Summer intensive students in contemporary class at Arts Umbrella. Photo by Michael Slobodian, Courtesy Arts Umbrella.

Unlock Your Potential: How Contemporary Ballet Summer Programs Can Empower the Individual Dancer

Before attending the Alonzo King LINES Ballet summer program at age 18, Maya Harr did not have much experience with improvisation. In fact, she was such an introverted bunhead that even the word seemed scary. "The teacher came into the studio, turned off the lights, put on music and told us to dance," says Harr, now a LINES company member. "We didn't stop moving for 45 minutes, and I was grateful for the freedom I've found."

You might feel obligated to spend your summer honing your technique at a classical ballet program. Yet as ballet companies open their repertoires to more contemporary works from choreographers like Aszure Barton, Kyle Abraham, Crystal Pite and Nicolo Fonte, you may want to consider opening yourself up to contemporary styles and the outside-the-box thinking that underlies them. "This work is necessary for the future of ballet," says Dwight Rhoden, artistic director of Complexions Contemporary Ballet and its affiliated summer intensive.


A contemporary ballet summer program can do more than improve your versatility. In addition to learning new skills like improvisation or Gaga, you'll likely be immersed in a more collaborative environment that mimics what it is actually like to be in a ballet company. Gaining experience with the creative process, as well as thinking and moving in new and unexpected ways, may also help you get to know more about yourself.

Defy Categorization

"Contemporary doesn't mean less clear, or just 'Let go.' Yes, there is more freedom, but there are also principles of movement," says Dwight Rhoden, pictured here correcting a student at Complexions' summer program. Photo Courtesy Complexions Contemporary Ballet.

Artemis Gordon, artistic director of the dance program and summer intensive at Arts Umbrella in Vancouver, thinks students should avoid categorizing themselves as either a ballet or modern dancer. "A great ballet dancer is a great dancer," she says, adding that summer is an ideal time to educate yourself in new styles and approaches.

Christine Welker, education director of the new Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre summer program in Atlanta, agrees, adding that a well-rounded approach to your training is key to seamlessly navigating different styles. At TMBT, students spend the first part of the day "pulled up," taking ballet and pointe classes. The second part of the day is more grounded, with new warm-up exercises to ready the body for the different dynamics that neoclassical and contemporary repertoire and partnering require.

Most contemporary summer programs are classically based, with half the day spent working on ballet technique, pointework, variations and partnering. What sets them apart is the integrated focus of contemporary methods and practices often used in dance companies today.

Compared to the uprightness of classical ballet, contemporary movement asks for a new sort of coordination as the body moves both in and out of balance and in all possible relationships with the floor. "Contemporary doesn't mean less clear, or just 'Let go,' " says Rhoden. "Yes, there is more freedom, but there are also principles of movement."

For Complexions' intensive, Rhoden developed a class with co-artistic director Desmond Richardson to introduce students to contemporary work. '"We move through the regular class sequence, from pliés all the way to grand allégro, with emphasis on shifting weight and a more exploratory torso,"" says Rhoden. "While we do give dancers the power to go outside the box, we are focused on a full-body technique.""

Beyond ballet and contemporary, you may also be exposed to modern dance techniques, hip hop, improvisation and cross-training workshops. The variety of classes can help start an important dialogue with yourself and your body: Who am I? What is my body? How do I like to move? "All of the information has to be processed in order to make the connections," says Gordon. "Within the diversity of every class, they're all saying the same thing."

Find Your Own Agenda

"Being able to move in different ways adds longevity to your career," says Alonzo King LINES Ballet's Maya Harr, pictured here. Photo Courtesy LINES Ballet.

At Arts Umbrella, students are expected to make choices about their own learning styles and responses to movement and process. Keeping a journal, setting an internal motivation or goal for class, and asking questions when something is unclear are encouraged and can hold dancers responsible to themselves, their peers and the ideas being presented by the person in the front of the room. For young bunheads used to being told what to do and think in class, this may be a big shift. "You have been programmed your whole life to try to be 'good,' " says Gordon. "But here no one is telling you what to do or what will make you successful."

Rhoden takes a simliar approach. "I ask all of the dancers to leave here with something they did not walk in with," he says. "It could be more stability, a triple, an idea, a discovery, an awareness. You can decide what you want to get out of this class. You can come to the barre with an idea for the day that you want to address, even if I don't see it."

"In super-classical programs, it really is all laid out for the student," says Rees Launer, a dancer with The Joffrey Studio Company who spent a summer at Arts Umbrella. "Here the teachers push you to take what they are teaching to learn more about yourself: what you enjoy and where you need to grow the most."

Contemporary summer intensives also allow dancers a chance to explore contemporary repertoire and have a hand in creating new work. At TMBT, students worked with company choreographers Heath Gill and Tara Lee on an original piece, which they performed at Atlanta's High Museum of Art. And at Complexions, both repertoire and new works are taught to students through a responsive dialogue: Rhoden encourages students to take a given movement or taught phrase and "capture it"—in other words, layer it with individual meaning and draw the audience into a story.

An Eye-Opening Summer

Summer students at Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre's advanced intensive. Photo by Daley Kappenman, Courtesy TMBT.

Whether it is learning how to define your own goals and success, actively participating in the choreographic process for the first time, or figuring out how to perform outside of a traditional theater space, contemporary summer programs aim to give you the kind of eye-opening experiences that help you build more confidence.

While Harr's contemporary summer was a surprise gateway to her career with LINES, it was also a journey of self-discovery that helped her find her own voice. "It opened the doors on how to dance," says Harr, "and I learned there is not just one way. Everyone's body and way of thinking is different."

Launer agrees. Learning Crystal Pite's choreography in a repertoire class and Arts Umbrella's overall focus on self-creation were two highlights of his summer there that will stay with him. "I didn't realize until now how much you can branch out with your technique, how much more ballet can come alive when you learn how to put yourself in it."

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After 25 Years, Victoria Morgan to Step Down as Cincinnati Ballet's Artistic Director

Last month, Victoria Morgan announced that she will step down as Cincinnati Ballet's artistic director at the conclusion of the 2021-22 season. The organization's board of trustees has formed a committee to conduct a national search for her replacement.

Prior to coming to Cincinnati Ballet in 1997, the Salt Lake City native was a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet and Ballet West, as well as resident choreographer for the San Francisco Opera. She graduated magna cum laude from University of Utah, where she also earned her MFA, and has judged several international ballet competitions.

Entering her 25th and final season as director, Morgan has accomplished a lot at Cincinnati Ballet, not the least erasing the $800,000 in company debt she inherited at the outset of her tenure. To right the organization's financial ship she had to make tough choices early on—the first task the company's executive committee gave her was to release a third of the company's dancers. In her continuing effort to overhaul how the organization did business, in 2008 she became both the artistic director and CEO and set about building the company's now $14.5 million endowment. For the 2016–17 season, with the arrival of new company president and CEO Scott Altman, Morgan returned to being full-time artistic director and helped lead the realization of the organization's new $31 million home, the Margaret and Michael Valentine Center for Dance.

A champion of female choreographers, Morgan has also choreographed numerous ballets for the company, including world premieres of King Arthur's Camelot and The Nutcracker. She has also helped orchestrate several company collaborations, including 2013's Frampton and Cincinnati Ballet Live and joint productions with BalletMet.

Pointe caught up with Morgan to talk about her recent announcement.

Victoria Morgan is shown from the side standing on stage right, turning to smile at a line of costumed dancers to her left during bows. She wears a patterned green dress with chunky green high heels and holds a red rose in her hand.

Peter Mueller, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet

Why leave Cincinnati Ballet now?

It's been an amazing run and I have seen it all. I am not sure where I would go from here. I also feel there is a required stimulus and infusion of new ideas and energy that always needs to be a part of a growing, evolving and exciting arts organization.

What made you happiest at Cincinnati Ballet?

The people, from the devotion of patrons and donors to learning from and feeling the pride in work from the staff. It has also been so satisfying for me to choreograph on and watch so many dancers evolve in their dance careers and lives.

Were there things you wanted to do for the company that you weren't able to?

There were other collaborations I wanted us to explore and choreographers I wanted us to work with. It takes quite an investment to make those happen.

Your legacy includes actively creating opportunities for female choreographers. What motivated that?

I started realizing, in a profound way, the gender inequities in our art form. Because I was in a leadership position, I thought I could do something about this and try to get to a 50-50 balance of male and female choreographers. It took a little time to find women to step forward, but it happened. Now there are many more prominent female choreographers, including our resident choreographer Jennifer Archibald, and I am proud of that.

If you could handpick your successor, what qualities would you look for?

Somebody creative, charged up, and who can be visionary. Someone who has had a high-level experience in our art form. A leader who is demanding but also kind and supportive, and who opens doors to find new ideas while still embracing Cincinnati Ballet's philosophies.

What do you feel will be one of the biggest challenges for the new artistic director?

The important cause of DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility). Whoever steps into that position has to have awareness of the culture of today's conversation.

Do you plan to keep choreographing?

I am not being proactive about it, but if the opportunity presents itself, it would be fun.

What's next?

I feel my next calling is bringing movement to the biggest segment of our population, baby boomers. I want to be part of an initiative that makes moving and wellness enjoyable and enlivens people.

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