The Summer Intensive Where Students Become a Choreographer's Muse
It's the second week of Miami City Ballet School's Choreographic Intensive, and the students stand in a light-drenched studio watching as choreographer Durante Verzola sets a pas de trois. "Don't be afraid to look at the ceiling—look that high," Verzola shows one student as she holds an arabesque. "That gives so much more dimension to your dancing." Other students try the same movement from the sidelines.
When Arantxa Ochoa took over as MCB School's director of faculty and curriculum two years ago, she decided to add a second part to the summer intensive: five weeks focused on technique would be followed by a new two-week choreography session. The technique intensive is not a requirement, but students audition for both at the same time and many attend the two back-to-back.
Durante Verzola. Photo by Alexander Iziliave, courtesy MCB
After morning technique class on pointe, students work with Verzola as he creates new phrases, or in smaller groups with Ochoa, polishing sections from one of the three pieces Verzola is setting. Spirited Syncopations, which features the pas de trois, was choreographed before the intensive and uses a jazzy Leroy Anderson score to create a quirky, showbiz feel. In a rehearsal, Verzola urges the dancers to let the movement flow.
"It has to be a little bit more Bob Fosse," he says. "Don't make the next pose you're going to so obvious."
Verzola got his start choreographing at MCB School, graduating in 2014. He then went on to dance with Pennsylvania Ballet's second company, and has worked as a freelance choreographer with schools like Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet and The School of Pennsylvania Ballet.
"I love working with students because they're usually willing to try any step you throw at them, at any tempo," he says. "However, since they are constantly working on their technique, they can sometimes get sidetracked from what dance is all about. They can't forget to bring personality and feeling."
Verzola is making two new pieces on the students: Classical Symphony, a large-scale ensemble piece for all 58 students, and Liebtänze, a quieter piece composed of three pas de deux and a pas de trois. It's a rare opportunity for students to have work created on them.
"Some dancers have to wait until they get into a company to get that," Ochoa says. "Also, it's done in a very short amount of time, so they have to learn to pick up choreography very quickly. It teaches them what they're going to have to go through when they get into a company."
For some students, the experience has opened up fresh possibilities. "Working with Durante inspired many of us to give choreographing a try," says Sarah Gavilla, an 18-year-old student who attends the Miami City Ballet School year-round.
Alexander Iziliaev, courtesy MCB
For next year's Choreographic Intensive, Ochoa plans to invite several choreographers to create work. She believes that the process prepares students in ways that aren't simply about learning new movement.
"They have to act professionally because they have nine days to put this onstage," she says. She also encourages the students to attend rehearsals for a piece even if they are not cast. "We want them to learn as many parts as possible, just like in a company setting."
For Gavilla, that taste of company life is what has meant the most. "It gave me a glimpse of what life is like working in a ballet company," she says. "That's really rare to get out of a summer program."
Attendance: 58 last summer
Auditions: U.S. audition tour; video submissions accepted
Timeline: Two weeks
Housing: Residence hall available two blocks away
In the middle of one of New York City Center's cavernous studios, Misty Copeland takes a measured step backwards. The suggestion of a swan arm ripples before she turns downstage, chest and shoulders unfurling as her legs stretch into an open lunge. She piqués onto pointe, arms echoing the sinuous curve of her back attitude, then walks out of it, pausing to warily look over her shoulder. As the droning of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto's mysterious "Attack/Transition" grows more insistent, her feet start to fly with a rapidity that seems to almost startle her.
And then she stops mid-phrase. Copeland's hands fall to her hips as she apologizes. Choreographer Kyle Abraham slides to the sound system to pause the music, giving Copeland a moment to remind herself of a recent change to the sequence.
"It's different when the sound's on!" he reassures her. "And it's a lot of changes."
The day before was the first time Abraham had seen Copeland dance the solo in its entirety, and the first moment they were in the studio together in a month. This is their last rehearsal, save for tech, before the premiere of Ash exactly one week later, as part of the opening night of City Center's Fall for Dance festival.
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
Dancers are understandably obsessed with food. In both an aesthetic and athletic profession, you know you're judged on your body shape, but you need proper fuel to perform your best. Meanwhile, you're inundated with questionable diet advice.
"My 'favorite' was the ABC diet," says registered dietitian nutritionist Kristin Koskinen, who trained in dance seriously but was convinced her body type wouldn't allow her to pursue it professionally. "On the first day you eat only foods starting with the letter A, on the second day only B, and so on."
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