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Pacific Northwest Ballet School Professional Division students take Eva Stone's modern dance class. Photo by Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB.

"Who here is terrified of choreographing?"

It was a question posed by Pacific Northwest Ballet School teacher Eva Stone five weeks ago, sitting on the floor among her class of female summer intensive students. "Almost all of them raised their hand, but I said, 'Don't worry, I got you,'" says Stone. "'I'm going to give you tools and skills and you're going to build on them.' It's amazing how their perspective changed in five weeks."

Stone's choreography class, introduced into the summer program last year, served as a pilot for a new initiative at PNB School beginning this September. New Voices: Choreography and Process for Young Women in Dance is a year-round class dedicated to educating and encouraging 14 to 16-year-old female students in the art of dancemaking. Made possible through funding from the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation, the 38-week course was created to help address the lack of women choreographers working in major classical ballet companies.

PNB School is one of several academies offering choreographic opportunities to its students. Houston Ballet Academy and the Chautauqua Institution, for example, hold workshops during their summer intensives, while Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet and Ballet Academy East recently joined forces to create a choreographic exchange program. And School of American Ballet offers numerous choreographic projects for its dancers, including one for women. What makes PNB's initiative unique is its year-long scope and structured focus on composition.

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Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet rehearsing for "The Sleeping Beauty" for the 2017/18 season. Photo by Arian Molina Soca, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet.

Today the Pennsylvania Ballet's board of trustees announced the appointment of Shelly Power as its new executive director. Having been involved in the five-month international search, company artistic director Angel Corella said in a statement released by PAB that he's "certain Shelly is the best candidate to lead the administrative team that supports the artistic vision of the company." Power's official transition will begin in February. This news comes at the end of a few years of turmoil and turnover at PAB, including the departure of former executive director David Gray in June.

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Ballet Training
Erica Fischbach with students from the Colorado Ballet Academy. Photo by Tamar More, Courtesy Colorado Ballet.

Striving for higher extensions, more turnout and bigger jumps may be at the top of your agenda in daily class. But what about those finer points of your technique, the subtleties that make a dancer really shine? They need just as much of your attention, and letting seemingly innocuous bad habits linger will impact your overall dancing.

"There are no shortcuts in ballet," says Cynthia Harvey, artistic director of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre. "You can't expect good results by ignoring details that are the building blocks of technique." We break down five bad habits that are easy to overlook—but have a major impact.

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Power leading class at Houston Ballet Academy. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

In September, former Houston Ballet Academy director Shelly Power will take up her post as Prix de Lausanne's first dual artistic director and CEO—just in time for the competition's 45th anniversary. And she has ambitious plans for its future. Power wants to expand the annual one-week competition into a year-round dance hub, instituting choreography workshops and nurturing leadership qualities in participants. “Oftentimes, students are myopic," she says. “It's all about getting their training and getting into a company. But if you plant leadership seeds at a young age, they become true ambassadors for the art form."

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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.”

This summer, a handful of students attending summer intensives around the country will be sharing their experiences with Pointe. Here, Maddy Graupmann recounts her second week at Houston Ballet.

 

I can’t believe how quickly the time is flying by! It must be because we are so busy all the time. I love a full day’s schedule of dance, though. I remember coming last year after only dancing after school—I don’t think I've ever been more sore than that first week! Now that I've done an entire year with Houston Ballet Academy, dancing all day, I’m pretty used to it, but I still like to get a lot of rest to take care of my body.   

 

My favorite part of last week was our repertoire class. Our level (Level 7) is dancing an excerpt from Serenade and “Friends” from Coppélia. We have rep five times a week for multiple hours each day. But, as is true for professional ballet companies, being in rehearsal doesn’t necessarily mean dancing the entire time. For us, there is a lot of standing and waiting for our cast’s turn to dance. There is always room for improvement, though, so I usually mark the steps while another cast is dancing. This also distracts me from the pain in my feet. Isn’t it weird that when you’re in pointe shoes, it hurts more when you're just standing in them than it does actually dancing? For me, I try to do something other than stand still because it shows better work ethic and my feet thank me after.

 

Another new thing from last week was a helpful correction I received: to lengthen my waist and hold my core stronger. Seems obvious, right? It just slipped to the back of my mind, but since I’ve been thinking about it more, I have been able to turn more, balance longer and my placement has improved.   

 

Time is ticking until the final performance. Serenade is a hard piece because we all have to stay together in very tight and specific formations. We will be cleaning that a lot! “Friends” isn’t as difficult in terms of spacing, but the choreography is more challenging. I can’t wait for my mom to come down and see the performance! She just loves to watch me dance. I can’t believe we’re almost halfway to the performance.

 

I hope all of y’all had a great 4th of July! Talk to you next week!

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