Summer Intensive Survival
Students at the University of Utah's Department of Ballet summer intensive. Photo by August Miller, Courtesy U of U.

Maura Bell was determined to have a ballet career. But as a high school senior, she didn't feel ready to audition for companies yet. “I knew I had more maturing to do, both technically and as a young woman," she remembers. Bell started researching collegiate options and discovered that Indiana University's ballet department hosted a two-week summer intensive for pre-college students. “The reputation of IU spoke for itself, so I decided to do the summer intensive to get a feel for what it would be like to go there."

The deciding moment came at the end of her second week, when department chair Michael Vernon led her and fellow students on a tour of IU's Musical Arts Center. “I remember standing on that stage—it's the size of the Met— and it just clicked: This was where I wanted to be, my dream school," she recalls. Bell auditioned for the ballet department that fall. Four years later, she credits the training and connections she made at IU with her ultimate post-graduation success: a contract with Saint Louis Ballet.

College summer programs offer students a chance to experience what life would be like as a dance major, and introduce them to a wide range of possibilities for their training and future career. Even those on the fence about going to school could benefit from spending a few weeks on campus—along with the strong focus on individual development, collegiate summer intensives allow students to meet year-round faculty and current dance majors, scope out the dorms and dance facilities, and do some major networking.

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Ballet Careers
Rogers in Twyla Tharp's "The Princess and the Goblin." Photo by Kim Kenney, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet.

Five years after joining American Ballet Theatre, corps member Zhong-Jing Fang sustained a serious ankle injury. Not one to let a setback take her off course, Fang wondered: What other things can I do as an artist? She loved imitating movie actresses as a child, so she decided to try acting while she recovered. For two years, she went every Wednesday evening to a four-hour group class with acting coach Diaan Ainslee. There she learned to dissect a monologue, develop a character, listen and feel emotionally exposed. The experience thrust Fang out of her comfort zone and transformed her as an artist. “It's a different layer of becoming a person," Fang says, “and becoming much more real."

Acting classes, which often incorporate exercises aimed at self-exploration, can offer dancers tools to deepen their artistry. Even simple things, Fang notes, like working without mirrors, can inspire you to go beyond image and find a deeper sense of self. “There is a lot more to say, beyond just being able to dance," she says. Here, Fang and three other dancers explain how acting skills have made them better performers.


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Ballet Careers
Elements5 Digital via Unsplash

Informal connections between BFA programs and professional troupes have been around for decades. But in the last dozen years, some companies and universities began formalizing their relationships, creating joint BFA/trainee programs that provide enrollees both significant pre-professional experience and a four-year degree. In a time of shrinking job opportunities and rising tuition costs, that makes sense.

Maggie Wright Tesch, the University of Utah's liaison with Ballet West in Salt Lake City (where she formerly danced), explains that combined BFA/pre-professional programs give dancers more settings to train in as well as “a college education, a plan B, because a career can end with one injury."
Among the advantages, Tesch continues, is that students have two sets of coaches, as well as twice the stage time as a regular trainee. University summer intensives provide experience and credits toward a four-year degree. While the workload is intense, such programs tend to be small and are often flexible.

Still, they're not for the faint of heart. Prospective students often audition for the company's trainee program as well as the university's dance department. They must be admitted to the school's academic program and fulfill its basic education graduation requirements. Additionally, with few job openings each year, their chances of being hired by the affiliated company after graduation are small. That can be a source of disappointment—but also spur the dancer's strength and creativity.

Essentially, joint BFA/trainee programs hedge participants' bets, increasing their time in the studio and on the stage, exposing them to a wide array of choices inside and outside of dance and providing a college degree. While the demands are great, so is the potential payoff. Pointe spoke with three professional dancers who graduated from joint programs. Not all of them received company contracts, but all were pleased with the quality and flexibility of their educational experience.

Kimberly Ballard: Ballet West and University of Utah

Kimberly Ballard in Ballet West's The Nutcracker

Luke Isley, Courtesy Ballet West

Ballet West corps artist Kimberly Ballard, 26, was not focused on getting into BW when she was applying to colleges. But after she enrolled at the University of Utah, she became a sort of guinea pig for its joint program with the company. After getting her BFA, she continued into U of U's MFA program—at the same time, she became a BW trainee.

Ballard epitomizes the hard work and planning so helpful to joint-program students, who undertake long days filled with department and trainee classes and rehearsals, as well as academic courses. Because she'd passed several high school AP exams, Ballard placed out of some requirements. She also took academic classes at a community college in the summer, gaining additional college credits in her "downtime," thereby saving on tuition. By pursuing her MFA, she set herself up for a teaching career.

Though her traineeship with BW undoubtedly shaped Ballard's performance quality and technique, the university program provided variety. "I did exchange programs in the Basque region of France and with the State Ballet School of Berlin," she says. As a member of the university's highest-level repertory company, Utah Ballet, she performed not only in a piece that involved "unitards and bungee cords" but, 20 minutes later, as Aurora. Meanwhile, she danced corps roles in BW's productions of Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and Chaconne.

"For me," Ballard says, "the joint program worked out very well." She joined BW II after graduation. Now, in addition to being a company member, she's putting her degree to use as an adjunct assistant professor at the university.

Michael Montgomery: Alonzo King LINES Ballet and Dominican University of California

Alonzo King LINES Ballet's Michael Montgomery

RJ Muna, Courtesy Alonzo King LINES Ballet

Michael Montgomery, a dancer with Alonzo King LINES Ballet, had always wanted to dance with the San Francisco–based company. "I saw their world-famous calendars," he says, "before I knew of LINES or the Dominican University/LINES Ballet BFA program." Even in still photos, "the artists showed nothing less than excellence."

Montgomery's initial step, however, was to enroll in The Ailey School's certificate program at age 17. "That was the first time I understood the meaning of technique," he says. But he felt he was being trained to blend in—"An important art to learn," he says. "It just did not make me feel alive."
Montgomery reached out to Dominican/LINES BFA director Marina Hotchkiss. "I explained to her that I do not want to live in a box of dance, but rather in a world of endless possibility," he says. King, he adds, is "opposed to cookie-cutter dancers." Though LINES Ballet has a non-degree trainee program, Montgomery never considered it. "Schooling and college were always very important to me," he says.

He became a Dominican/LINES BFA student in 2008. And though his days were long, they were also rewarding. "I had dance classes in many vernaculars from 9 am to 2:30 pm," he says, "and academic classes until 10 pm some days." He particularly enjoyed his religion and philosophy classes, and says that, like the LINES faculty, his Dominican professors "believe there is no plateau of knowledge." King, who taught a number of Montgomery's classes, offered him a company contract his junior year, allowing him to finish his BFA on the side. The experience, Montgomery says, was "beyond worth it."

Kyoko Ruch: Richmond Ballet and Virginia Commonwealth University

Kyoko Ruch's traineeship with Richmond Ballet counted towards her degree at VCU.

Ruth Judson, Courtesy Gin Dance Company

Kyoko Ruch—a self-described naïve bunhead in high school—only wanted to focus on dancing when Richmond Ballet offered her a traineeship in 2004. But when her family learned of the company's joint program with Virginia Commonwealth University, they talked her into doing both. Two years later, she became an RB apprentice and dropped the VCU program because her work schedule left no time for coursework.

When Ruch auditioned for the main company, however, she was turned down. "I was disappointed," says Ruch, "but I wasn't lost, because I had VCU's program to go back to."

In fact, not getting into a ballet company (she auditioned for more than one) proved a blessing. In her final two years at VCU, she was able to take some modern and choreography courses. "Most ballet companies now do a lot of contemporary work—and I didn't really have any idea how to move that way," she says. "With the modern training, we danced more conceptually, which actually aided my ballet technique."

Choreography and improvisation classes meant even more to her. "As a ballet dancer, I just wanted to do what I was told," she says. "Choreography sparked my creativity." She received her BFA in 2010 and is currently teaching and performing with two DC-area contemporary troupes, Company Danzante and Gin Dance Company. Last year she was chosen as Company Danzante's first choreographer in residence. Though she originally expected to put off college, she's glad it didn't work out that way. "I transformed into another creature."

As told to Amy Brandt

 

Many pre-professional dancers think attending college after high school is unnecessary—that it wastes precious professional years. But between the intense training schedules, choreographic opportunities and academic offerings, college dance programs can actually be springboards to a future career. Some dancers choose college to further their training, while others crave the intellectual challenges. Along the way, their experiences may help strengthen their goals, open new doors or change the direction of their careers. Pointe spoke with six dance majors about their individual paths and moments of discovery during their college experience.

 

Nasira Burkholder

Senior, University of Arizona


My parents pushed me to pursue a college degree. I was deva­stated, because I was in the professional division at the Pacific Northwest Ballet School and college was not part of my plan. I expected ballet would become a secondary part of my life, but during my freshman year I was taking two ballet classes a day and a jazz class, then rehearsing all night. It’s like being in a professional company—we do about 60 performances a season. I also didn’t expect to take such a strong interest in academics, but I decided to double-major in nutritional sciences. It’s not easy balancing 25 units a semester, but I don’t regret it.

 

I’ll never forget my first ballet class here. I felt really challenged and saw several dancers who were going to push me to improve. Seeing the competition made me realize what I was getting into and I thought, “Wow.” I called my parents that night and thanked them for forcing me to give it a chance.

 

 

Jordanne Lackmann

Senior, University of Utah

 

I didn’t start focusing on ballet until high school, so I wasn’t ready to audition for companies. I chose the U because they have a specific ballet degree, and I hoped to get better training. I’m in the highest level, called Utah Ballet, which is the resident ballet company. I’m also in a character company. We get to travel—we went to Russia for a character workshop and to Spain to learn Basque dancing.

 

During my time here my technique and pointework have gotten stronger and my ideas of ballet have expanded. I’ve learned about dance history and teaching philosophies. I’ve also learned not to look at a professional career as unattainable. With hard work you can achieve anything, no matter where you trained.

 

 

Kathleen Martin

Sophomore, Point Park University

 

I auditioned for companies and was offered an unpaid position, but I chose school because I wanted a more secure environment.  Because the dance program is so intense, I wasn’t sure if it would allow time for a social life. But I have both an active social life and a dedicated dance life. Most kids at Point Park are dancers, singers or acting majors, so we all get it. Sometimes it’s hard when friends are out partying and you have to focus on your diet and getting enough rest. But it’s worth it to me.

 

The faculty here is very diverse, so you get different perspectives on dance and how to go about your career. And the department teaches a variety of techniques. My goal now is to dance with a ballet company that also does contemporary works. 

 

 

Colleen Barnes

Senior, University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music

 

I wanted a more thorough, intellectual exploration of dance. That meant going to college, because you discuss dance, take dance history and learn about all the things related to it—you can really explore it. I didn’t realize how much I’d learn and how the
qua­lity of my movement would improve.

 

CCM provides so many opportunities that I didn’t expect. I’m spending the fall semester teaching in southeast China. What a great learning experience! Others have accepted traineeships with Cincinnati Ballet and Louisville Ballet and take correspondence classes. CCM is flexible about helping you work towards a degree.

 

I’ve had so many lightbulb moments of “Oh, I never thought of it that way.” My biggest epiphany was realizing that dance is connected to everything; it’s the root of human experience.

 

 

Ben Delony

Senior, Indiana University

 

I chose college because I wasn’t ready to audition and wanted four more years of solid training. IU’s ballet department has definitely delivered. There’s a great sense of discipline and ensemble, and we have to work for roles. We’re at the studio all afternoon, so balancing homework with classes and getting enough sleep has been interesting. The structure reflects our progress—the teachers e-mail our schedules to us the night before—so we’re always on our toes.

 

During my sophomore year I realized I don’t really have a ballet body—I’m 5’8”, without any hyperextension and don’t seem to match the other men in the program. I decided to find another avenue of dance. Last year when I did a huge independent collaboration with an IU cellist, it turned me on to more avant-garde styles of dance. It was disappointing to realize you have to fit a mold in classical ballet, that it can’t be all heart. But I got over it when I realized that dance has many roads to choose from.

 

 

Gabrielle Salvatto

Junior, The Juilliard School

 

Although I’d gone to the School of American Ballet for nine years, I wanted to become more versatile rather than a strict ballet dancer. Juilliard’s hype definitely intimidated me, but it’s not really a typical college experience. People aren’t partying all the time because they can’t ruin their vocal chords, or they have to get up early to stretch. Everyone has the same goals, so the environment is a lot friendlier.

 

A big turning point for me was working with Ohad Naharin. I expected him to be intimidating, but he was really inspiring. He promotes individuality among dancers, and most of what we worked on was our own improvisation. He’d smile and say, “That’s great! Work on that for another eight counts.” He opened my eyes to the dance world outside what I’d known before.

 

 

Dance Or Study?
By Gwynedd Vetter-Drusch

 

For some dancers, a professional career is a clearly defined dream. But not every dancer follows a direct path to the corps; for some, the way is a winding road of second guesses and outside interests.

 

I fell in love with ballet at a small summer intensive in West Virginia when I was 13. But as I grew more dedicated to my training over the next few years, I questioned whether I wanted or could have a career. Because of my late start, I was filled with doubt about my ability to catch up. Furthermore, I had a hungering interest in academics—an area in which I felt far more confident—and I knew that I wanted to study writing and international relations.

So, I kept my options open. I graduated high school at 17, giving myself a “gap year.” However, when I received a generous scholarship to my college of choice, Bard College, suddenly my decision became very real—and very difficult.

 

While my parents expect me to one day hold an advanced degree, they believe that the life lessons I can learn from ballet will only better prepare me for college. For myself, I’ve felt that I should pursue ballet until this path ends, or I’m ready to turn my focus elsewhere. After considerable thought, I deferred enrollment for a year to study at the Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York.

 

After an extraordinary year, I approached Bard to ask for an unusual second year of deferral, and the college supported me. An unexpected door had opened: I was invited into Tulsa Ballet’s second company. Next spring when my year with Tulsa Ballet II is up, I will again examine whether ballet is challenging me to grow, and then I will decide whether to con­tinue working toward a professional career.

 

Looking back, I realize that the beauty in my own journey has been its focus on the process. I’ve been fortunate to study something that fascinates and challenges me. While I’ve provided myself with options for furthering my studies, for now I’ve chosen ballet, and I am eager to see where the adventure leads.

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