More Than a Number

Students at the Houston Ballet summer intensive (photo by Cameron D.)

Jane Rehm was a top dancer at her studio in Toledo, Ohio, so it was a shock when she arrived at American Ballet Theatre’s summer intensive at 14 and was placed in the lowest level. “I didn’t understand it,” says Rehm, who dances with Smuin Ballet and Post:Ballet. “I had always been one of the best and all of a sudden I was far, far from it.”

Your level placement determines much of the training you’ll receive at your summer intensive: the teachers you’ll have, the variations you’ll learn and the choreography you’ll perform at the closing performance. What should you do if you’re placed lower than you deserve? As nerve-wracking as it may be, you need to talk to your teacher if you are concerned that it will hold you back.

Are You Really in the Wrong Level?

It’s best to take a few classes before speaking up to make sure your emotions aren’t getting in the way, as being placed in a lower level can be hard on the ego. Look around you—are the dancers you’re with truly below your technical level? If so, did you have a horrible placement class? Are you overcoming an injury?

Houston Ballet Academy director Shelly Power says level placement isn’t about your worth as a dancer, but how you match up to that year’s applicant pool. “Remember that the auditioner goes out and sees what the level is across the country,” she says. “It goes through trends.” The talent pool and number of dancers that audition for a program vary each year.

Still, she admits that students sometimes do receive an incorrect placement. “It’s inevitable. You see someone for an hour in an audition and sometimes you get it wrong.”

Speaking Up

If you’ve given your level placement some thought and still feel it’s incorrect, you should ask to talk with your main teacher within the first week of the program. Power stresses that having an accusing tone—telling the teacher that she put you in the wrong level—will not help. Instead, approach the conversation with an eagerness to improve. I’m surprised that I have been placed in this level. What should I focus on this summer to progress?

You may discover that something very specific is holding you back. For instance, “At The School of Washington Ballet we look at pointework very closely,” says school director Kee Juan Han. “To me, pointework is very delicate and it needs to be very carefully formed.” If a dancer needs to improve her pointework, Han might place her in a lower level so she can build strength and avoid injury.

Even if the conversation doesn’t result in being moved up, letting a teacher know you’re worried about your improvement during the program can only benefit you. “It doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to be moved up,” says Power, “but it does give you a little bit more focus from the teacher.” Cluing them in to how you feel lets them know that you’re ready for a challenge—they might be a little harder on you, give you more corrections or push your technique.

Working Through It

If your level doesn’t change, don’t let it affect your experience. “Standing out like a sore thumb because you’re depressed or mad won’t help show that you have the maturity to handle the stress of being in a higher level,” says Power. The education you gain at a summer intensive is more than technique alone: It tests the maturity, independence and tenacity that are required to be a professional dancer. “When you’re in a company and a choreographer sets a piece, you’re going to have days with many of the same feelings you have now,” says Power.

Jane Rehm in Michael Smuin's Carmina Burana (photo by Keith Sutter)

Enjoy the perks of being at the top of your class. “If it were me, I would rather be in the top tier than go to another level where I’m struggling to keep up,” says Han. You might get more attention from teachers and a chance for bigger roles in the end-of-program performance, leading to more coaching time and attention from the affiliated company’s artistic staff. And if the dancing doesn’t feel vigorous enough, push yourself to work on the details of your technique and ask your teacher if you can take extra classes with other levels.

Though it may not feel like it now, your placement might be exactly what you need. Rehm attended ABT’s summer program again two years later and was placed in the highest level, but she feels that she actually improved more during her year in Level 1. “When you show up to a program, the best mindset you can possibly have is that I’m coming to learn what I don’t already know, not to prove what I do know,” says Rehm. If you land in a level that’s over your head, you’ll push through without dancing correctly. “Then you’re just a collection of imitations and bad habits.”

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