The Company Question
Should you attend an intensive connected to a company? It depends on your stage of training.
Houston Ballet Academy Summer Intensive. Photo by Jaime Lagdameo, courtesy HB.
A summer intensive can be a chance to be taught by artistic directors, to learn repertoire that you dream of performing and maybe even land a contract. But with so many options and only a handful of summers, a dancer must be strategic in choosing where to attend.
Of course, there are high-profile company schools where dancers can get to know a potential future employer. But there are also top-notch independent programs not affiliated with companies whose students go on to highly successful careers. Which will best further your goals? Should you declare loyalty to your dream company and spend every summer at its school? Or should you focus on building versatility (and broader employability) at independent programs? The answers depend on two factors: where you are in your training, and where you want to go.
Build a Foundation
A dancer’s summer intensive choices can—and should—differ based on her age and level. “You have to experience different things to know where you belong—that’s what summers are for,” says Shelly Power, director at Houston Ballet Academy. “But sooner or later you’re going to have to decide where you want to place your focus.”
Partnering class at CPYB. Photo by Bruce Thornton, courtesy CPYB.
For younger dancers going to an intensive for the first time, the focus should be on quality of training, says Kay Mazzo, co-chairman of faculty at the School of American Ballet, which is affiliated with New York City Ballet. She recommends that younger dancers stick to one intensive for a couple of years for consistency of training.
Once dancers reach their mid-teens, they can start to explore. “They’re trying to find where they fit best,” Power says. The goal is to discover where you belong on the ballet spectrum before focusing on a potential future company during the last years of training.
Find Your Fit
When you’re testing different techniques and paths in ballet, an independent program might be right for you. Intensives at Next Generation Ballet at the Patel Conservatory in Florida, Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, Kaatsbaan International Dance Center or Chautauqua Institution in New York, to name a few, offer diverse training and performance opportunities and are a chance to network with less pressure than a company school. “The biggest benefit of independent programs is just that—they’re independent,” says CPYB school principal Alecia Good-Boresow. “When students come here, their focus is just on getting the most out of their training. They’re not worrying about ‘Are they going to choose me? Am I good enough?’ ”
Students at these programs may have the chance to experiment with a variety of styles. “A lot of students come here because they don’t know what path they want to take, and we provide a lot of opportunities—classical ballet, contemporary, musical theater, acting, character and mime,” says Philip Neal, artistic director of Next Generation Ballet. “We throw it all out there—a lot of the kids don’t know what it is they’re looking for until they have the opportunity to try it.” At many independent programs, students are taught by guest faculty from companies around the world. “They’re taking from so many different teachers that they see what they like and what feels good on them,” says Good-Boresow. “It gives them insight into where they fit—or where they don’t.”
SAB Summer Course. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy SAB.
Teachers can also help students target future career options. “We see ourselves as a stepping stone to company schools,” says Neal, who’s placed students in high-profile schools and companies like the Royal Ballet School and Boston Ballet. Each independent program has a different emphasis, so pay attention to where alumni typically go on to perform. CPYB students, for instance, often join companies with Balanchine rep.
Pursue Your Dream Company
If you have one company in mind that stands out far above the others, audition for its summer intensive as soon as possible. “If you’ve zeroed in on some place you like, get your foot in the door—physically, literally,” says Mazzo. Use your first summer to test out whether the school is indeed what you’re looking for, and if it is, make a goal of joining the year-round program. “If you are unable to attend year-round, visit during the year to keep the relationship growing,” suggests Power. “Don’t just disappear.”
While teachers and faculty do appreciate seeing familiar faces year after year, there is danger in being too loyal to one school at the expense of diverse training and networking. If you’re dead-set on one company but after two years in the intensive you haven’t been asked to stay year-round, it may be time to reassess. “I think at that point a student needs to have a very honest and open conversation with the director or teachers about their potential at the school,” says Power. “Ask, ‘Am I a good fit?’ If you’ve gone to a summer program for four years and never experienced anything else, you’ve limited yourself.” Make sure that the interest is mutual.
Go Beyond What You Know
Philip Neal teaching class at Next Generation Ballet. Photo by Soho Images, courtesy NGB.
If you are already studying year-round at a company program, it might be tempting to stick around for the summer. However, that can undercut your options in the long term. Most school directors advise students to attend other programs to diversify their training and develop a Plan B. “In the end, NYCB can’t take everybody from our most advanced division,” says Mazzo. “That’s why we send our students off every summer to look at different schools and companies. Rather than saying, ‘I only want to dance for a certain company,’ it’s better to keep students’ minds open to ‘I want to find the place that is right for me.’ ”
There is no formula for achieving your career goal. In the end, as long as you’re getting great training and making the most of the networking opportunities you have, trust your experience to be your guide. “The more you know,” says Neal, “the sooner you can discover the right path for you.”
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"I'm someone who dreaded talkbacks and Q&As," admits Bill Bragin, former director of public programming at Lincoln Center. "While I was in New York, a lot of the time it was just audience members trying to show off how smart they were."
These events present a pile of difficult questions: How much do you reveal about a piece before it's shown? How can a conversation designed to hit key points feel casual and spontaneous? How do you cater to the needs of diverse attendees, from novice dancegoers to lifelong fans to scholars and critics? And how do you avoid smothering dance with language, flattening all its complexity?
If you think becoming a trainee or apprentice is the only path to gaining experience in a dance company environment, think again.
The University of Arizona, located in the heart of Tucson, acclimates dancers to the pace and rigor of company life while offering all the academic opportunities of a globally-ranked university. If you're looking to get a head-start on your professional dance career—or to just have a college experience that balances company-level training and repertory with rigorous academics—the University of Arizona's undergraduate and graduate programs have myriad opportunites to offer:
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