How do dancers navigate the multiple avenues available when they graduate from high school? There are decisions to be made about company auditions, college applications, and exploring a gap year before enrolling at a university. Last night the Washington School of Ballet presented a discussion about dancers’ futures to a packed audience of students and parents. One of the first ideas offered was that it’s important for a dancer to demonstrate the difference between being assertive and being aggressive.
It was this statement of Septime Webre, artistic director of The Washington Ballet, that made me realize this conversation was going to be different. It was not about platitudes and clichés, not about following your dream and hoping for the best. It was real, informative, and eye-opening.
The discussion was organized by Kristina Windom and moderated by school director Kee Juan Han. Guest speakers included Webre and Susan Shields, a choreographer, professor, and longtime partner to Mikhail Baryshnikov when she performed with the White Oak Dance Project. The thread that linked the speakers and audiences was the Washington Ballet, not only the school where Shields trained, but also a company now led by Webre and an organization that is spearheading ways of preparing dancers for careers in the 21st century. As Shields said candidly, 20 years ago there was a certain stigma about a dancer thinking about going to college, or a ballet-trained student considering a career in modern or contemporary dance.
Times have changed.
I was not only impressed by the frankness of the conversation, but also by the proactive nature of WSB’s students. Webre posed questions about what differentiated ABT from NYCB, Joffrey Ballet from Houston Ballet. His point was to encourage students to think about environments that were best suited to their skill sets and expertise.
What made the discussion refreshing and inspiring was the shared responsibility: a dancer’s career is the product of knowledge and timing – knowing when and how to audition as well as the best places for their dancing and settings that cater to their strengths and interests. Some dancers may find fulfillment as professionals or trainees with a major company. Others may find pursuing a BFA at a school like George Mason the perfect match for their intellectual and artistic aspirations.
The evening opened with two personal statements–one by a female dancer and the other by a male–who faced difficult decisions about dancing professionally after high school or pursuing a college degree. Alexandra Hutchinson, a senior at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, talked about preparing both, college applications as well as company auditions. Connor Werth spoke to being accepted at Princeton University and deciding to defer for a year in order to dance at Washington Ballet as part of the professional training program.
Both students were eloquent and realistic: encouraging their peers to pay attention to deadlines and to realize the difference between auditioning in person and sending a video of their dancing. Connor added that it may be vital to take a year off between high school and college in order to discover what really matters to you as both a scholar and a dancer. He also emphasized the importance of faculty and mentors who can guide a young dancer through this decision-making process.
Webre, who attended to the University of Texas at Austin before embarking on his career as a dancer, choreographer, and company director, described the unusual path of Cheryl Sladkin, who served as an example of the importance of keeping options open. Cheryl trained at WSB before attending Princeton University where she maintained her ballet technique by taking classes at American Repertory Ballet, then headed by Webre. Princeton, like all Ivy League schools, does not offer a dance major and Cheryl chose to follow a pre-med path at the university, but danced professionally upon graduation, for ARB, then Washington Ballet, and then Suzanne Farrell Ballet and Karole Armitage’s company, Armitage Gone! Eventually she completed her medical degree through Cornell University and is now a pediatrician, as well as the wife of a Princeton graduate, Randy Altschuler, and the mother of two beautiful children.
By including Cheryl in this conversation about career paths, Webre may have been highlighting the twists and turns that any career can take: one day students may envision themselves professional dancers, and then find that they crave academic stimulation and other career choices. He encouraged WSB students who were in their senior year of high school to audition for companies, to experience that “reality check” of placing your technique, your body, alongside other aspiring dancers. He described the differences between attending a public audition and trying out for a company by taking their company class.
“Imagine auditioning for this company, Washington Ballet, by taking a class next to Brooklyn Mack,” Webre said. Mack is one of the most gifted and versatile ballet dancers in this area if not this country. To be viewed in comparison to Mack or in comparison to a pool of young, aspiring dancers is a huge contrast. Webre encouraged WSB students to research companies that match their interests and talents, to understand the differences between top-tier companies and schools like NYCB and ABT, Harvard and Princeton, and those that cater to special genres and smaller class sizes.
Shields spoke to the benefits of a BFA degree as an environment where students can integrate mind and body, mental and physical knowledge. Her words came from decades of experience as a student, a dancer, a choreographer, and a teacher. She combines the different types of intelligence outlined by Harvard’s Howard Gardner decades ago, and understands their importance for a student’s well-being. Some of the differences between a program like GMU’s School of Dance and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts are the close-knit community fostered by GMU’s location in Fairfax, Virginia and the individual attention that is given to each GMU student.
Having attended NYU’s Tisch School as a graduate student, after I attended Princeton University and was a room-mate to Cheryl Sladkin, I can attest to these differences. Some students may crave the stimulation of a major city like Manhattan; others may find its endless buffet of events and attractions distracting if not dangerous. Having taught at GMU I find their faculty world-class, combining knowledge, expertise, and experiences with our most acclaimed choreographers and companies.
Adding to the tough choices faced by students today, a handful of higher education schools are becoming known for their ballet training. Some schools, like Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet, are developing partnerships that offer dancers BFA degrees through certain universities (King created his program with Dominican University of California). As King says on the program’s website:
“Fierce concentration brings light to the mind, which brings clarity and the ability to see… One of the wonderful benefits of art study is that you develop intuition. Intuition is that knowing which doesn’t rely on inference and doesn’t need validation. It just knows. What parent wouldn’t want that for their child?”
As last night’s conversation drew to a close, Webre and Shields echoed one another’s ideas as they spoke to the young dancers: “please educate yourself.” Shields described the importance of “seeing, researching, and discovering your own movement preferences.” Webre advocated for young dancers plotting a plan A and a plan B, envisioning different courses of action that opened multiple options and varied paths toward personal fulfillment.