Ballet in Film: First Position

Have you heard the buzz about First Position? This widely anticipated documentary follows six Youth America Grand Prix competitors. Director Bess Kargman’s experience as a ballet student is apparent in the footage, which films dancers with a real understanding of what makes dance movement something worth watching.

First Position premiered in Toronto earlier this month and is headed to film festivals in Boston, Vancouver, DC and New York City. A handful of stunning and intruiging trailers have been released, including this must-see extended version:

Youth America Grand Prix is the largest and probably best-known student ballet competition. Dancers compete for scholarships at international-level schools such as The Royal Ballet School and La Scala Ballet Academy, higher education scholarships at colleges such as Julliard and even apprentice or corps positions with world-class companies. Even those who do not medal are vying for the opportunity to be noticed by some of the most important and influential decision makers in dance today. Winners at YAGP often go on to rise to the highest levels in companies around the globe.

The stakes are high at the Youth American Grand Prix, but as YAGP founder and artistic director Larissa Saveliev reminded in an interview with Dance Magazine, “The medal doesn’t mean anything. We try to send that message as often as we can. The most valuable experience is the preparation for competing. It’s one thing when you take class and another when you rehearse a variation. And you have to learn as a dancer to able to perform under pressure. But when you are able to overcome your nerves, no audition will be a big deal.” Like the tagline says – Ballet is not for sissies.

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The Truth About Company Auditions

Ballet is full of risks. Giselle lift, anyone? Hopefully most are calculated, as in, Yes, You learned to balance in retiré before trying to pirouette so you are less likely to fall on your tuckus. But some risks in ballet are not as easily controlled. For example: pursuing a professional career. Starting a professional dance career is very tough for most dancers. Most dancers do not win international competitions and go on to their dream company at 17. Most dancers are … average. Not average as in, “blah” – Average as in, pretty darn comparable to the thousands of other dancers that have made it far enough to realistically be prepared for company auditions. At that level nearly everyone has top technique and performance ability, making it very tough to stand out.

Auditioning for companies was the scariest part of my training, and I am not alone in that experience. But it was also extremely exciting and memorable. In fact, I probably should have kept a journal to share with my younger dancing sister before she began auditions. Well I never did, but another young dancer named Tara Gragg (pictured in Balanchine’s Rubies, above) created a blog diary about her auditions from this spring. Her goal is to move from an un-paid traineeship and subsequent apprenticeship with City Ballet of San Diego to the almighty Paid Contract. Tara writes about the excitement and stress of auditioning, the high rejection rates, her thoughts on the possibilities of living in various cities and the hard truths of decisions made by the companies. Check out her musings and follow her beautifully-crafted blog with the cute name, Gnarly Toeboots.

Gnarly Toeboots is now on the blogroll here at right. If you want to start reading it from the first post, click here. Also, I’d like you to take special note that even though this dancer trained locally for most of her career and earned a college degree, she is keeping up quite well with her audition peers, thanks to smart planning, good training and hard work.

Inspirations for Late Beginners

Good teachers are careful to caution teen beginners and young dancers generally on the harsher realities of professional prospects combined with beginning “late”, as we very well should. But today I’d like to spend a moment to highlight some great late-beginner success stories of our day. (Female dancers often encounter a higher standard of technique in the professional world and require more years of preparation than men, so we’ll focus on ballerinas here. Also, when you read that a dancer began “formal” or “serious” training at a certain age, that usually indicates that they took recreational dance classes before that.)

Recently highlighted on Dancing With the Stars (a show that recently has recently done a nice job promoting classical dance and its relevance to modern entertainment), Patricia Zhou began serious dance training at about 13 years old. Now 17, Ms. Zhou has made a splash in the international competitions and climbed all the way to the professional ranks of her dream company, The Royal Ballet. Her extraordinary gifts coupled with dedication, hard work and luck have catapulted her into a world that her parents would have had her forego for academics, making the Zhou a testament to passion and perserverance. Enjoy this clip of her on national television:

Kristi Boone, soloist with ABT, also began at thirteen. She had natural facility for ballet’s demands and talks about her first experiences in this ad for Gaynor Minden.

Superstar principal of New York City Ballet Wendy Whelan didn’t start serious training until relatively late, though she did take dance as a youngster. You can listen to her talk about her training path here.

Vannesa Sah, of the tech-savvy pre-professional company Anaheim Ballet, didn’t begin ballet until college. She has some lovely words of encouragement and advice for late-starters here.

Recently retired darling of The Royal Ballet Darcy Bussell began her formal training at the school at White Lodge at 13. Bussell did have some prior dance training then. Her epic career has been an inspiration to aspiring ballerinas of all levels.

Carmen Corella,  Artistic Director and principal dancer with the recently founded Corella Ballet Castilla y León, began her training at around 13 as well. After a successful career reaching to a soloist position at ABT, Corella followed her brother, ABT principal Angel Corella to found their new company with a little help from another later beginner you may have heard of, Natalia Makarova.

Most recently seen in the national campaign for BlackBerry, Misty Copeland is not only a late beginner, having started at 13, but is also the first African-American in two decades to achieve soloist rank at American Ballet Theatre. She has also significantly helped broaden acceptable and appreciated body-types in professional ballet. Clearly Ms. Copeland has multiple broken barriers in the ballet community through her undeniable excellence.

Naturally, I am still going to caution you that a professional contract is a mighty goal even for a female dancer who began at a proper age for it! But like Vanessa Sah, you can certainly find a happy ending for your dance training if your goals are to learn how to express yourself enjoyably through movement in a challenging classical vocabulary. Or would that be a happy beginning?

Update: A reader has pointed out that Zhou’s own résumé indicates that she attended a summer program in 2005 (six years ago) and has taken many Cecchetti exams. I generally try to respect artists wishes to exclude training that they feel was not of a level sufficient to designate it as part of their education. While Zhou indicates that she attended summer dance camp in 2005, I would be suspect of any summer dance program with the word “camp” in it. In fact, the current program is advertised as less than two weeks of instruction.

Zhou does not mention any other ballet training on her resume before Kirov in 2007, so I have chosen to respect her implication that whatever took place before then was too low-quality to have influenced her career to any possible degree. In fact, in this article, Zhou discusses that she didn’t even know that Sleeping Beauty was a ballet, leaving one to wonder if her original school did more harm than anything. As you know, it is much harder to undo bad training than learn from scratch. That said, I do not know anything about her former school personally, so feel free to research it (named in that article) and decide for yourself. I’m also sorry to say that from what I have witnessed, Cecchetti exams in the US do not necessarily provide any indication of whether a student has learned ballet. I have seen many passing students who were wholly pedestrian. Read this post on BalletTalk to understand more about the risks of poor schools, even those who may talk of their Cecchetti exams. This is an important topic that probably deserves its own post, but that will have to wait for another day! The reader has brought a very important issue to the table, and I hope I have done the matter justice for the time being.

SIs For the Not-So-Early Bird

Hopefully you are all set to attend the summer intensive of your dreams in just a few weeks! But if your summer plans fell through or you simply got a late start this audition season, all is not lost – You still have time to submit DVD auditions to a handful of summer programs with later deadlines. Some are smaller, “regional” intensives, or those just starting out. A few are tied to college dance programs, which makes them an excellent way to try a campus and its faculty on for size. Check out these options:

University of North Carolina School of the Arts (May 13, 2011)

The School Ballet Noveau Colorado (June 1, 2011)

Princeton Ballet School (space available basis)

University of Indiana (May 13, 2011)

North Carolina Dance Theatre (space available basis)

Virginia School of the Arts (space available basis)

BalletMet Columbus (space available basis)

San Diego Ballet (May 21, 2011)

Florida State University (space available basis)

Ballet Royale Minnesota (May 1, 2011)

Be ready to get waitlisted if programs have filled. Also, a few intensives may be willing to accept late applications, particularly in a tough economy like this where not all registrants may be able to come up with tuition money. Call around to see if this is the case for specific programs that you are interested in, but note that it never makes a particularly good impression to ask for such an allowance.

Know of a late-acceptance summer intensive that I missed? Please post it in the comments to help out your fellow dancers!

What’s in a (Ballet School) Name?

Whether it’s alphabet soup – SAB, ABT-JKO, SFB, PNB, BBS  – or one-name-celebrity-style – Kaatsban, Joffrey, Rock – major U.S.-based ballet schools often attract young auditionees by their name alone. But what is the actual worth of attending a big-name school? Will it help in your chances to dance professionally? Let’s do a reality check.

The most common misperception about ballet training that I encounter is the idea that attending at a “big-name” school will make or break whether the dancer will be able to secure a professional contract. This is simply not the case. But in order to understand why this is and what can make attending a famous school good, you first need to understand the process of auditioning for a professional ballet company.

The primary concern of most artistic directors when auditioning potential company members is the auditionees dancing ability, plain and simple. For serious consideration for a company position, you will usually need to get invited to a closed audition or a company class. The first step is to send an audition tape package, which may be very similar to an SI audition package, or to attend an open call. Whether you attend a cattle-call (open call) or send a DVD, the primary focus of the initial cut is your dance ability. More often than not, your résumé will just get a quick glance or perhaps not be reviewed at all before that cut.

Once you have auditioned live and in person, the AD (or more likely, the ballet master or mistress), will choose who they would like to speak to or see again. It is usually at this point that only those résumés will be reviewed with any real attention. What’s important to realize from this process is that the résumé is not something you want to count on for getting your foot in the door. The chances of it getting more than a passing glance in the initial stages are very, very small. (That said, your résumé is still an extremely important part of your audition package that should be planned carefully.)

So what’s the point of attending an expensive, famous school in a far-away city if it can’t guarantee you a job – or at least an audition? As you hopefully realized from the audition description, this is all about your dance ability. A high level of technique, artistry and quality of movement are what artistic directors want to see – and a big-name school just might get you there… or it might not.

You see, elite ballet schools across the country, whether big or small, have individualized strengths, features and areas of focus. One school might have small, mostly classical classes that focus on artistry and expression, while another school might have large classes where competition for attention and an apititude in a wide range of dance genres are required. A shy dancer that dreams of performing classic story ballets may not thrive at all in the latter school, but could potentially blossom and find her full potential in the former. The opposite might be true for an outgoing, naturally expressive dancer who is interested in exploring contemporary ballet or mixed-rep ballet companies.

Do you see where I’m going with this? It’s not at all about the name, it’s about the quality of instruction and finding the learning environment that will best accellerate your dance abilities. What you need at the end of the day is not some mythically ideal resume, it’s an ability to perform in class, auditions and on the stage very, very well. And the school that is going to help you do that is the school you should want to attend, regardless of how recognizable their name is.

In fact, name-recognition can and does prevent some young dancers from getting the best possible dance education. I’ve unfortunately seen more than one student pass on opportunities to train at smaller schools with great reputations for personal mentoring and instead jump on offers at glossy, national-level SIs or satellites. Sadly, these students quickly got lost in the crowd and came home challenged, but not as improved and inspired as they should have been.

There is another important caveat about the largest schools that is important to take into calculation. Whether intentionally or not, they will often take credit for a beautifully trained dancer who they did not truly create. That happens most often when an advanced dancer from a small-town school goes to a major school for a final year of finishing. (Remember Center Stage?) In these cases, the bigger school might indeed transform the dancer from a student into an artist (which the smaller school perhaps could not) but usually have nothing to do with the meat and potatoes of the dancer’s training. Recognizable names attract lots of auditionees, so that some schools are able to recruit dancers that are virtually fully trained and place them in their highest levels. (This is also a great testament to the quality of many smaller schools across the U.S.) Ask yourself how many of the advanced dancers were actually trained by the school’s lower classes.

Finally, for company schools, be sure you are not improperly associating the reputation of an affiliated company to the school. Certain companies only rarely hire from their own school, so that the company could be a completely unrelated picture of the school’s capabilities. You should also consider that a regional company’s school might provide more realistic opportunity for future employment than a national one.

Should all famous schools be avoided as expensive wastes of time? Of course not! Well-known schools have the very important benefit of attracting the very, very best staff. What’s important, though, is to take into consideration the many other factors that are important for good training. There are definitely U.S. schools that have built their huge reputations by simply offering only the highest quality training, however you still must be aware that not all programs are right for all dancers. Think carefully about what you need as a dancer, and then find out where to get it!

You be the Judge: Choosing Your SI

Have you been accepted to more than one SI? Congratulations! If your parents are considering allowing you to attend but you (or your parents!) are feeling clueless about how to choose one, read on to hear how to find your best summer training experience.

During your SI auditions, not only are the judges assessing you – You should be assessing them as well. Often, the audition is the first stage of substantive contact that a student has with a potential summer intensive school. Whether or not the audition class is also a master class, you should be able to get a feel for the teacher and whether they represent the kind of school you would like to attend. Ask yourself these questions during the audition:\

  • Are they working from a technique that I enjoy and want to learn more about?
  • Is the teacher/auditioner likeable and someone that I would like to be around for six weeks?
  • Is the teacher good at managing the class?
  • Does their audition process foster a professional and efficient learning environment?

You can extrapolate a lot about a school from your audition experience, just the same way that they are extrapolating a lot about you from the same brief encounter. Not every student is the right fit for every school – and vice versa! The audition is both their opportunity and yours to assess whether your talent and level will be best cultivated in their environment.

Nowadays, acceptances are more quickly available than ever. Many SI programs will post them online. Once you know what your options are, it is time to employ your power of choice. Using your audition experience and an easy activity, you can ge a clearer picture of your favorites and not-so-favorites. Before assessing the schools who have accepted you though, you need to take some time to decide what you are looking for in a school.

Because consistency in training is absolutely essential for younger dancers, I recommend that dancers stay with their home studio until they reach 13. For students between the ages of 13 and 15, I recommend that SIs be chosen first and foremost for individual attention and nurturing developmental environments, like many rural, suburban and smaller regional programs offer. Conservatory SIs are excellent for this and have the added appeal of offering a taste of their year-round program. Also for younger dancers, splitting the summer between two different programs can be a more realistic option than for older dancers.

From the age of about 15-17, I recommend that students push themselves to attend more competitive programs, perhaps in urban areas farther from home where there may be greater chance of exposure to directors/choreographers and increased development of the students personal responsibility. When the students get to the age of 17 and older, I recommend that they seek out programs that are commensurate with their ability in terms of potential employment – so no SIs without professional affiliations unless they are specifically looking to enter a conservatory year-round. I also recommend that students give special consideration to programs extending scholarship money, which may mean the company has interest in potentially employing the student in the future. At any age, if the student is interested in a conservatory prep school, the appropriate SI should be chosen in order to serve as an audition for the year-round program. (Don’t know whether you want a company school or conservatory? Check out this great article from Dance Magazine.)

Once you’ve decided what kind of program you need, create a spreadsheet or handwrite a chart with your SI options listed down the left side of the page. At the top, make columns with these headings:

  • Techniques:
  • Audition Experience (Poor/Average/Excellent)
  • Location (Rural/Suburban/Urban)
  • Distance from Home (Close/Mid-range/Far)
  • Supervision (Tight/Medium/Light)
  • Environment (Nurturing/Average/Competitive)
  • Class Sizes (Small/Average/Large)
  • Teachers (Good/Excellent/Unknown)
  • Pro/Prep Programs (Trainee/Apprentice/Conservatory)
  • Level (Local/Regional/National)
  • Reputation (Good/Excellent/Top)
  • Scholarship Offered (Yes/No)
  • Performance Opportunity (Yes/No)

These list is not exhaustive, so be sure to make columns for features of interest to you that I may not have included. Next, indicate the response that you prefer for each feature. For example, a young student leaving home for the first time and her parents might want the options I’ve placed in bold here:

  • Techniques: Cecchetti Ballet, Partnering, Modern & Jazz
  • Audition Experience (Poor/Average/Excellent)
  • Location (Rural/Suburban/Urban)
  • Distance from Home (Close/Mid-range/Far)
  • Supervision (Tight/Medium/Light)
  • Environment (Nurturing/Average/Competitive)
  • Class Sizes (Small/Average/Large)
  • Teachers (Good/Excellent/Unknown)
  • Pro/Prep Programs (Trainee/Apprentice/Conservatory)
  • Level (Local/Regional/National)
  • Reputation (Good/Excellent/Top)
  • Scholarship Offered (Yes/No)
  • Performance Opportunity (Yes/No)

Once you’ve decided what your preferences are for each feature, fill in the boxes for each school by reviewing the information made available by the school website, in the brochures and if necessary by phone call. Once you have everything filled in, look at what schools have all of your preferred features and which ones are easily ruled out.

It may not be possible to find all the information you need from the school’s publications. If you are looking for real dancers’ and parents’ descriptions of the particular SIs that you review, check out my favorite resource for chatting on all things ballet, BalletTalk for Dancers. Create a free account to view their substantial and comprehensive message boards for virtually all 2011 Summer Intensives. All BalletTalk message boards are moderated by respected ballet professionals.

These activities should narrow your list considerably and give you a better understanding of what you want to get from your summer investment of time and perhaps significant money. The idea is to find the best program for you personally – what’s best for you might not be what’s best for your friend – but don’t stress if you end up with more than one awesome SI option. That’s a good thing! Most known SI programs offer great instruction in a safe environment, so there aren’t many wrong answers when it’s time to choose. And the sheer number of hours you will put in at such a program will virtually ensure that you will see some very decent improvement over the summer. With a little bit of research and effort though, you can help to ensure that you won’t just be headed to a great summer intensive – you’ll be headed to the program of your dreams!