At my first summer intensive away from home, my roommate and I deliberated good-naturedly over bunkbeds and decorations. But the next summer, I walked into a triple dorm room and was met with the least desirable bed choice and nearly every inch of wall space plastered with posters of teen pop artists I didn't care for. (Well, hated.) While my two roommates became fast friends, they were aloof towards me and disregarded my personal space.
It was not an ideal situation, but it was one that I had to learn to live with for five weeks. Venturing away from home for summer programs means intimate spaces, unfamiliar faces and new rules—a recipe for lifelong friends if you're lucky, tribulations if you're not. Either way, learning to deal with residence hall life is good training for what may come later in your ballet career or in college.
Julia Erickson in William Forsythe's "In the middle, somewhat elevated." Photo by Rich Sofranko, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.
Julia Erickson grew up training at the Pacific Northwest Ballet School. Once she'd spent some time in the professional division, she started feeling like a member of the company. She performed with PNB extensively, even touring with them to London, Scotland, Alaska and Hong Kong. So when contracts were offered her final year, she was disheartened not to receive one, especially because she had given up other opportunities to stay there. "It was hard not to take it personally," says Erickson, now a longtime principal dancer at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.
Rejection does tend to feel deeply personal, especially as you start auditioning for companies. But don't let disappointments take the wind out of your sails. In truth, the audition process is the first of many challenges, such as casting and contract renewals, that you will face as a professional dancer. But by looking at the big picture, making a strategic plan and trusting the process, you can learn to take rejections less personally and keep moving forward.
BalletX's Caili Quan found value in her early years of career building. Photo by Alexander Izilaev, Courtesy BalletX.
After two years as a trainee and then one as a second company member at Orlando Ballet, 22-year-old Aurélio Guimarães wasn't able to audition much due to an injury. When The Washington Ballet offered him another traineeship, Guimarães debated what to do. He would ultimately be embarking on a fourth year of doing professional work without a livable salary or title. “It was absolutely a hard decision," Guimarães reflects. “But I also had to consider the work that I would be doing." Knowing his traineeship would entail close work with the artistic director, he essentially took a demotion, with the hope that starting over in Washington would yield a paid contract at the end of the year.
In the past, it was common for a year or two of apprenticeship to lead directly to a corps contract. But today's ballet world involves more no- to low-paying rungs at the bottom of the ladder. Many companies now have three gatekeepers: trainee programs that are often the top level of the school and involve corps work with the company; second companies that work independently as well as more intimately with the main company; and apprenticeships, the most entry-level rank inside the professional hierarchy.
San Francisco Ballet School trainees performing Stone and Steel during a collaboration with Houston Ballet II. Photo by Jaime Lagdameo, Courtesy Houston Ballet.
When the San Francisco Ballet School trainees flew to Texas for a week of classes and performances with Houston Ballet II last year, HBII dancer Mackenzie Richter felt the need to step up her game. “The SFB dancers were so talented," says Richter. “I realized right away that I was representing my school, and that pushed me to do my best."
There's nothing quite like the jolt students receive from a change of surroundings. And as school collaborations become increasingly popular, it's easy to see why. In addition to allowing dancers to experience new teachers, they provide opportunities for them to assess the competition, network and learn about other cultures both inside and outside the studio. “When you leave the nest and see the bigger world outside your studio walls," says Houston Ballet Academy director Shelly Power, “you see how different dancers approach their work."