What it's Like to Dance at Juilliard

June 23, 2008

Just like regular college kids, dance students at the elite Juilliard School hit the snooze buttons on their alarm clocks and complain about the cafeteria food. They also happen to work with some of the dance world’s heavyweights—they refer to William Forsythe as “Billy”—and perform renowned repertory.


Juilliard, which celebrates its 100th birthday this year, aims to train “fusion” dancers equally proficient in ballet and modern. Despite the serious façade, the school isn’t unnecessarily strict. “It was a lot less pretentious than I thought it was going to be,” says sophomore Riley Watts. “It has this huge ‘The Big J’ reputation, but it’s very, very supportive.”


Though for students, getting in is tough (about 20 dancers are accepted each year of the 300 to 400 who audition), the dance division’s doors are open to the public. Journalists, artists and other visitors frequently observe classes—and teachers will even pause between combinations to welcome them. “We’re really used to it,” says senior Corey Scott-Gilbert. “We sometimes call it the Juilliard Zoo, because so many people come to watch us.”


gives you an inside look at the lives of four dancers working toward their BFA during the 2004-2005 school year.

Freshman: Lucie Ford Baker

Born in:
Louisville, KY

Before Juilliard:
At age 7, when her family moved to Seattle, Lucie started training at Pacific Northwest Ballet. At 13, she went on to study ballet and Graham at Cornish College of the Arts’ preparatory dance division while attending The Bush School for academics.

College Decisions:
Deciding as a high school senior that she wasn’t ready for company life, Lucie applied to a bevy of small liberal arts colleges as well as three schools with conservatory-style programs: Juilliard, where she had attended a summer intensive, plus State University of New York at Purchase and New York University. “[My decision] depended on whether I got into Juilliard or not. If I was going to pursue a dance career, that’s where I really wanted to do it.”


Class Highlights:
Freshmen take a music theory course called Literature & Materials of Music (L & M) and Humanities 1, which is similar to English class. Dance courses include Elements of Performing, Alexander Technique and Composition 1.


Year in Review:
Every school year begins with preparations for the New Dances Concert, in which professional choreographers create or restage a work for each class. Lucie and her classmates worked with Janis Brenner, who restaged her work heartSTRINGS. “That was the first time our class got to work together; we were still getting to know each other,” Lucie says. “[Janis] told us that she was tentative about setting heartSTRINGS on us, because there’s a lot of intricate partnering work, and she didn’t know if we’d be able to handle it. But by the end, it wasn’t a problem. She was attentive to what we needed, and interested in engaging us.” Faculty member and former Limón dancer Risa Steinberg served as rehearsal director.


Freshmen are required to take Steinberg’s Elements of Performing course. “Her class was really important to us as freshmen, because we learned a lot of things you don’t necessarily get in a studio, like breaking through the fourth wall,” Lucie says. Freshmen also take Alexander technique—an alignment technique that aims release unnecessary tension in the body to prevent injury—which was a new experience for Lucie, who says that she relearned simple movements, like how to plié, stand, sit and tendu properly. “It changed my musculature, my rotation got better, and my feet looked better,” Lucie says. She also discovered and corrected unconscious habits, including a foot misalignment that caused her ankle pain.


In the early fall, Lucie, along with other first and second years, auditioned for Choreo-Comp and was cast in junior Kyra Green’s piece, You Can Hear Me See. “It was my first glimpse into the life of this school and its vibrancy,” Lucie says. “I was blown away.”


By Thanksgiving, Lucie was homesick. “I started missing everything that was familiar,” she says. Spending Thanksgiving break in Seattle quelled her homesickness, and she returned to NYC ready for her end-of-the-semester faculty conference, where each student meets with his or her teachers and dance division director Lawrence Rhodes, all at once to review their progress during the first term.


Lucie opened second semester by performing in Choreo-Comp, then moved on to Solos with Musicians, her first big assignment in Composition 1 class. Lucie’s solo to a cello accompaniment was so well-received that it was chosen by Rhodes and composition teacher Elizabeth Keen to be performed at the Choreographic Honors Concert later in the term. Also performed at this concert as a freshmen class tradition is José Limón’s Missa Brevis, which Lucie describes as “a beautiful group piece about hope and community.”


Second semester each year, sophomores, juniors and seniors gear up for the Spring Repertory Concert. First years don’t usually participate, but because the department plans to take the show on the centennial tour during the 2005-06 school year, select freshmen understudied the seniors; Lucie was chosen to understudy the third act of Forsythe’s Limb’s Theorem.

On Freshman Year:
“When you’re at Juilliard, you’re at Juilliard. Because you have to live at the dorms your first year, you never get away from Lincoln Center,” says Lucie. “My parents came to the November concert, and they were like, ‘You don’t know where we can go out to eat? You don’t know what we can do?’ and I’m like, ‘No, I haven’t been out, I haven’t really lived here yet!’ I hadn’t been out of the Upper West Side.”


Juilliard teachers are known for breaking down techniques during the first two years. “Freshman year, they start slow—they don’t throw a lot at you, and the classes are really basic. They break you down to build you back up again, and that’s frustrating for some. People are impatient [and want] to jump ahead, because you see all our peers doing such great work,” she says. “But by the end of the year, it’s nice to start moving again and realize how much progress you’ve made. Things that may have been challenging before you came are simple now, after you’ve removed all your extraneous habits.”

Sophomore: Riley Watts

Born in:
Glenburn, ME

Before Juilliard:
Riley started ballet at 10 when a small local studio, Thomas School of Dance, offered a free boys’ ballet class. Halfway through high school, a summer intensive at Joffrey Ballet School ignited a serious interest in dance. He transferred to Walnut Hill School as a midyear junior and, though plagued by knee injuries, spent a summer at ABT’s intensive.

College Decisions:
If he didn’t get into Juilliard, Riley planned to study French, political science or gender studies at a small liberal arts college like Bard, Sarah Lawrence or Bennington. “Because I could do other things besides dance, I knew I’d be happy anywhere,” he says. “But then I got into Juilliard, and I couldn’t say no to that.”

Class Highlights:
Sophomores take L & M 2, Humanities 2 and dance history, and may choose to take Composition 2.

Year in Review:
For the New Works Concert in November, Riley’s class worked with Susan Marshall to create Waking Memory. “Susan gave us a snippet of a movement idea [to] choreograph or improv off of. She’s a great editor—she takes pieces from everywhere and makes this amazing [work],” he says. “We felt very strongly about it, because we all owned it, and every single person contributed something.”


As a freshman, Riley was placed in the advanced ballet and men’s classes, so he spent his underclassmen years studying with mostly juniors and seniors. “I was flattered, but it was scary,” he says, citing Alphonse Poulin’s men’s ballet class. “Mr. Poulin is amazing, but he kicked my ass. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. If you’re not working hard, he’ll tell you.”


This year, Riley’s modern studies included Graham and Taylor techniques. “That’s been harder for me,” he says. “I’m more comfortable in classical and contemporary ballet.” Composition 2 was another challenge. “I learned a lot, but it was painful in the process, because you have to teach yourself to think in a completely different way. I thought I knew how to choreograph, and I apparently didn’t,” he says. Despite his internal struggle, he was one of only six sophomores chosen to choreograph for Choreo-Comp this coming fall. “The [faculty] decided I had the right skills—[the ability] to work with a group and be organized and timely. I’m a little surprised I got it, actually. I’m not all that confident in choreography, but I like doing it and I think it’s good for my brain.”


The highlight of Riley’s sophomore year came second term, when he was cast in Forsythe’s Limb’s Theorem III for the Spring Repertory Concert. “I am a huge William Forsythe fan. The closest to a spiritual experience I had in dance was when I saw Boston Ballet do [his piece] In the middle, somewhat elevated. I had never seen anything like it before, and it clicked that that’s [the kind of work] I wanted to do,” he says.


Riley also spent part of the year dancing with Medhi Bahiri and Judith Fugate’s Ballet NY. When Bahiri asked director Rhodes for a male dancer to perform the Russian dance in the Nutcracker, Rhodes recommended Riley, even though Juilliard students are usually discouraged from participating in outside dance projects, simply because there isn’t time. Riley performed with Ballet NY during its three-week July season at NYC’s Joyce Theater. “I started rehearsing with them in late April after my academic classes, so I missed a little bit of school and that probably wasn’t a good idea,” Riley says. “It was stressful. I’d have a full day of class and then a four-hour rehearsal, and then I’d come back [to Juilliard] and have a performance at night.”


Working alongside the pros while still in school has put Riley’s training to the test. “Juilliard’s motto is ‘defining professionalism,’ and it’s kind of cheesy, but it’s true. I’ve learned a lot about being professional in rehearsal, in dealing with other dancers and talking to directors,” Riley says.

On Sophomore Year:
“You have more responsibility, and you’re not the baby of the school anymore, so you have even more expectations. [You do] bigger pieces with the older students,” Riley says. “I think everyone agrees that second year is the most stressful year,” he adds. “You start to realize that you may think differently than how you thought you did. When you become more career-oriented and decide what you do and don’t want to do, it doesn’t always mesh with the classes you have to take.”

Junior: Harumi Terayama
Born in:
Osaka, Japan

Before Juilliard:
Harumi has trained in classical ballet since age 6. She attended many competitions in Japan, and at 15, competed at Prix de Lausanne. “It was great, and the first time I thought I wanted to go abroad and study,” she says. “I only made it until the semifinals, but it was enough to dance on the raked stage.” In high school, she attended Boston Ballet’s summer program. Her last year and a half of high school was spent training at the Walnut Hill School.

College Decisions:
Harumi’s first taste of modern was at age 13 at a Graham technique workshop held at her studio and taught by Juilliard teacher Kazuko Hirabayashi. “I had no idea it was Graham. I just knew it was modern, and that we were down on the floor,” Harumi recalls. Wanting to learn more contemporary styles, She applied to Juilliard and SUNY Purchase. Accepted into SUNY Purchase and waitlisted at Juilliard, she put her decision on hold a few weeks until she heard she got into Juilliard.

Class Highlights:
Juniors take Anatomy and Stagecraft & Production. As an international student, Harumi took English her first year, and Humanities 1 and 2 her second and third years.

Year in Review:
Harumi and her classmates started the term working with Ronald K. Brown for the New Works Concert. Juniors take Stagecraft & Production, a demanding class in which students learn technical components of producing a dance concert, including sound, lighting, videography and set design. The juniors were stage managers and tech crew for all workshop performances during the school year. For the Senior Production in May, each third-year student served as a lighting designer for one piece, and a lighting board operator for another. “I was told by the seniors that I was never going to feel like I was ready [for the show],” Harumi says. “We hung all the lights in the theater in two days. We had load-in one day, and stayed until 2 am to hang the lights and focus [all of them].”


Not surprisingly, technical knowledge has changed the way she thinks about performance. “When I think of a piece now, I think of the production, not just the dancing,” she says. “I think, OK, there’s a cue for lighting here, and oh, we have to cut the music here, that kind of stuff.”


Improvisation was especially new to Harumi. “Sometimes we have to improv in class, and I had never done that before. I had no idea what to do. I would just walk and run around the studio,” she says, laughing. “As I learned more modern vocabulary and worked with other people, I got more comfortable.”


This year she put her improv skills to the test, performing Forsythe’s Limb’s Theorem for the Spring Repertory Concert. Jill Johnson, a longtime dancer with Forsythe, served as rehearsal director and taught the students choreography from the ballet’s first and second acts, to be used as fodder for the 25-minute third act, which is 80 percent improvised and inspired by the architecture of Daniel Libeskind.


Realizing that graduation is nearing, Harumi spent her spring break in Europe, scouting companies she’d like to join, including Nederlands Dans Theater and Introdans as well as companies in Switzerland and Barcelona.

On the Junior Class:
“We are pretty close. There is a lot of competition between us, but in a good way. There are so many inspiring people in my class.”

Senior: Corey Scott-Gilbert
Born in:
Arlington, TX

Before Juilliard:
A self-proclaimed military brat, Corey has lived in Hawaii; Fort Lee, VA; Augsburg, Germany; Fort Hood, TX; and Baltimore. “I wanted to be a gymnast when I was 5, and there was a leisure center on every [military] base with recreation for kids. My mom signed me up on the list for ballet instead because gymnastics was full,” he explains. “I hated it. I don’t even think I made it through the barre.” He picked up dance again at age 12 in Texas (because he had a crush on a friend taking a jazz class) where further dance training lead to a summer scholarship at Ballet Austin. In 10th grade, he and his mother moved to Baltimore so he could attend the Baltimore School of the Arts. He also spent two summers at the School of American Ballet and one at Miami City Ballet.

College Decisions:
Corey didn’t want to go to Juilliard, or any college at all. “I was really into Balanchine at the time; really, I was a bunhead,” he says with a chuckle. “I totally thought I was going to enter a company at 18 and stay there.” But his mother insisted he audition for Marymount Manhattan College and Juilliard. He didn’t take the auditions seriously and partied the night before. Despite not feeling his best the morning of the audition, Corey was accepted to Juilliard, which still didn’t sway his one-track mind: “I got into Oakland Ballet my senior year and I really, really, really wanted to do that,” he says. His mother and teachers urged him to give Juilliard a try. Though reluctant, he agreed. Not surprisingly, his attitude has changed completely. “Of course, now I’m like, ‘Thank god I went to Juilliard.’ I was stupid and young.”

Class Highlights:
Seniors take Senior Seminar, acting, and liberal arts electives like art history or a foreign language.

Year in Review:
Participating in the New Dances Concert was an especially big deal for Corey and his classmates, who worked with Robert Battle and rehearsal director Elisa Clark to create a new work to a score by John Mackey. “The fourth-year piece is always the last piece [on the program], and everyone expects you to be amazing because you’re the fourth-years,” he says.


In December, seniors interested in working in Europe (which is often the majority, Corey says) travel there during semester break. Though trips are individually arranged and funded, faculty help seniors plan and make contact with companies. Seniors often meet up while in Europe, but it’s in their best interests to travel solo. Corey explains: “Especially if you’re a girl, you don’t want to go with another girl who looks just like you and dances just like you and is trained just like you. If you’re going in a group, you don’t go with people who look like you.” Luckily, at 6’4″, that’s one problem Corey didn’t have to worry about. With his super slender frame and long, lanky limbs, “everyone thinks I’m [even] taller,” he says.


For Corey’s Europe trip, he attended the Monaco Dance Forum’s First Job Audition, where selected dancers receive an all-expense paid trip to Monaco to audition before a gaggle of artistic directors. While abroad, he also visited Lyon Opera Ballet, whose director had shown interest in him since he took a company class during LOB’s stint at Brooklyn Academy of Music a year earlier. “The director, Yorgos Loukos, called Juilliard and was like, ‘I need that tall boy,’” Corey says. Loukos eventually offered Corey a yearlong contract starting in August 2005.


Like second- and third-years, seniors audition for casting in the March concert in late January. Corey was placed in the Forsythe group along with Harumi and Riley. “It’s our benefit concert, and it’s also the show where they bring in the big dogs—the big choreographers. Of course my jaw dropped when I heard we had William Forsythe,” he says. Though most of the work was done with rehearsal director Jill Johnson, Corey says, “Billy came in for a weekend and changed all of our lives. Before that, we were all like, ‘can’t we just do this show and get it over with?’ But on that Monday [after], we were all like, ‘Oh my gosh, dancing is amazing.’” Corey was especially impressed with how young at heart Forsythe is—he even did the Harlem Shake during rehearsals.


After the March concert is over, seniors dedicate the next three weeks to Senior Production, a concert all their own that is the culmination of Senior Seminar. “It teaches you how to write grants, talk to business people, ask for donations, budget a show, write a bio, what’s good in a headshot—basically everything to make sure you look professional at an audition,” Corey explains. Students manage every detail of the production, from whether they want scrims onstage to fundraising and house managing.


Directly on the heels of the school’s Choreographic Honors Concert is the last show of the year: “Senior Concert—dun-dun-duuun,” Corey says dramatically. The seniors take the stage one final time to perform solos or duets, choreographed by the artist of their choice, pending approval by Rhodes. It’s each senior’s responsibility to find a choreographer to work with. “As a Juilliard student, you make so many connections just by being in the program. People start to know who you are. It’s your job as a senior to [approach a choreographer and say], ‘Will you work with me?’ And they rarely say no, because, of course, you pick someone you’ve obviously had a connection with.” Corey wanted to perform a Forsythe duet with classmate and “dance soulmate” Cynthia Welik, and Forsythe and rehearsal director Jill Johnson decided the two should dance Approximate Sonata. “It’s about two people interacting with each other. Jill explains it as ‘an intimate counter session,’ like at the kitchen table. And Cindy and I have so many of those moments that we just knew it was the perfect piece for us.”

On Senior Year:
“You’re so much more aware fourth year of not only what’s going on in that moment, but what’s going on in the entire dance world. First year, you’re still focused on the stupid things, like ‘what part is so-and-so getting?’ There’s a maturity level that you reach where it’s not all just about who’s doing what. It’s a focus on yourself, within this body of people.”


Students depend on each other to get through the physical and mental challenges of Juilliard’s intense program. Like any school, not everyone makes it: Corey’s class started with more than 20 students and ended with 16. “The people who left either got kicked out or decided to leave, or got offered jobs and decided to take them,” he says. “It’s impossible to get through Juilliard alone. You have to cling to someone; you need a support system. Even [with] the people that you don’t get along with, there’s a feeling of camaraderie because you’ve made it. Especially my class—we went through a lot. Our second day of school was 9/11, then [former dance director Benjamin] Harkarvy died. Sarah Fox, a drama major, was murdered. A lot kept pulling us together. As an individual, these people have helped me grow so much that I would be a completely different person without them.”