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By Jennifer Stahl
The many rewards of a merit scholarship
Joffrey Academy dancers Nardia Boodoo and Michael Sayre. Photo by Herbert Migdoll, courtesy Joffrey.
For many students, the suspense of a summer intensive audition centers around one question: Did I get in? If the answer is yes, keep reading that letter. Almost as essential as being accepted is finding out whether you’ve been offered a merit scholarship. “A scholarship is a school’s way of saying, ‘We are very interested in you,’ ” says Adam Sklute, artistic director of Ballet West.
The benefits of studying on merit scholarship aren’t just financial: A program that invests in your training has a stake in the outcome and wants to see you succeed. You’re more likely to get personal attention and special opportunities, and you might even finish the summer with your first job offer. If you’re accepted to several summer programs, it might be tempting to simply attend the most prestigious one. But as these four dancers’ stories show, the intensive that offers a talent-based scholarship could ultimately be the smartest career choice.
At 17, Julia Turner was determined to get into a trainee-type program for the 2012 school year. So when Pacific Northwest Ballet’s summer program offered her a full scholarship last spring, she didn’t hesitate to accept. “It gave me an indication that I had a good chance of getting into PNB’s professional division,” says Turner, who had also been accepted to Miami City Ballet’s summer program. “Any other school would have been a gamble.”
Around 60 percent of PNB’s summer students attend on some sort of scholarship. School director Denise Bolstad says that Turner’s decision was a smart move: “We take 30 kids a year into the professional division, and a high percentage of those are summer scholarship students.” In 2012, Turner was one of them.
Even if her strategy hadn’t panned out, Turner knew from two past summers on scholarship at PNB that she’d get a lot of individual attention from the faculty. “I got corrections on keeping my shoulders down, keeping my chin level, making my port de bras flowy, being more dynamic, capturing the nuances of Balanchine technique,” she says. Turner adds that the scholarship helped her soak up those corrections: “It made me realize that, even though I have a lot of things I need to improve, they think I have what it takes.”
A Surprising Match
Mary Ann Schaefer knew nothing about Ballet West when she was offered a full scholarship to its summer intensive in 2009. “I’d never even considered it before that moment,” says Schaefer, who grew up in Tennessee.
Adam Sklute had spotted Schaefer at the World Ballet Competition in Orlando, Florida, and even though she was only 16, he sensed potential for his company. “There was an elegance of movement, a control, an entire ballerina quality that I found very appealing,” Sklute says. He also likes dancers on the taller side, with long legs and good feet. At 5' 8", Schaefer fit right in.
Full merit scholarships to Ballet West are fairly rare: In 2012, Sklute only gave out six. “Anyone I offer a merit scholarship to is someone I hope will be a fit for Ballet West in the long run,” he says. Sklute admits that he spends more time with scholarship students when he’s teaching or watching class at the academy. “I will give them advice, maybe a little extra attention, and think, Is she living up to her potential, picking up all the things I think she can?” In Schaefer’s case, the answer was yes: After another summer intensive, followed by two years as a trainee, this fall Schaefer became a member of Ballet West II.
Before Shelly Power awards a scholarship, she likes to speak with the student. “I look for their interest in the company,” says Power, associate director of Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy. “I ask what they know about Houston Ballet and its rep to see if they really want to come here or if they only auditioned to find out where they fall in the pecking order.”
Tyler Donatelli definitely wanted to attend BSA when she tried out in 2011. She’d seen videos of the company on YouTube and fell in love with the dancers’ strength. “They are all such hard workers!” she says. “In the audition I made sure there was never a moment when I looked like I was taking it easy.”
Power was impressed: “Tyler goes after things—she’s not afraid. Even at 14, you could see she put a lot of thought into how she was working.”
Donatelli attended the summer on full scholarship (along with more than 15 percent of students that year). The teachers helped her improve her strength, especially on pointe. Because she was at the top of her class, they also gave her solos in both Serenade and Coppélia for the final performance.
Donatelli used those opportunities to prove that she could fit in with Houston Ballet’s go-getters; this January, she joined HBII. “Certainly, that’s the outcome we hope for whenever we invest in a student,” says Power. “But it’s one thing to have potential, another to fulfill it.”
For Nardia Boodoo, a scholarship was proof that somebody believed in her talent. Because she didn’t start training seriously until age 14, she always felt behind her peers. Yet when Joffrey Ballet artistic director Ashley Wheater saw Boodoo take class at Jacob’s Pillow’s ballet program in 2011, he was captivated by her movement quality. “She’s not inhibited by the confines of classical ballet,” he says. “Her dancing has a brilliant freedom.”
Boodoo, then 20, was shocked when Wheater offered her a full scholarship to his trainee and summer program, and mentioned the possibility of joining the company afterward. She says, “His offer made me start to think about what other people see in me, versus how I feel about my own dancing.”
Her main teachers at the academy, Anna Reznik and Alexei Kremnev, have taken a strong interest in Boodoo’s career. When her frustration over an ankle sprain began to affect her work in the studio, they scheduled a special meeting with her. “They took the time out to ask how they could help,” Boodoo says, “and they reminded me that I’m here on full scholarship—everybody’s rooting for me.”
Jennifer Stahl is Pointe’s senior editor.
How do you go about earning a merit scholarship? Most of the time you’re evaluated for one in the course of an audition. But you can also take proactive steps to get noticed. “If you’re interested in a merit scholarship, make it clear!” says Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute. “No one would ever fault a student for asking. Write us to say that you’d like to be evaluated, or tell the faculty member who’s watching at the audition.” Here are six other tips to keep in mind.
1. Seek out programs you’ve attended in the past. “If we’ve seen you before, we’ll have some sense of how you work,” explains Pacific Northwest Ballet School director Denise Bolstad. “We can see if you’ve gotten stronger, if your technique is progressing, if there’s an all-around improvement.”
2. Where you audition matters less than you might think. “Kids sometimes believe they’ll have a better chance if they audition in a city where the talent pool is smaller,” says Shelly Power, associate director of Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy. “That might be true in a sense, but if there’s a student we’re really interested in, whether it’s the beginning of our audition tour or the end, we’re going to offer them a scholarship.”
3. Prove you’re worth the investment. “For me to offer a dancer a scholarship, they need to have the right physique, strong articulation in their pointework, and so much passion,” says Joffrey Ballet artistic director Ashley Wheater. “I’m only going to make this happen for someone who will take advantage of the opportunity to work.”
4. Don’t get distracted by insignificant details. “We can see through any brightly colored leotards or flowers in the hair,” says Bolstad. “It’s great if you look like a million bucks, but what matters is that you’re precise and clean and have strong technique.”
5. You don’t need to be perfect. “There’s a whole spectrum of things we looks for—facility, focus, maturity, musicality, coordination, ability to adapt and pick up combinations, drive,” says Power. “I look for someone who has at least 80 percent of that.”
6. Take a chance, even if you’re afraid your style might not be a good fit. “Certainly, Ballet West has a type and look, but I break my rules constantly,” says Sklute. “If someone has a degree of artistry that moves me, that will overrule everything else.” —J. S.