd be happy day to day. “You have to take away the name brand and take a really close look at the company, at the people, at the repertoire," says San Francisco Ballet corps de ballet dancer Isabella DeVivo, who received a traineeship through SFB's summer program in 2012. “I liked how broad the rep was here."
When National Ballet of Canada principal Heather Ogden was in high school, she earned a spot at Royal Winnipeg Ballet School's year-round program. She had loved their summer intensive and knew she wanted to dance professionally—but she also knew that she wasn't ready to leave home. “I was reluctant to leave my family," she says. “It was a hard decision, but I knew I was getting really good training at home." She took a chance and stayed at her home studio, Richmond Academy of Dance in British Columbia, until she graduated high school and auditioned for NBoC.
These days, many promising ballet students leave home for professional schools, hire personal coaches and jet from one competition to another. Those who lack the financial means for such training, or aren't ready (or allowed) to leave home yet, may feel they have no chance at making it professionally. Pointe investigated four training “disadvantages" in today's high-profile world. Here's how to make sure you're still on track for a career.
When she was a teenager, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet dancer Seia Rassenti's training was about as classical as it could get. A full-time bunhead at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC, she was determined to get a solid technical foundation. But she knew in her heart that she wanted to dance contemporary.
Nearly every summer, Rassenti would attend a contemporary ballet program, like Complexions, The Ailey School or Debbie Allen Dance Academy in L.A. "That was my outlet," she says. "Each program had a different atmosphere, and I met some really cool people who had interests outside of ballet." Then at summer's end, she would faithfully return to the classical world and get back to "work." For Rassenti, her classical training was her means to an end. And it paid off: She earned a contract with Charlotte Ballet's second company (formerly North Carolina Dance Theatre 2), known for its diverse and innovative repertoire.
The road to a contemporary ballet career isn't a clear-cut path. And while strong classical technique is vital, nothing sticks out more than a bunhead in pink tights at a contemporary audition. That's because traditional ballet training does not typically prepare dancers for the contemporary genre's emphasis on collaborating, questioning, improvising and baring your soul even when it doesn't feel pretty. So if a ballet dancer knows that this is the world she was made for, what can she do to prepare?
Josie Walsh's contemporary class at Joffrey Ballet School's summer intensive. Photo by Jody Quinby Kasch, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet School.
A classical foundation is essential for contemporary ballet companies, especially those that work on pointe. But classically trained dancers face a specific set of challenges: They have to learn to isolate each body part, pick up detailed choreography quickly and embrace being off-center. "You have to learn to trust your classical technique, to let go of it," says Rassenti.
"I find that a lot of classically trained dancers lose their natural instincts," says Josie Walsh, artistic director of Joffrey Ballet School's Contemporary Ballet Intensive in San Francisco and founder of Ballet RED. "They're trying to be this classical ideal, and they get very separate from something more organic."
Walsh recommends supplementing your training with a variety of classes, like modern, jazz and even hip hop to practice freer styles of movement and learn how to pick up small details quickly. Dawn Fay, producing director of Wonderbound in Denver, Colorado, also recommends hip hop, explaining its benefits on a basic anatomical level: Whereas classical ballet tends to be smoother and utilizes "slow twitch" muscle fibers, hip hop involves sudden movements, which require finely tuned "quick twitch" muscle fibers.
Christine Cox, artistic and executive director of BalletX in Philadelphia, also recommends recreational classes like Zumba, or if you're old enough, going to a dance club to find your innate rhythm and let go of trying to fit a mold. "It's really important that dancers can move every part of their bodies in a new and different way," she says.
A New Mindset
Aspen Santa Fe's Seia Rassenti (right) in Beautiful Mistake. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Aspen Santa Fe Ballet.
Contemporary teachers often talk about finding "honesty" in choreography. But what does that mean? At its most basic, "honesty" refers to embracing (and revealing) your unprotected, vulnerable humanity, as well as letting your own voice shine through the choreography. "A lot of contemporary choreographers look to their dancers for ideas and want them to be a part of the process," says Cox.
But first, you must find your voice. Improvisation classes are one of the best ways to prepare. "It's a craft," says Walsh. "It's something that you have to do every day and get used to." Any style of improvisation is beneficial, but Karah Abiog, program director for Alonzo King LINES Ballet Training Program, notes that Gaga is currently one of the most popular styles used for exploration.
It's also important to gain experience with the creation process to practice adapting to different choreographers' styles and learn how to pick up new material quickly. For Walsh, this is one of the most important qualities a dancer can possess: "When I'm choreographing, I would rather work with a dancer who is less talented but who can remember my choreography, than a more talented dancer who can't remember, so that I can keep moving quickly and follow through the line of inspiration."
"Contemporary choreographers look to their dancer for ideas and want them to be a part of the process." –Christine Cox
BalletX's Andrea Yorita in Malasangre. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy BalletX.
It might seem like aspiring contemporary dancers have to work double duty, logging both classical and exploratory training hours each week. "It doesn't necessarily mean doubling your hours," says Abiog. "It's doubling your conscious way of working, your mindset."
To do this, Cox suggests finding a training equation that works for you, and keeping it consistent. For instance, devoting 75 percent of your week to ballet, and 25 percent to other styles such as jazz, modern technique or improvisation.
Regardless, Cox recommends connecting with your classical base every day. Fay, Abiog and Walsh agree: While thorough classical training might not be required in all contemporary dance, impeccable classical technique is non-negotiable to join a contemporary ballet company. Cleanliness and purity of line are difficult to instill in the body otherwise.
Strategizing Your Career
Ressenti in Aspen Santa Fe Ballet's Square None. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Aspen Santa Fe Ballet.
Because "contemporary dance" is such a broad term, the first step towards approaching a career is to identify choreographers that you admire. Begin by researching online and going to performances, then by attending workshops, intensives or master classes hosted by your favorite companies and choreographers. Because they're all so different, it's important to know what you're getting into before you make a commitment.
Networking is key. Contemporary companies tend to be small, with dancers participating in the creation process, so most directors want to get to know you on a personal level before offering a contract. When Walsh needs a new dancer quickly, for instance, the last thing she wants to do is organize a large audition. "I'll think, I really like that girl who came to my program in San Francisco," she says. "Taking you into a company is like taking you into a family. You're with these people every day."
Most importantly, think about your career goals: For example, would you prefer a repertoire that offers both classical and contemporary works, or one that's strictly contemporary? Do you want to work with one choreographer or many? Would you prefer a company that works on pointe, or are you comfortable dancing mostly in socks?
For Rassenti, the mixed repertoire at Charlotte Ballet was a comfortable transition. But by the time she joined Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, she was ready to jump into contemporary full-time—and she hasn't looked back. "In this company, we create a lot of new works," she says. "I know that there is a part of my soul in every piece."
Ever dreamed of dancing your way through Europe? Of discovering new companies and wandering the streets of historic cities? For Kelsey Coventry, an American dancer with Leipziger Ballett in Leipzig, Germany, moving abroad was the perfect next step. “I thought that I would try to spread my wings a little further," she says.
Europe also comes with another lure: lengthy, stable contracts with good benefits. “Since I work for an opera house here, and we're government funded, I'm considered a government employee," says Coventry. “We're paid 13 months out of the year, with a 2-month vacation. It's a pretty good deal."
But before you get the job, you need to audition. If you've never traveled abroad, planning a European audition tour can seem daunting. But with advance planning and the right blend of organization and flexibility, it can be an easier and more affordable experience than you think.
This story originally appeared in the December 2014/January 2015 issue of Pointe.
When 17-year-old Rock School student Sarah Lapointe was auditioning for summer intensives, she faced a dilemma. By mid-January, she'd been accepted to a great school. But she needed to give her answer in seven days and still had four more auditions on her agenda. “I thought, What should I do?" says Lapointe. “Do I turn down this offer, or risk being wait-listed or not receiving another acceptance somewhere else?"
It's a common conundrum. For Lapointe, the answer was to contact the first school to ask for a deadline extension, which it granted. “This allowed me to focus on my remaining auditions and make a solid decision," she says.
When it comes to getting into your dream program, we know that schools look for stellar technique, artistry and dancers who will fit in well. But there's more to the equation—those things you can't control, like acceptance deadlines, class sizes and limited housing. If you've ever wondered how the admissions process works, the answers may surprise you.
At the Audition
This story originally appeared in the December 2013/January 2014 issue of Pointe.
When Pacific Northwest Ballet School student Madison Abeo was accepted into San Francisco Ballet School's summer session on a partial scholarship, she was thrilled. But then she added up the remaining cost for the program and realized she didn't have the funds. “I really wanted to go," she says, “but we just couldn't make the other half of it work."
Ballet training is expensive. For many families, a trip to a dream summer intensive simply isn't in the budget. SFB was $2,500 out of Abeo's reach. But she was determined. At the suggestion of her aunt, Abeo created a Facebook fan page where she asked for opportunities to babysit or perform odd jobs, and included a link to a PayPal account where friends and family could make donations. Two local dancewear businesses, Vala Dancewear and Class Act Tutu, offered to outfit her for fundraising photos, which a photographer took for her Facebook page for free. By June, Abeo had raised enough for tuition—plus plenty of pointe shoes.
Affording your dream intensive isn't as difficult as you might think. There are a surprising number of eager dance supporters out there. Case in point: On Kickstarter, dance projects have the highest success rate of any type of campaign, with dancers receiving over $4 million in donations through the site since it began. You can also apply for need- or merit-based grants and scholarships, either through your summer program or an outside foundation. Most dancers who want it badly enough can make it happen.
Madison Abeo with other Pacific Northwest Ballet School students in the 2013 School Performance of an excerpt from "Serenade," choreography by George Balanchine. Photo by Rex Tranter, Courtesy Abeo.
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