School of the North Carolina Dance Theatre’s Conservatory Program
It is a crisp fall morning in Charlotte, North Carolina, and fourteen year old roommates, Lindsay Woodall and Jane Yoon, are getting dressed – not for a day at school, but for ballet class. Charlotte, once a sleepy southern town, is fast becoming an arts mecca and mini metropolis, with the Balanchine-inspired dance company, the North Carolina Dance Theatre, co-directed by retired New York City Ballet dancers Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride at its center. It is here the two girls, among the youngest ever admitted to NCDT’s Conservatory Program, are headed for a day of big sweat and small glory, as they work their bodies and brains to the limit to achieve their mutual dream of a professional dance career.
“Only three months ago,” says Yoon, “my future seemed to be up in the air.” She was a student at North Atlanta Dance Academy, in Georgia, attending three different summer programs in widely dispersed areas of the country. She was a favorite with her teachers, dancing the only solo in her class at the Universal Ballet Academy Summer Session II demonstration. But she was becoming more and more dissatisfied with her work at NADA. “My teachers in Georgia were awesome, but I was too comfortable there. No matter how hard I tried, I always felt like I was slacking.” It was time for a change. But Yoon was also plagued by a worry that at just under 5’ 10”she was too tall to dance ballet. She would tower over her partners, she feared, and would end up scrunching down in the back row of any professional company that accepted her. So NCDT’s standard that welcomed tall dancers was the opposite of what she expected.
“Have you seen our company?” Darleen Callaghan, retired company principal and director of the school, asks. “More than half the women are in the 5’7” to 5’9” height range. Jane and Lindsay (Woodall is 5”7”) fit right in.” And NCDT is not the only prominent American dance company that looks for taller female artists. “San Francisco, New York City Ballet, Houston, Seattle, Canada’s National Ballet, all have lots of tall girls on their company rosters.”
Woodall, too, who started dancing at age nine and has been en pointe for only a year, was surprised by the sudden change in her life. “I danced at a tiny school in Arizona,” she says. “It was just for fun. Then we moved here, and I started taking classes at NCDT, and all of a sudden I had a big problem: homework.”
Any serious dancer who attends a public school knows what she means. “You come home from school and you have to rush to make the carpool on time. Then you take three hours of dance class. By the time you get back it’s nine or ten o’clock, and you still haven’t started your homework. Some nights you’re up till midnight or later.”
“I never seemed to get enough sleep,” Yoon agrees, remembering the juggling of her schedule that was so much a part of her life only a short time ago. “On Sundays, I’d stay in bed till 2 or 3 in the afternoon, I was so tired. That is, if I didn’t have rehearsal.”
Acceptance with NCDT’s Conservatory has put an end to this dilemma, for both girls. Now, instead of waking up at 6:30AM to get ready to catch a school bus, they can sleep until 7:30 or 8:00. Technique class begins at 9:30, followed by courses in pedagogy, Pilates, floor barre, composition, or dance history. Frequently they are joined in these classes with company trainees, apprentices, and, occasionally, full-fledged company members. Afterwards, they shower, eat lunch, and spend the afternoon completing their high school credits through Indiana University High School’s Independent Study Program.
“It’s an excellent choice for any serious dancer,” says Callaghan, who helped in getting the two programs – the NCDT Conservatory and Indiana University – together. Students work at their own pace, completing assignments, essays and tests either through the web-based option, where students to work on line and submit assignments via the internet, or the more traditional, paper-based option, where they send finished work to their instructors by mail. If they have to stop working on assignments to get ready for a performance, there is no penalty and no catch up.
“You just pick up where you left off,” says Yoon.
A further benefit of completing a high school diploma through Indiana University is that for many courses students can take advantage of dual enrollment. This means the credits they earn count for both high school and college. It is possible, therefore, for IU students to finish a diploma with a year of college under their belts – a great leg-up whatever future they opt for.
In the evenings, Woodall and Yoon return to the NCDT studios for their classes in ballet, pointe, modern, partnering, variations and jazz. It’s a full day of dancing, and that’s not including rehearsals. Casting assignments and performance practices are posted on the bulletin board, usually with only a few days’ advance notice before rehearsals begin.
Being able to work with choreographers like Dwight Rhodens, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, Michael Pink, Mark Diamond, Jeanene Russell and Heather Ferranti-Ferguson is a second important benefit of the program. “When I began studying at the School of American Ballet,” Associate Artistic Director Patricia McBride explains, “I was fourteen years old, the same age Jane and Lindsay are now, but I didn’t have the advantage of working with a company. All we had was class – which is great for developing technique – but for discovering yourself as an artist, developing artistry, working with choreographers on new pieces can’t be compared with any other way of studying dance. It’s simply the best.”
It’s also a good way to find out if a career in dance is what you really want. “Our students live and breathe dance all day long,” Darleen Callaghan says, “and are fully prepared for employment in this profession – as performers and teachers, choreographers, program directors – they’ve even been exposed to the advertising and marketing and fund-raising aspects of a dance organization. They understand what’s involved. Of course there are no guarantees. But there is a significant value in training at a school that is affiliated with a company, and an advantage in seeing dancers every day in rehearsal and performance. It’s a whole different exposure.”
Woodall and Yoon are discovering exactly what it’s like to work with a professional choreographer. “I love being with the professionals, having them as fellow students in my classes, and being able to learn from them, as my teachers,” says Woodall. Currently Mark Diamond is rehearsing the girls for a revival of his dynamic and trend-setting Allegro con molto, Yoon as an understudy and Woodall in the cast. Both young women are also performing in Ferranti-Ferguson’s and Russell’s new pieces, which will premiere at one of several dance events in the upcoming year: the Winter Festival of Dance, in Gastonia, North Carolina, The North Carolina Dance Festival in Winston-Salem, The North Carolina Choreography Showcase, and SERBA (the South Eastern Regional Ballet Association) in Raleigh. “It’s exciting to be chosen,” says Woodall, and the work is so interesting you forget how hard it is.”
Yoon shares a page of her diary, written on the day she found out she had gotten the part:
Mr. Diamond’s class went well this morning, apart from my knee pain. He has decided that he would like Pauline [Huron], Alyssa [Botelho], and me to understudy his piece, Allegro, and Lindsay has the opportunity to perform it. I feel incredibly privileged, and see it as a sign of his interest in us.
Diamond’s choice reveals NCDT’s confidence in the commitment these young people demonstrate. “Our mission is to offer serious dance students the opportunity to incorporate college-preparatory academics with excellent dance training,” Callaghan maintains. “So we look for kids who are not only motivated to pursue a career in dance, but who have the focus and the discipline to do the work.”
Right now, there are eleven students in the Conservatory, and another six in the University of North Carolina Charlotte Dance Certificate Program, a course of study that allows them to obtain a certificate in dance while earning a college degree. “There’s a historical advantage in training in North Carolina,” says Callaghan. “It’s been just great for dancers. We perform Balanchine repertory, and we’ve also worked with a large number of upcoming and established of choreographers. With generous state funding and all the NEA touring grants – in the eighties NCDT was the number one touring company in the U.S. – we’ve always been financially secure, and consequently the company is very stable. We don’t see a lot of turnover among the professionals.”
What does this stability mean for trainees who dream of a dance future with NCDT? “We encourage the Conservatory students to take advantage of opportunities to prepare for employment with a dance company,” Callaghan affirms. “Maybe it will be North Carolina, but often not. Conservatory students attend every summer program audition that’s held in our studios. We believe that such exposure can only benefit the dancer.
“When you work with a variety of teachers and directors, you broaden your horizons, and the more you’re seen, the more opportunities you’ll have to do just that. We never hold students back. What would be the point of that? When a school or company shows interest in one of our students, it’s an affirmation for us. We know we’re doing good work. And we take part in the student’s decision to move on. Are this student and this company a good match? We counsel, we recommend, and we work with the dancer’s family. People want to know how to get into big companies. This is the way it’s done.”
This past year, several NCDT students distinguished themselves with substantial moves. One accepted a contract with Houston Ballet’s second company. Another was offered a full scholarship to Miami City Ballet School. A third, only twelve years old, has moved to the year-round program at Canada’s National Ballet School. “These are the success stories that tell us how well we’re doing,” says Callaghan.
As for the immediate future, NCDT is looking to start construction of a new building with state-of-the-art studios, classrooms, a student center, comfortable dressing rooms, and possibly, dormitories. Currently, there is another plan afoot to establish dorm arrangements with a nearby community college. Yoon, an out-of-stater, lives with a host family, the Woodalls, which is a clear advantage for her and Lindsay, since they attend the same classes, and even study the same courses together through IU. But many people prefer the convenience of living in a dorm, an alternative that will soon become a viable choice for students at NCDT.
For more information about NCDT’s Conservatory Program and Indiana University High School’s Independent study Program, please contact Darleen Callaghan at (704) 372-0101.