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Summer intensive molds ballet dancers of tomorrow

The Sarasota Ballet auditioned more than 1,000 dancers for their summer program, and 170 made the final cut to come and learn in person.

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  • | 5:00 a.m. July 20, 2022
Students from the Margaret Barbieri Conservatory dance in a past edition of the Images of Dance program. (Photo Courtesy of Frank Atura)
Students from the Margaret Barbieri Conservatory dance in a past edition of the Images of Dance program. (Photo Courtesy of Frank Atura)
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They’ve come from all across the country, bound by the same passion and bonded by the same experience.

And they’ve put in the work to make themselves better dancers.

Now, the students of Sarasota Ballet’s Summer Intensive are primed for the best part of their pre-professional journey; they’re ready to show the world what they’ve learned in four InMotion appearances at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts from July 28-30.

Lindsay Fischer, the Sarasota Ballet’s assistant education director, has been putting the dancers through their paces and setting brand new choreography upon them. Class by class and skill by skill, he’s seen their confidence and ability grow immeasurably.

“For some of them, it may be the first time they've ever done choreography that they can’t go to YouTube and look at,” says Fischer. “This is made for them as they're standing there.

"They get that experience of, ‘OK we're going to try to do this, this and the other thing,’ and then it doesn't work out. And sometimes I say, ‘Actually, I think this is going to be fine. You need to treat that preparation differently and you need to coordinate that arm differently. You need to use the space differently and you’re going to find that it’s going to look good.’”

Willa Frantz, a past member of the training program, emotes in Images of Dance. (Photo Courtesy of Frank Atura)
Willa Frantz, a past member of the training program, emotes in Images of Dance. (Photo Courtesy of Frank Atura)

Fischer, who worked as a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet and Dutch National Ballet, has only been in Sarasota for about a year. But he’s had a long time to iron out his skills as a teacher; he ran the National Ballet of Canada’s Apprentice Program for 15 years. Now, working with the Summer Intensive, Fischer is seeing dancers of a wide range in ages and ability.

The youngest dancers in the program are just 12 years old, and they’re early in their development. But the oldest dancers in the Summer Intensive may be as old as 21, and Fischer says that by that point they’ve had serious training for seven or eight years.

Those latter students — the ones nearing their professional career — will be working on brand new choreography set to music from Verdi’s “Macbeth” at the InMotion performances. Fischer says they’ve gotten it the old-fashioned way, through hard work and sweat.

“The group I’m working with is very accomplished,” he says. “Anything I would set on a professional dancer, I would probably set on these dancers. Maybe for some it will take a little bit longer to learn. It might be fuzzy for longer. They may think they've got it, but instead of being right 10 times out of 10, it's only right six times out of 10. In the end, it only has to be right once.”

The most interesting part, though, is where they came from and how they got here. Christopher Hird, Sarasota Ballet’s education director, said that more than 1,000 students from ballet schools all over America were evaluated for the Summer Intensive.

The final group of dancers numbers about 170, but not all of them came for the entire five-week program.

“We did it over three months, January to March,” says Hird. “Pretty much every weekend, we either traveled to do an audition in person or we had a Zoom audition and saw people that way. I’m just thrilled that we’ve got this interest in Sarasota Ballet.

"The numbers reflect that they want to come and train with us, which I think speaks a lot to the quality of the program. And the fact that we have great faculty like Lindsay that people choose to come and work with.”

Savannah Campbell was one of the performers at last year's Summer Intensive. (Photo Courtesy of Matthew Holler)
Savannah Campbell was one of the performers at last year's Summer Intensive. (Photo Courtesy of Matthew Holler)

Are you surprised that some of the auditions were held over Zoom? Don’t be. It’s the future.

Fisher says that phenomenon didn’t really exist until very recently, but post-Covid, schools are understanding how they can use technology to democratize their field of dancers.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s better than nothing. Like way, way better,” says Fisher. “I used to work in career counseling and placement. You would send videos and you would send CDs and people would look at them and say, ‘Yeah, but I’ve got to see them in person.’ Now we’ve realized that when you know how to use the technology properly, you can learn as much as you need to know about somebody over Zoom. …It’s not about having the privilege to jump on an airplane and go audition. You can go to your local studio, you can stand in front of a Zoom camera and you have as much chance as somebody traveling in a limo.”

Once they arrive, the students at the Summer Intensive are separated into four age groups, and within those groups, they’re ordered by skill so they can get trained at the proper level.

Sarasota Ballet has about seven full-time instructors working every day with the trainees, and it has several others who can work twice a week or specialize in certain skillsets. The students are working six days a week, and it can be a long and grueling endeavor.

“Every day, the students get a full technique class of an hour and 45 minutes,” says Fischer. “Every day, they get either pointe or variations. Every day, they get repertory. Then the fourth class, they'll either get some other style of dance or they'll get a conditioning class specifically for ballet. It’s not just going to the gym and lifting weights.

"We teach the anatomy of ballet; what joint or set of muscles are actually making that shape or that movement possible? Then you strengthen that, and that’s definitely something you don’t get at a lot of schools.”

Again, says Fischer, this is old hat for the top level students. But for some of the youngsters, they’re just beginning to learn that their dreams will come with a physical cost. That part — working with dancers of different skills and age groups — is fun for Fischer, because it forces him to re-evaluate his methods of getting through to people.

“Some dancers throughout their lives are insatiably curious and want to know everything about what you're thinking and why you're doing it,” he says. “Other dancers prefer a more distanced approach. They just want to be told what to do. Then there's some dancers — I was one of them — who are very, very authority averse. And they learn very differently. When I get dancers like that in the room, I think, ‘Oh, this is going to be fun.’ I hear things and see things that I had not imagined. These people are not listening to my drummer; they are listening to their own drummer and they are rocking to the rhythm they hear. And that is fascinating.”

The light goes on for each of these dancers at a different point, and Fischer says they aren’t necessarily curious about where dance has taken him in his life. At this point, they’re locked in on learning, and they’re focused on being the best dancers they can be.

“I don't think it makes a big difference to them what your background is or where you come from or who you know,” says Fischer. “The important thing about teaching is to realize it does not matter what you know, who you know or how you know it.

"It matters whether you are able to help somebody else understand. Teaching a skill is not a random accretion of experience. Lots of people have extraordinary experience. But they can't teach.”



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