Students at Ellison Ballet's Classical Pas de Deux Intensive learning the pas from Don Quixote. Rachel Neville, Courtesy Ellison Ballet.

Supplement Your Summer: How to Know If a Short, Specialized Intensive Is Right For You

Summer intensives are wonderful opportunities to focus on your technique and artistry, study with new teachers and take classes you may not regularly get. But in addition to traditional multi-week, all-encompassing programs, many schools are now adding shorter "specialty" intensives that address specific areas or skills. These supplemental weeks (which usually follow the longer programs) offer short, deep dives into the choreographic process, variations, partnering or life as a professional dancer. While regular summer programs are fairly predictable, these hyper-focused intensives vary widely in their environments, intentions and requirements. And while it's a good opportunity to add weeks to your summer or train at more than one school, some may restrict admission to or prioritize those attending their full summer program. Before jumping in, look closely at what's involved and think about what you need.

Real-World Experience

Specialty intensives are meant to give students skills and experiences they rarely get in a typical ballet school curriculum—like living through a professional dancer's daily routine. At Miami City Ballet School's two-week Choreographic Intensive (for ages 14 to 18) and Young Choreographic Intensive (ages 10 to 13), students work directly with a choreographer, selected by school director Arantxa Ochoa, on new works created specifically for them. Ochoa devised these intensives to give students a career skill she knew they'd need: learning how to work with a choreographer. "It's like life in a company," she says. Students spend six hours daily in rehearsals, intimately involved in the creation of about five new works in varying styles, which they perform in MCB's studio theater at the session's end. "As professional dancers, they'll have to be quick, pick up steps, be flexible. That's not something that's normally taught," she adds.

Eighteen-year-old Mary Kate Edwards, who has attended MCB's Choreographic Intensives for the past two years, says she loved the challenge of collaborating with a choreographer. "The biggest benefit for me was getting a feel for what company life is really like," says Edwards. "You have to go in really open-minded, ready for anything, and take care of yourself so you're ready to go when the choreographer needs you."

A ballerina in a purplish blue dress and gold hair piece reaches downstage, held by a man in a pale blue outfit. Three other couples stand upstage of them.

Dancers at Miami City Ballet's Choreographic Intensive perform a new work by Durante Verzola.

Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB

Similarly, The School of Pennsylvania Ballet's Choreographic Workshop is one of three weeklong intensives (the others are Company Experience and Coaching With Company Members) following the school's regular five-week program. PAB company members create new works on the students. "I tell the choreographers to really include the kids in the process of discovery. That's where the education comes in," says school director James Payne.

At PAB's Company Experience week, students learn and fine-tune company repertoire from artistic staff. (Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School and BalletMet Academy offer similar programs.) Last summer, PAB artistic director Angel Corella staged Giselle's entire Act II on the 39 students who participated. While it's not a company recruitment tool, Payne thinks this intensive is particularly valuable for advanced students (and it's open only to dancers accepted into the top two levels of the regular summer program). "It demands that they step up and be quick," he says. "Angel treats them like a company, so they get a good idea of the difference between rep class and the real thing, with the repetition and insistence on detail and precision."

Specialized Skills and One-On-One Mentoring

Variations and partnering classes are a mainstay of most summer programs, but students don't often get the chance to learn a full pas de deux in its entirety, or be coached one-on-one in the style, musicality and characterization of a classical solo. Ellison Ballet's Classical Pas de Deux and Classical Variations Intensives, two-week programs following its four-week summer intensive, are about getting a sense of soloist or principal dancer responsibilities. Each week, students learn either two variations or a pas de deux (including its variations and coda) and hone them with director Edward Ellison and his Vaganova-trained faculty. "Both programs challenge students to make substantial improvement in technique, stamina and artistic understanding in a relatively short period of time," Ellison says. "It's enormously gratifying to see young talent make such strides in only two weeks."

PAB's third supplemental summer program, Coaching With Company Members, pairs each student with a company soloist or principal for 30 minutes daily of private coaching on a variation. The balance of each day follows a traditional summer program schedule with pointe, men's, contemporary and conditioning classes. Students skew younger and more local (housing is not available for this week), and often participate for the chance to work with company dancers they've previously only admired from afar. "They've looked up to these dancers for some time, so the opportunity to have two and a half hours alone with them over the week and be coached is pretty cool," says Payne. "It's taking down the wall between company and student, and allowing for mentorship."

Three boys in black tights and white tee shirts stand in back attitude in a ballet studio.

Student Charles Clinton (foreground) taking class at the Boys Ballet Summer Intensive

Courtesy BBSI

Men's Training

While not officially affiliated with a year-round school (although it's held in the International Ballet Academy's studios in Cary, North Carolina), the Boys Ballet Summer Intensive offers young male dancers something extremely rare: two weeks training in an all-male environment. Co-director Emma Frenette says the intention is to counter the isolation most boys experience: "We started the program to give them a safe, rigorous learning environment, with male teachers, where every class is specifically designed for the needs of a young male dancer seeking pre-professional training."

In addition to technique, weight training and variations, boys learn acting and repertoire of male roles, as well as partnering (girls attend for this portion of the afternoon). Faculty members like former New York City Ballet star Jock Soto and co-founder and current American Ballet Theatre dancer Patrick Frenette provide mentoring and context about what the professional career of a male dancer is like.

Clark Eselgroth, 17, who attended BBSI for four summers and is now a student at The Royal Ballet School in London, relished the network the program fosters. "I got to train with other boys my age who came from all over the world," he says. "And teachers who, based on their own professional experience, tailor the entire class around the specific and challenging skills essential for men."

A young ballerina in pink tights and black leotard is being partnered by Payne, while he explains what he's doing. A male student in gray tights and a white tee stands to the side, waiting his turn.

The School of Pennsylvania Ballet director James Payne coaching two summer students

Chris Kendig, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet


If you're interested in extending your summer training, keep in mind that after a regular summer program, you may already be run down. For that reason, some, like Ellison's Classical Pas de Deux Intensive, are limited to older students and young professionals who already have strong partnering skills and stamina for highly demanding sessions. Others, like PAB's Coaching With Company Members and MCB's Young Choreographic Workshop, accept those as young as 11 or 10, respectively.

Getting admitted to a specialty intensive may also hinge on attending the school's longer program. Commonly, academies hold one audition for all their summer offerings, and although some accept students looking to solely attend the auxiliary weeks, priority is often given to those who attend the full program.

If you're hungry to level-up your training, adding extra weeks of laser focus in a specialty summer intensive can be an efficient, though challenging, way to do it. After MCB's Choreographic Workshop, Edwards came away with new skills and inspiration. "It's long days and long hours," she says, "but it really validated for me that this is what I want to do for a career."

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Chisako Oga photographed for Pointe by Jayme Thornton

Chisako Oga Is Soaring to New Heights at Boston Ballet

Chisako Oga is a dancer on the move—in more ways than one. From childhood training in Texas, California and Japan to a San Francisco Ballet apprenticeship to her first professional post with Cincinnati Ballet, where she quickly rose to principal dancer, she has rarely stood still for long.

But now the 24-year-old ballerina is right where she wants to be, as one of the most promising soloists at Boston Ballet. In 2019, Oga left her principal contract to join the company as a second soloist, rising to soloist the following year. "I knew I would have to take a step down to join a company of a different caliber, and Boston Ballet is one of the best companies in the country," she says. "The repertoire—Kylián, Forysthe, all the full-length ballets—is so appealing to me."

And the company has offered her major opportunities from the start. She danced the title role in Giselle in her very first performances with Boston Ballet, transforming a playful innocent into a woman haunted by betrayal with dramatic conviction and technical aplomb. But she also is making her mark in contemporary work. The last ballet she performed onstage before the pandemic hit was William Forsythe's demanding In the middle, somewhat elevated, which she says was a dream to perform. "The style really clicked, felt really comfortable. Bill drew something new out of me every rehearsal. As hard as it was, it was so much fun."

"Chisako is a very natural mover, pliable and strong," says artistic director Mikko Nissinen. "Dancing seems to come very easy for her. Not many have that quality. She's like a diamond—I'm curious to see how much we can polish that talent."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, does a pench\u00e9 on pointe towards the camera with her arms held out to the side and her long hair flying. Smiling confidently, she wears a blue leotard and a black and white ombr\u00e9 tutu.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

A Life-Changing Opportunity

Oga began dancing at the age of 3. Born in Dallas, she and her family moved around to follow her father's job in IT. Before settling in Carlsbad, California, they landed in Japan for several years, where Oga began to take ballet very seriously. "I like the simplicity of ballet, the structure and the clear vocabulary," she says. "Dances that portray a story or have a message really drew me in. One of my favorite parts of a story ballet is diving into the role and becoming the character, putting it in my perspective."

In California, Oga studied with Victor and Tatiana Kasatsky and Maxim Tchernychev. Her teachers encouraged her to enter competitions, which she says broadened her outlook and fed her love of performing in front of an audience. Though highly motivated, she says she came to realize that winning medals wasn't everything. "Honestly, I feel like the times I got close and didn't place gave me perspective, made me realize being a dancer doesn't define you and helped me become the person and the dancer I am today."

At 15, Oga was a semifinalist at the Prix de Lausanne, resulting in a "life-changing" scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet School. There she trained with two of her most influential teachers, Tina LeBlanc and Patrick Armand. "She came in straightaway with strong basics," Armand recalls, "and working with her for two years, I realized how clever she is. She's super-smart, thoughtful, driven, always working."

She became a company apprentice in 2016. Then came the disappointing news—she was let go a few months later. Pushing 5' 2", she was simply too short for the company's needs, she was told. "It was really, really hard," says Oga. "I felt like I was on a good track, so to be let go was very shocking, especially since my height was not something I could improve or change."

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

Moving On and Up

Ironically, Oga's height proved an advantage in auditioning for Cincinnati Ballet, which was looking for a talented partner for some of their shorter men. She joined the company in 2016, was quickly promoted to soloist, and became a principal dancer for the 2017–18 season, garnering major roles like Swanilda and Juliet during her three years with the company. "There were times I felt insignificant and insecure, like I don't deserve this," Oga says about these early opportunities. "But I was mostly thrilled to be put in those shoes."

She was also thriving in contemporary work, like choreographer-in-residence Jennifer Archibald's MYOHO. Archibald cites her warmth, playfulness and sensitivity, adding, "There's also a powerful presence about her, and I was amazed at how fast she was at picking up choreography, able to find the transitions quickly. She's definitely a special talent. Boston Ballet will give her more exposure on a national level."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, poses in attitude derriere crois\u00e9 on her right leg, with her right arm out to the side and her left hand grazing her left shoulder. She smiles happily towards the camera, her black hair blowing in the breeze, and wears a blue leotard, black-and-white ombre tutu, and skin-colored pointe shoes.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

That was Oga's plan. She knew going in that Cincinnati was more stepping-stone than final destination. She had her sights on a bigger company with a broader repertoire, and Boston Ballet seemed ideal.

As she continues to spread her wings at the company, Oga has developed a seemingly effortless artistic partnership with one of Boston Ballet's most dynamic male principals, Derek Dunn, who Oga calls "a kind-hearted, open person, so supportive when I've been hard on myself. He's taught me to believe in myself and trust that I'm capable of doing whatever the choreography needs." The two have developed an easy bond in the studio she likens to "a good conversation, back and forth."

Dunn agrees. "I knew the first time we danced together we had a special connection," he says. "She really takes on the artistic side of a role, which makes the connection really strong when we're dancing onstage. It's like being in a different world."

He adds, "She came into the company and a lot was thrown at her, which could have been daunting. She handled it with such grace and confidence."

Derek Dunn, shirtless and in blue tights, lunges slightly on his right leg and holds Chisako Oga's hand as she balances on her left leg on pointe with her right leg flicking behind her. She wears a yellow halter-top leotard and they dance onstage in front of a bright orange backdrop.

Oga with Derek Dunn in Helen Pickett's Petal

Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet

Perspective in a Pandemic

The pair were heading into Boston Ballet's busy spring season when the pandemic hit. "It was really a bummer," Oga says. "I was really looking forward to Swan Lake, Bella Figura, some new world premieres. When we found out the whole season was canceled, it was hard news to take in."

But she quickly determined to make the most of her time out of the studio and physically rest her body. "All the performances take a toll. Of course, I did stretches and exercised, but we never give ourselves enough time to rest as dancers."

She also resumed college courses toward a second career. Oga is one of many Boston Ballet dancers taking advantage of a special partnership with Northeastern University to help them earn bachelor's degrees. Focusing on finance and accounting, Oga upped her classes in economics, algebra, business and marketing. She also joined Boston Ballet's Color Our Future Mentoring Program to raise awareness and support diversity, equity and inclusion. "I am trying to have my voice inspire the next generation," she says.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

One pandemic silver lining has been spending more time with her husband, Grand Rapids Ballet dancer James Cunningham. The two met at Cincinnati Ballet, dancing together in Adam Hougland's Cut to the Chase just after Oga's arrival, and got married shortly before her move to Boston. Cunningham took a position in Grand Rapids, so they've been navigating a long-distance marriage ever since. They spend a lot of time texting and on FaceTime, connecting in person during layoffs. "It's really hard," Oga admits, but adds, "We are both very passionate about the art form, so it's easy to support each other's goals."

Oga's best advice for young dancers? "Don't take any moment for granted," she says without hesitation. "It doesn't matter what rank you are, just do everything to the fullest—people will see the hard work you put in. Don't settle for anything less. Knowing [yourself] is also very important, not holding yourself to another's standards. No two paths are going to be the same."

And for the foreseeable future, Oga's path is to live life to the fullest, inside and outside ballet. "The pandemic put things in perspective. Dancing is my passion. I want to do it as long as I can, but it's only one portion of my life. I truly believe a healthy balance between social and work life is good for your mental health and helps me be a better dancer."

Tanya Howard in rehearsal Trase Pa. Photo by Karolina Kuras, Courtesy of NBoC.

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Students of Canada's National Ballet School. Bruce Zinger, Courtesy Ballet Unleashed.

Ballet Unleashed Aims to Connect Emerging Dancers From 11 Academies With Freelance Opportunities

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Mavis Staines, artistic director and CEO of Canada's National Ballet School, became frustrated with this flawed system years ago. Why were so many talented dancers not being rewarded with work opportunities? And why was the only acceptable form of work a full-season contract, when in the music and theater industries, project-based employment was a legitimized way to build careers?

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