2014 Summer Study Guide: Dancing with the Stars

December 31, 2013

Should guest artists be a main draw when choosing a program?

American Ballet Theatre artistic director Kevin McKenzie instructs students at Kaatsbaan’s Extreme Ballet. Photo by Gregory Cary, Courtesy Kaatsbaan.


Boston Ballet corps member Sylvia Deaton will never forget when one of her idols, former principal dancer Pollyana Ribeiro, led variations class. Ribeiro was teaching the solo from Diana and Acteon, and Deaton, then a Boston Ballet School summer intensive student, was awestruck at how fearlessly she attacked the choreography. “It was so inspiring to watch her demonstrate and hear the same corrections she had been given for a performance,” Deaton says.

Boston Ballet School is just one program of many that invites guest teachers to supplement their summer staff. Company members are often invited to teach technique, pointe and variations class, and, like Deaton says, “they bring physicality to the table.”

It’s not surprising that young dancers are drawn to guest artists when choosing summer programs. But the smart students shouldn’t get caught up in the glamour, especially since summer intensives are a critical time to make serious improvements.

So what should be weighed against the glamour of guest artists? Take it from Alan Hineline of Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet: “Decide what you want from your training and where you can get what you’re looking for,” he says. “You have to do a little digging.”

The Allure of Guests

Summer is the time to expand your horizons and try out new styles, and guest artists can be the key to these foreign experiences. Each summer, Princeton Dance and Theater Studio augments its faculty with an experienced roster of guests such as Cynthia Gregory, Kyra Nichols, Roy Kaiser and Susan Jaffe. And while PDT’s year-round faculty consists of American Ballet Theatre-affiliate instructors, director Risa Gary Kaplowitz makes a point to bring in at least one Balanchine-based teacher each summer. Francesca Forcella, a PDT alumna who dances with BalletX in Philadelphia, remembers taking classes with former New York City Ballet principal Stephanie Saland during a summer at PDT. “It was my first taste of Balanchine,” says Forcella. “It was totally different than what I was used to, which was great.”

CPYB faculty member Bruce Thornton corrects a student. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy CPYB.

Guest artists can also help finesse your artistry—they know the intricacies of what it takes to get to the next level. While former ABT ballerina Cynthia Gregory does not teach technique classes at PDT, she comes toward the end of the summer program to coach variations. “She brings the details and the authenticity,” says Kaplowitz, who spent the first half of last summer’s intensive teaching students Aurora’s entrance from The Sleeping Beauty before Gregory came to help add the finishing touches. “She enables each individual to find whatever it is inside to become Aurora.”

While sessions with guest faculty may influence your desire to attend a particular program, you might want to ask if the stars will be teaching at your level. At San Francisco Ballet School, for instance, it’s the advanced levels that are treated to guests such as Sofiane Sylve, Vanessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan. Lower levels, says associate director Patrick Armand, have fewer guests and “are taught by instructors with a lot of experience teaching.”

Don’t forget: While stars are stars, they don’t all have the teaching chops of full-time faculty. Armand does note, however, that the company dancers’ “enthusiasm and real-world experience brings an important element to their classes.”

Davis Robertson, artistic director of summer programs for the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City, agrees. The school offers multiple satellite programs in cities including Los Angeles, Dallas and Miami. (There’s even one in Italy and an exchange program with the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Russia). Each program offers a diverse range of teachers and big-name guests. Many guests, like Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute, have Joffrey roots, though others, like ABT soloist Misty Copeland, come from different backgrounds. But one thing they all have in common is the powerful way that famous professionals can connect with students. “Teachers can say the exact same thing to a student in many different ways,” says Robertson. “But Misty will get through to them because their eyes and ears are open out of being starstruck.”

From left: Robertson, guest teacher Dwight Rhoden and Brian McSween at the Joffrey Ballet School. Photo by Melissa Bartucci, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet School

Some programs, like Kaatsbaan’s Extreme Ballet, are built around star teachers. Students in each three-week session of Kaatsbaan primarily train with two teachers, along with a guest instructor. For program director Martine van Hamel, it’s important to make sure students aren’t getting too many perspectives in such a short time, especially since the program is summer-only. “I make sure we’re all on the same page, so that there’s progress,” says van Hamel. “Too many styles could be confusing if you’re not advanced enough.” Last year, for instance, ABT dancers Stella Abrera and Sascha Radetsky were guests, joining Kaatsbaan’s primary faculty which included ABT veterans Lisa Lockwood and Bonnie Mathis.

Guest Faculty: Icing on the Cake

While celebrity instructors bring an exciting element to summer intensives, students should keep in mind that they are an added bonus. It’s a school’s primary faculty that works as a cohesive network, following a syllabus that advances toward a desired objective. If you’re interested in attending the school year-round, you’ll want to get to know the full-time teachers.

Darleen Callaghan, the new director of Miami City Ballet School, plans to emphasize the school’s newly solidified full-time teachers, rather than guest artists. “It’s important to have a lot of the principal faculty on staff during the summer so that students can get a feel for what the program is like,” she says. “We want our students to understand that if you come here, these are the teachers you’re going to have.”

Miami City Ballet School’s Darleen Callaghan coaches summer students. Photo by Mitchell Zachs, Courtesy MCB.

And at CPYB, the school’s year-round faculty teaches during its five-week intensive, using the curriculum built by founding artistic director Marcia Dale Weary. The program does bring in guest instructors, such as Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Carrie Imler and ABT’s Adrienne Schulte, though school principal Nicholas Ade is careful to point out that some guests each year, though not all, are CPYB alum. “We concentrate on what makes Marcia’s syllabus work,” he says, “so that we can instill what CPYB is all about and so they can reap the benefits of the training.”

Since year-round staff members often teach the majority of classes, they deserve the closest consideration. If names don’t ring a bell, read their biographies online and pay close attention to their own training and whom they’ve instructed in the past. Are they in high demand? Take a look at what style they teach—will your summer be all Vaganova? All Balanchine? Study a school’s faculty as a whole, and think about how the intensive can help you reach your goals. “It’s not about an individual teacher,” says Kaplowitz, “The crux of a summer program is its entire package.”

Amy Brandt danced with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet and is an associate editor for
Dance Teacher.