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