Houston Ballet’s Summer Intensive Program Offers a Full Experience

IMAGE ABOVE: Houston Ballet readies itself for its 2014 Summer Intensive program. Photo by Cameron Durham.

Claudio Muñoz, Ballet Master for Houston Ballet II, works with Summer Intensive students on improving their technique.  Photo: Cameron Durham.

Claudio Muñoz, Ballet Master for Houston Ballet II, works with Summer Intensive students on improving their technique. Photo: Cameron Durham.

They say that all dancers really need is an empty room; sometimes several can make all the difference. Houston Ballet’s Center for Dance, with its many spacious studios, has made a tremendous impact on the institution, allowing growth in all directions, especially their well-regarded summer intensive program for aspiring young dancers in training, which runs from June 16-July 25. And that growth can be tracked in the number and quality of students, along with the expanding curriculum and reputation.

Having more space may seem like a small thing, but if you run a ballet academy, it’s a total game changer. Houston Ballet Academy Director Shelly Power has been maximizing the use of the added space since the organization moved into their downtown digs in 2010. “We can split technique classes in the mornings. Since the company is off for several weeks during the summer, we can expand our intake and utilize those studios as well,” says Power.  Between 2010 and 2013, the Academy has experienced a 45% increase in enrollment.

An International Summer

A bigger building doesn’t necessarily draw more students, or does it? This year, teachers from Houston Ballet Academy crisscrossed the nation, auditioning nearly 1,500 students, allowing a larger selection to choose from, which means a higher caliber of young dancers. “California is a big draw for us. It’s a big talent pool, and we have seen an increase in students auditioning there over the years,” says Power.  “Of course, New York is still big as well.” Auditions take place in 16 cities across the US, in addition to recruiting at the Prix de Lausanne Ballet Competition in Switzerland and Youth American Grand Prix in New York City. “We rely on word of mouth and Houston Ballet’s touring,” she says. “We are the only professional school that offers the students in their second company such extensive touring and performance opportunities right now.”

Former principal dancer Sabrina Lenzi teaches students from all over the world during the Summer Intensive.  Photo:Cameron Durham.

Former principal dancer Sabrina Lenzi teaches students from all over the world during the Summer Intensive. Photo:  Cameron Durham.

If you stroll through the hallways during this summer, you might hear nine different languages as Houston Ballet’s international reputation continues to expand. “Our team travels extensively across the globe to put Houston Ballet in front of the world through performances, competitions, conferences, master classes and touring,” says Power. “We always have a good representation of students in the Summer Intensive Program from other countries, such as China, Japan, Canada, Brazil, and Australia, to name a few. Houston is an easy city to get in and out of, and we offer ways to get to know the city through our Sunday trips to water parks, the Galleria and the museums.”

A Diverse Curriculum

Summer programs are only as good as their curriculum, and Houston Ballet Academy offers one of the most diverse. Besides being the country’s only six week program, there are many other aspects that distinguish this program.

The young artists can stretch their choreographic wings through their now 15-year collaboration with the American Festival for the Arts,which gives students the opportunity to choreograph, light, costume and perform a piece to a newly composed piece of music. “It’s truly a magical journey for the student who always wished to choreograph, have talented students to work with and fully produce a piece from top to bottom,” says Power. “It’s an extraordinary journey to witness each summer.”

 The collaboration with the American Festival for the Arts allows students the opportunity to choreograph on fellow students.    Photo: Cameron Durham.

The collaboration with the American Festival for the Arts allows students the opportunity to choreograph on fellow students. Photo: Cameron Durham.

Dancers need to learn to take care of themselves early on if they hope to sustain a career, or better yet, get through the summer intact. To that end, Pilates, Gyrotonics, and Yamuna Ball sessions supplement the students’ learning. An on-site athletic trainer, provided by The Methodist Hospital, is on hand to help students deal with the aches and pains that can occur due to the rigorous schedule.

There’s more to understanding a life in ballet than technique classes. Career Studies, offered to advanced students in Level 8, gives these young dancers a window into all the aspects that contribute to the performance side, such as production, costume design and management.

Performance is always an important part of the summer intensive. Having more space allows rehearsal time for double casting and increasing to six performances at the end of the summer term. The addition of the Margaret Alkek Williams Dance Lab, an in-house flexible theater and studio, has made logistics a breeze. “We are able to rehearse and perform right in our own home,” says Power. They are one of the few programs that offers wardrobe and production support for all six shows.

But Houston Ballet sees their summer mission as larger than just training the elite. Power and her excellent staff realize summer is a time of discovery and exploration for young people, where they might “try on” a career before choosing to go to college or a professional route. So the program is also now able to accommodate all kinds of students. They have added a three-week program for level 5. “We saw a need to have more opportunities for some of the students who perhaps had not had as much training as others, and we designed our schedule to meet the needs of those students as well,” says Power.

Outstanding Faculty

The core of the program is the faculty, who do their best shaping the dancers they find in front of them each summer. “We committed to healthy approaches that foster confidence and trust, and those who have a wide variety of traditional experience in both classical and contemporary repertoire,” says Power.

Claudio Munoz, the teacher in the Academy whom so many Houston Ballet dancers credit as instrumental to their success, has a solid methodology. “The first step is to make them realize their flaws in technique, which has to be done in a very careful way,” says Munoz. “You have to support them, not destroy them, and show them the road to improve.”

Munoz has been building the boys’ program, which offers a solid foundation for company work. Having former principal dancer Andrew Murphy on board as an instructor in the Academy has also allowed the program to reach more boys in lower levels. “We have an all-day program for boys now, and ten years ago we hardly had any boys in the program,” says Power.

Sabrina Lenzi, who has danced all over the world as a principal dancer with Stuttgart Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, offers a global perspective.

Lenzi doesn’t let the larger numbers get in the way of superb training. “In scheduling our classes, we pay strict attention to keeping classes small,” says Lenzi. “Our goal is to establish close and supportive relationships with our summer students, in the hope they can fulfill their professional dream, and open their hearts to an everlasting love of the art form.”

Former Houston Ballet stars such as Barbara Bears, Dawn Scannell, Jim Payne, Sally Rojas and Susan Bryant, bring a depth of experience in their rep and technique teaching, while Priscilla Nathan-Murphy and Jane Weiner’s modern classes help the dancers stay competitive in the ballet field’s increasingly contemporary leanings.

Students come to learn and help sort out the decision of whether to move forward with a professional career. Either way, the team hopes they leave knowing that dance will always be a part of their lives. “They will feel and smell their future,” muses Munoz. “Many of them love dance, and they will realize that you don’t have to be a professional dancer to dance.” Munoz sees the success of the program in poetic terms. “You have to put love in every single step of teaching beyond the corrections, beyond the demand, there has to be love in what you do.”


Reprinted from Playbill.