- Jennifer Milner
How to Choose A Summer Intensive
Summer intensive auditions are waiting in the wings, impatiently watching as we say goodbye to 2017 and turn our noses reluctantly back to the grindstone. If you’re like me and my dancers, you’ve been poring over audition dates, strategizing which schools you would like to pursue, and in general working yourself into a frenzy - probably since around November or so. For many pre-professional dancers, summer intensives are a necessary step on the path to becoming a professional dancer, and emotions run high as you contemplate the possibility that the choice you make for six weeks when you’re fourteen could have career-long consequences - or lack thereof.
So how do you keep yourself from being paralyzed by fear over making the wrong choice? With a myriad of options, which one is the right one for you? The first step is to figure out what you want from a summer intensive. To me, there are three main reasons for you to head off into the great - and expensive - unknown.
Wanting the “Summer Camp” experience Lots of younger dancers hear glorious stories from older friends about crazy roommates, hilarious inside jokes, wild escapades in a new city, and a heady taste of freedom away from your day-to-day life. (And parents. Ahem.) So when summer auditions come up, some young teens see a ballet intensive as a way to have the “normal kid” summer camp experience they’ve never had. If you’re in the 10-14-year-old range and your parents are in a position to support a summer away, then by all means hit the auditions and find a place you love. Having local friends there will be a plus of course, but also look for cities or schools where you might already have some ties: an intensive in a city where your aunt lives might make your parents more likely to say yes; a city within a few hours’ driving distance of your home lets you know you’ve got an escape valve if you find you’re not ready to be gone the whole summer; while a summer intensive where you already know one of the guest teachers might bring a welcome familiar face in a daunting crowd.
Look for good solid training, of course, but take these personal and emotional “extras” into consideration as well, and you’re more likely to have a great first experience away from home. And lest the parents think this is just a really really expensive sleepaway minus the campfires, summer intensives are a fact of life in most young dancers’ careers, and yours will most likely need to participate by age 15 at the latest. So look at a short intensive that matches some of the above criteria as a “training wheels” step towards a six- or eight-week intensive halfway across the country down the road.
Raising your technical bar We’ll assume you’re at a year-round school you love, and that you get great technique and feedback from your teachers. Even if you’re studying at the best school in your area, summer time is a chance to broaden your horizons, get fresh eyes on you and learn from some incredible nationally acclaimed teachers. If you’re in the 12-14-year-old range, consider using these six weeks to take your skills to the next level. Seek out a school that trains in your style - Balanchine, ABT, Vaganova, whatever - and come back leveled up and ready to hit the ground running.
Or find a school outside your comfort zone! Come from an RAD school? Contemplate trying someplace that leans towards Balanchine and see how that changes you as an artist. Consider going somewhere that may not be affiliated with a company but offers excellent technique, like Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, The Dallas Conservatory, or Cary Ballet Conservatory. They have no interest in getting you ready for “their” company; they simply want to make you a better dancer.
You can, of course, head to one of the big schools - say, ABT or SAB - and give that a try. You’ll quickly figure out if a large school that feeds into a company is where you want to train next summer, or if you’d like to look at something smaller where you might get more attention. The point is, don’t just pick an intensive because it’s in a cool city or your friends are going there. Use these years to really dig into who you are as an artist and grow - cultivate your technique, your artistry, and your vision of what kind of dancer you want to be in the professional world.
And it’s worth noting that many national schools do not allow their year-round students to attend their summer program. SAB, for example, has their school-term dancers head out each summer, acknowledging that every dancer can use a fresh set of eyes on her.
Laying the groundwork with a company At this point I assume you’re doing quite well at your local school and have one eye on your professional career. If you’re 15-17 years old, you know that from this point on your choices matter more and your every move is scrutinized. Is your career goal American Ballet Theatre or bust? Then there’s no point in auditioning for SAB. Do you think you’d get lost in a big summer intensive, and know that a contract with a huge company is probably not for you? You’ll do well to steer clear of the “large” companies such as San Francisco, ABT, NYCB, and Boston, and instead start thinking of where you’d like to work.
Perhaps you enjoy Balanchine but know Pacific Northwest Ballet isn’t for you: Oregon Ballet Theatre is a fantastic regional company with a strong summer program. Audition there and start working your way towards a PD position or a company audition. Love the ABT syllabus but know after two summers at ABT that they’re not interested? Audition for Washington Ballet’s summer program and see what they think of you. Turn your eyes towards smaller programs where you can get seen and work your way up, and you’ll find yourself halfway to a company class audition invitation.
On the other hand - if you’ve been on full scholarship at Ballet West the past three summers and they remember you every year, by all means keep working your way up that ladder! Either way, I hope that at this point you’ve got an idea of what sort of a company you should shoot for, and have the courage to keep gunning for it.
There are lots of questions to ask yourself as you sift through summer intensives: do I need a “finishing school” for my style? Do I want to stretch myself with something new? Am I pretty sure what track I’m on but want to solidify my choice? Think through where you are as an artist as you figure out where you’ll be for the summer, and your intensive experience will be that much more rewarding. If you’re not sure what stage you’re at, most school are happy to provide valuable input on your summer experience; make an appointment to sit down with your director and get her thoughts on what you’d benefit from the most.
Because the choices are almost endless: big national schools that feed into world-famous companies; boutique schools for great regional companies that will offer smaller classes and more personalized attention; schools without a company affiliation who are focused on making you the best you can possibly be; and more. You can easily be overwhelmed as you sift through your options.
So before you slap down all your audition fees, ask yourself what you want out of this summer. You’ll find the choices quickly narrow down, and you’ll be able to audition with confidence, knowing your choices are well thought out solidly made. Then put on your tights and go show them who you were born to be.