Six Pros Share How They Went from Summer Study to Company Contract

December 18, 2019

It’s every young dancer’s fantasy: Attend a summer intensive, dazzle the artistic staff with your flawless technique, land a company contract, and grand-jeté into the sunset.

If only it were that simple, right? But while the intensive-to-company path isn’t all that well traveled, it does exist. You may need to trade the words “company contract” for “second-company contract,” “apprenticeship,” or even “traineeship.” At the end of the day, though, summer intensives are a great first step on the path toward the job of your dreams: They’re a place to improve your dancing, get the feel of a company, and introduce yourself to the directors who could potentially hire you.

We caught up with six pros who followed the summer-intensive-to-dream-job route to get the inside scoop on how to give yourself a fighting chance at that coveted end-of-summer offer.

Alonzo King LINES Ballet company member Maya Harr (RJ Muna, courtesy Alonzo King LINES Ballet)

Maya Harr: Alonzo King LINES Ballet

When Maya Harr attended the Alonzo King LINES Ballet summer program in 2016, she was in an enviable position: She’d already been offered traineeships at both LINES and Ballet West for the following fall. Having attended Ballet West’s summer intensive twice before, she was using this final summer to help her make a decision about where she should be the next year. The LINES summer program sold her on the company. Shortly after starting her traineeship, she was offered a full company contract.

On knowing LINES Ballet was the place for her:
“I went to the LINES summer intensive thinking the company might be where I belonged. One of my biggest mentors growing up was Kristina Windom, who danced with LINES in the ’90s. Over the course of that summer I fell in love with the motivation, the training, and the people I met there.”

On giving herself the best possible shot at a contract:
“It wasn’t my intention to get a contract directly out of the summer program. In my mind that wasn’t even a possibility! I just wanted to be in the LINES environment, and to work and grow as an artist. I used it as an opportunity to break out of my classical shell, and to learn how to express myself in a new way.”

Her advice for anyone hoping to follow in her footsteps:
“Summer intensives are a great opportunity to show the artistic staff what you’re capable of. More importantly, they’re a great chance for you to grow. Respond to what you’re taught. Showing that you can take corrections will demonstrate that you could be an asset to the company.”

Paul Suzi (front) at Boston Ballet’s summer intensive (Igor Burlak, courtesy Boston Ballet)

Paul Suzi: Boston Ballet II

Paul Zusi’s story is fairy-tale magical. On the second-to-last day of Boston Ballet’s 2019 summer dance program, Zusi had just finished the first of four program-ending performances when Peter Stark, associate director of Boston Ballet II, requested he follow him to the office of Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen. “I kept thinking, ‘There is no way this is happening right now,’ ” says Zusi. Nissinen congratulated him on a beautiful performance, and immediately offered him a contract with Boston Ballet II, starting that fall.

On knowing Boston Ballet II was the place for him:
“Boston Ballet’s reputation and diverse repertoire caught my eye. But I had no sense of what the company would actually feel like until I began the summer program. That experience showed me this really was what I wanted.”

On lessons learned from the intensive:
“Early on, I decided to be the most focused and determined person at the intensive. In reality, I was just the most uptight person at the intensive! Eventually, I realized I needed to relax, and to see corrections as a good thing, rather than evidence that I was failing.”

His advice for anyone hoping to follow in his footsteps:
“Establish good relationships with your teachers, give your all in technique class, and be smart. Taking care of your body is a big part of being in a professional company. They need to see that you can be responsible.”

Ailey II dancer Jamaris Mitchell (Nir Arieli, courtesy Ailey II)

Jamaris Mitchell: Ailey II

For Jamaris Mitchell, who’s in her first season with Ailey II, attending the company’s summer intensive made all the difference. After participating in the program for multiple summers, she was awarded an apprenticeship with Ailey II in 2018, and one year later, she officially joined the second company. “When I found out I got it, I wanted to scream, and cry, and yell, and laugh all at the same time,” she says. “After all these years of dreaming, I finally did it.”

On knowing Ailey II was the place for her:
“When I was 6 years old, Ailey II artistic director Troy Powell did a master class in Syracuse, NY. It was my introduction to modern technique, and I ate it up. Once I saw the company dance in person, it was hard for me to think about anything else. I begged my mother constantly until I was old enough to attend the summer intensive. I came hoping it would eventually lead me to a contract—I think everyone at the summer program feels that way—and it worked.”

On giving herself the best possible shot at a contract:
“First and foremost, I followed the rules. I went to class, I was attentive, and I soaked up all the knowledge I could from my teachers. I also took advantage of the program advisor assigned to me during the experience. I talked with them about my goals, and they gave me advice for how to make them happen. They taught me how to present myself, how to work with choreographers, how to audition—and I listened.”

Her advice for anyone hoping to
follow in her footsteps:
“Make friends. The program is very demanding, just as the company is demanding. The friendships you make will get you through it. They’re your support system, and will be a big part of your eventual success.”

Jackie Aitken (center) with her fellow Radio City Rockettes (Angela Cranford, courtesy MSG Photos)

Jackie Aitken: Radio City Rockettes

In August 2014, Jackie Aitken, who’d attended the Rockettes Summer Intensive a few months earlier, was performing at the Moulin Rouge in Paris. During intermission one night, she took a moment to check her email, and what she found brought her to tears: She’d landed a contract with the Radio City Rockettes. She was so excited she could barely compose herself in time to finish the show. She’d long dreamed of joining the troupe, but had never imagined her time would come so quickly.

On knowing the Rockettes was the place for her:
“During my week at RSI, I was taught by the Rockettes, and given the chance to perform their numbers at Radio City Music Hall. When I actually got to do their choreography, I gained an appreciation for their precision, and it made me realize that this job was exactly what I wanted.”

On giving herself the best possible shot at a contract:
“There is no time to waste at RSI! I tried to always think on my feet, follow the directions of the teachers and enjoy myself.”

Her advice for anyone hoping to follow in her footsteps:
“I have come full circle and now teach RSI myself. What I want to see is dancers who are dedicated and hardworking, who have good energy, and who do their homework. We notice the girls who go home and practice and come back prepared.”

Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Kyle Davis in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Don Quixote” (Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB)

Kyle Davis: Pacific Northwest Ballet

In 2008, Kyle Davis won the prestigious Prix de Lausanne competition, and was offered an apprenticeship with the Royal Ballet. But the previous year, he’d had a great experience at Pacific Northwest Ballet’s summer intensive, and he couldn’t shake the feeling that Seattle was where he belonged. On a whim, he called PNB’s offices and asked to be directed to artistic director Peter Boal, hoping Boal might remember him. “I thought to myself, ‘The worst thing he can say is no,’ ” Davis remembers. Davis asked if he could join PNB as an apprentice that fall. Though Boal didn’t have any spots open, he managed to work out a deal with the company’s board. Not long after, Boal called to offer Davis an apprenticeship. Davis was promoted to the corps de ballet in 2009, and to soloist in 2016.

On knowing PNB was the place for him:
“At the PNB summer intensive, I had a lot of technique and variation classes with Peter, and I really enjoyed working with him. The dancers in my class were exceptional, and I remember thinking, ‘If these are the types of dancers their summer intensive attracts, the caliber of the company dancers must be really good.’ ”

On giving himself the best possible shot at a contract:
“I didn’t just focus on myself. I understood that every dancer in the room was going to have something I wanted, and that I could learn from them. It could be the way they rotated their supporting leg to maintain turnout, or the way they came out of their jumps. If I’d been internally focused, I would’ve missed the chance to learn.”

His advice for anyone hoping to follow in his footsteps:
“Show up and be present. It’s not enough to just be there on time. If the person at the front of the room sees that you aren’t really listening, there’s a good chance they won’t hire you.”

Houston Ballet soloist Hayden Stark (Claire McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet)

Hayden Stark: Houston Ballet

By the time Hayden Stark graduated high school in 2012, he’d auditioned for numerous ballet companies without success. Discouraged but not ready to give up, he attended Houston Ballet’s intensive that summer, determined to give it his all. And during the second-to-last week of the program, his efforts paid off: He was offered a position with Houston Ballet’s second company. One year later, he joined the first company, and in 2017 he was promoted to soloist.

On knowing Houston Ballet was the place for him:
“I trained at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. While I was there, Houston’s summer program was strongly recommended—dancers always came back from there with better technique and better attitudes. I’d also heard that they had more short guys in the company, and since I’m 5′ 7″, that was a draw for me. I had attended summer programs with other companies before, but something about the rep I did that summer with Houston really sunk its teeth in me.”

On giving himself the best possible shot at a contract:
“I was focused on getting a contract from the moment the summer program started. I worked my butt off. I proved that I could pick up choreography quickly, which showed them that if they put me in the second company, they’d be able to throw me onstage at a moment’s notice.”

His advice for anyone hoping to follow in his footsteps:
“Don’t overdo it the first week. That might sound silly, but people always make that mistake. There’s always a handful of kids who go a little too hard the first week and end up getting injured and going home.”