"It's a thorough schedule, they learn six or seven ballets; that's more than they would do in a company," says Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch. "Of course, we want them to have fun too, but our students need to be highly motivated."
Each year, over 900 dancers audition for 150 slots, making it a competitive selection process. Associate Director Shelly Power travels to 16 cities and several countries to scout the best talent for this comprehensive dance training program for teenagers. "I like to say we take them from studio to stage in many different capacities, from career studies all the way to performance and choreography," says Power. In addition to daily ballet courses, classes in social, jazz, and modern dance help develop the necessary versatility for today's ballet world. In response to the current economic challenges facing many families, there will be a special, shorter three-week session for levels five and lower, versus the standard six-week session. "We wanted to help families and offer more choices," says Power.
Welch prides himself on his ability to select top teachers from diverse backgrounds, offering an expansive approach to dance education. In addition, all the principal dancers from the top rank of the professional company teach as well, in an effort to expose the students to professionals and create a link between the school and company. "These dancers could be future Houston Ballet II members, so we want them to get a flavor of Houston Ballet," says Welch.
Learning repertory and performing are key ingredients to a dancer's growth. "They even learn some of Stanton's choreography," says Power. "It's a challenge for many of them, but also a great experience." The program concludes with a studio performance for the lower levels, and a fully mounted concert at San Jacinto Community College for levels six through eight. Houston Ballet's collaboration with American Festival for the Arts (AFA), now going into its 12th year, pairs young choreographers and composers for an annual performance that not only encourages new dance makers but new ballet music makers. "Emerging choreographer Garrett Smith, now an apprentice with the company, started there," boasts Power.
Dance encompasses a larger world than technique classes and the program reflects that broad approach to all aspects of a life in dance. Power is most proud of the career studies program, which offers special classes for level eights in marketing and public relations, costume and set design, budgeting, and storyline development, all taught by senior management. Lower levels take class in everything from hair, make-up and how to sew pointe shoes properly. A special partnership with Virginia Tech researcher Ashley Doyle Lucas allows for the latest findings in nutrition for dancers. Within the demanding schedule there's still room for some out-of-the-studio fun. Students visit NASA, the Kemah Boardwalk, and their all-time favorite destination, the Galleria. "Those considering coming here year-round will get a good idea if Houston is the right place for them and if the Academy is the right school," says Power.
Last summer, the program went global with their first ever two-week session for Mexican boys. With classes taught in Spanish and English by Claudio Muê±oz and company member Alexander Pandiscio, the Mexican contingent studied dance and culture in classes specially arranged for them."We have been on the road recruiting and making connections with the rest of the world," says Power, who has traveled to Switzerland and Japan this year. This summer, 15 students from Japan are coming and will be participating in every activity. "It helps that ballet is taught in French all over the world," quips Power. "Of course, they will bring a translator. It's great experience for them to immerse themselves in our culture." Over ten countries attend, making it an expansive experience for the American students as well.
Principal dancer Connor Walsh spent three summers at the Academy before joining the company. "The rate at which you learn is unbelievable. I had never lifted a girl before," says Walsh, about his first eye-opening summer intensive. "After my first summer, I knew this is what I wanted to do; it was my first experience being so close to a professional company, and it helped make that choice a reality because I was able to see what that life was really like."
Improvement ranks as a top priority. Dancers keep a journal, which helps them keep track of their learning, progress and the vital knowledge they are exposed to. "We offer classes like pas de deux, that they do not get in their home studios," says Power. "We are always trying to provide an experience they could not have elsewhere." Six weeks of intensive training often determines the next step for these young dancers. Participants interview company members to lend an inside view of professional life. "This is a test run and a bridge to our year-round program. They find out if they really want to get up and put on pink tights everyday," says Power. Welch agrees, but there's more to his agenda. "Whether they end up on stage, in the audience or backstage, I hope they leave with a love for dance, as Billy Elliot says, with that electric feeling."
This year's students will embark on the Summer Intensive June 22. For more information on the Academy, visit Houston Ballet.
Nancy Wozny contributes to Dance Magazine, Pointe, Dance Teacher, and is the reviews editor for Dance Source Houston.