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By Nancy Wozny
The dancers jump to attention when Patricia McBride walks into morning ballet class at the Chautauqua School of Dance. Her beaming smile instantly puts the group at ease. “There’s a rhythm to the step,” says the former New York City Ballet principal in her warm yet straightforward manner, as she demonstrates a detail of a rond de jambe. After class, students saunter out of the lakeside studio and down a tree-canopied path toward the historic amphitheater, where they’ll rehearse for a performance later that day.
Dancing in this bucolic setting—surrounded by music, theater, daily lectures, and world-class teachers—is what students have come to expect from the Chautauqua ballet intensive, just one of many arts programs at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York. The school offers small classes, individualized attention, and ample performance time to its 70 participants—chosen from the roughly 700 who audition. The secluded village environment, where dancers mingle with young artists of all disciplines, gives the program an intimacy rarely found at city-based ballet intensives. And with two companies in residence—North Carolina Dance Theatre and the Chautauqua Ballet Company—students get up-close exposure to life in the professional world.
Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, artistic director of the school (and of NCDT), first came to Chautauqua as a NYCB dancer, with his partner in dance and life, McBride. “I fell in love with the place,” he says. “It’s such a spiritual and intellectual community.” In 1980, he was invited to launch the summer ballet program. With classes of 20 or less, he takes pride in the school’s family-like atmosphere: “We have the luxury of staying small. There’s a spirit of camaraderie here.”
That camaraderie extends from four spacious studios—where students take class with the likes of NYCB principal Daniel Ulbricht and master teacher Michael Vernon—to the stage of the 5,000-seat amphitheater, where they perform both classical repertory and faculty-choreographed work, accompanied by a live orchestra. “I believe students are never too young to be onstage,” Bonnefoux says. “That’s where they really discover themselves.”
Students are divided into four programs. The majority (30 advanced dancers, ages 14–18) take part in the seven-week Festival Dancers program. A typical 9 a.m.–8 p.m. day takes them through two rehearsals and three classes, which can include pointe, variations, partnering, jazz, modern, and daily technique. They also participate in a Choreographic Workshop, collaborating with music students for a special showing of new works. The Company Apprentice program, also seven weeks, accepts 12 dancers ages 16–19. They follow a similar schedule but take company classes and perform with NCDT. Children ages 11–13 enroll in shorter workshops. Across levels, the training emphasizes Balanchine-based principles.
Ulbricht studied at Chautauqua for four summers and has been a guest teacher since 2006. When he was a student, he says, the dual focus on training and performing steered him toward a professional course. “We got onstage so quickly; it was just like being in a company. And teachers took a real interest in me developing as a person, not just as a dancer.”
Katie Tomer, 20, in her second year with the Los Angeles Ballet, echoes that sentiment: “It’s the best of both worlds, with the balance between technique and performance. The people teaching you are also rehearsing you, so you can apply what you learned in class onstage.”
For many dancers, working with McBride is reason enough to spend a summer at Chautauqua. “To learn Balanchine from one his muses—it doesn’t get much better than that,” says Tomer, who danced Stars and Stripes during her second summer at the festival. Former student Anna Gerberich, now a dancer with NCDT, agrees. “I got my first taste of a coaching experience from Patricia, learning Balanchine’s Who Cares? She showed me how the tiniest details can make all the difference, from the tilt of your chin to the position of your foot.”
Gerberich also benefited from her one-on-one mentorship with a NCDT company member, an opportunity given to all Company Apprentices. “To learn what it takes to go from a student to a company dancer—that was priceless,” she says.
Despite the packed schedule, students still find time to “soak up the culture,” says Bonnefoux, enjoying free music, dance, and theater in the evenings.
Ulbricht describes the campus as “mini-New York, minus the cement. Every night you could see something different.” For him, teaching at Chautauqua has been just as satisfying as studying there: “To watch the light turn on in a dancer’s head, and be the one who helped pull the switch—that’s an incredible sensation.”
And this is the kind of growth that Bonnefoux hopes to foster. “It’s important not to judge students by how they are now,” he says, “but to look at their commitment to dance and what kind of dancer they can become.”
Nancy Wozny writes about health and the arts from Houston.
Photo of Patricia McBride and student at Chautauqua by Jordan Schnee, courtesy Chautauqua.