Collaborative Learning: Inside Hubbard Street's Pre-Professional Summer Intensive

December 28, 2016

At Hubbard Street’s new intensive in Los Angeles, dancers dig into the choreographic process.

“Give it more intensity,” says Robyn Mineko Williams, the choreographer in residence at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s inaugural pre-professional summer intensive at the University of Southern California. The dancer tries her solo again, moving across the floor in wider second-position pliés, bending her torso more deeply, jutting her elbows more sharply.

The studio bursts into applause. “I think the other students could feel this dancer changing right before their eyes,” Williams says afterward. That kind of aha moment is exactly what the program is designed to cultivate. An odyssey into the contemporary dance-making process, it challenges dancers to immerse themselves in collaboration with a world-class choreographer and offers a taste of life in a top-tier company.

A Company-Style Regimen

The new Los Angeles program complements Hubbard Street’s well-established pre-professional intensive in Chicago, but the two offer vastly different experiences: Chicago attendees take a range of technique classes, attend career talks and learn Hubbard Street rep, while dancers at USC spend the majority of their time with one choreographer (a different dancemaker will lead each year’s intensive), creating a new five-minute work. The two-week Los Angeles intensive immediately follows the monthlong Chicago edition, and accepted dancers may choose to attend one or both programs.

The daily schedule parallels a professional company’s, with a 90-minute morning ballet class, sometimes led by artistic director Glenn Edgerton, followed by rehearsal until 5 pm. Brief breaks include an hour for lunch. “It’s an intensive intensive,” Williams says with a laugh.

“We’re treating them like dancers in our company,” Edgerton says. “Some dancers thrive on it; others realize it’s too hard. It’s just bringing an awareness of whether you really want to invest yourself in this.”

The 30 inaugural students range from Riana Pellicane-Hart, an 18-year-old high school senior from Dallas, to Grand Rapids Ballet member Isaac Aoki, who caps the age range at 24. Though varied in background and artistic interests, they all appreciate the insight into company life. “At a lot of intensives, you just take technique classes,” says Pellicane-Hart. “Here you have to be more self-motivated to learn everything. You really get to see what it’s like.” That independence is crucial outside the studio, too, as housing is off-campus and there are no meal plans or chaperones.

Not that the dancers want to spend much time away from the Glorya Kaufman International Dance Center, where the intensive takes place thanks to a partnership between USC and Hubbard Street. The brand-new 54,000-square-foot building boasts high-ceilinged studios with sprung Harlequin floors, high-tech audio and video, and pianos tuned to each space. In common areas, the deeply padded, carpeted floors are perfect for stretching. “It’s next-level,” says Williams.

Committing to Creativity

“I’m doing everything that I do when I create a piece at Hubbard Street,” says Williams, a Hubbard Street dancer for 12 years and 2014 “25 to Watch” who has received multiple Princess Grace Foundation fellowships. In the dancers’ first session, she provides visual imagery and verbal cues; the movement phrases they generate serve as the foundation for five hours a day of development, improvisation and recombining. “I’m probably erring on the side of pushing them more than I would with a professional dancer,” she notes, “because sometimes dancers have so much more in them than they know, and they just need to try.”

Student Jane Zogbi with Aoki in rehearsal. PC Celine Kiner, Courtesy Hubbard Street

Throughout the process, Williams culls phrases and asks dancers to cre­ate new ones on their own and in groups. She switches accompaniment from electronica to kodo drumming to William Forsythe vocalization exercises. “Learning to find musicality has been part of this process too,” she says.

At auditions, Edgerton seeks dancers with the willingness to try anything a choreographer throws at them. “I’m looking for the ones who are most open-minded and ready to learn, who are ready to absorb and change,” he says. He and the staff also keep an eye out for potential Hubbard Street candidates; he estimates that half the company’s dancers came through workshops or intensives.

Launching Point

On the last day, family and friends fill the studio to see the completed work, which the dancers perform repeatedly to different music and their own vocalizations. Each time, they attack the movement fully, reaching deep into the pliés and gesturing with emphatic purpose. “Seeing them respond has been really awesome,” Williams says. “I would love if they have learned that they are capable of more than they thought they were.”

It’s the culmination of the intensive, but a launching point for new approaches to dancing. “I needed this to help my imagination blossom,” says Pellicane-Hart. “At this program you have to be down-to-earth, you have to be able to move on quickly and adapt. That’s something I needed, and here I figured it out.”

The Details:

  • Attendance: 30 students
  • Timeline: Two weeks, immediately following the four-week Chicago program
  • Ages: 18–24
  • Housing: Off-campus