Strict(ly) Ballet

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by Ellen Jacobs

When it comes to a college education, modern dancers generally have a bachelor’s degree securely in hand before ever setting foot on a professional stage. Not so ballet dancers. The demands of the art form require a college education be deferred. Most liberal arts colleges, even those without a degree program in modern dance, offer an array of modern dance courses, while a post-high school education for an aspiring ballet dancer is generally limited to conservatories such as Juilliard or the North Carolina School of the Arts. Is the difference based on a series of antiquated assumptions?  

At the University of Utah, former American Ballet Theater principal Michele Wiles is going about things differently; she is currently training students become professional ballet dancers as they simultaneously receive degrees in molecular biology, 17th century literature or electrical engineering.  And here is the symbiotic twist: In turn, the talented,  superbly trained students give Wiles a unique chance to develop creatively as a choreographer, free of the diversionary financial pressures of directing a New York-based dance company, as she did for over seven years after leaving ABT.

For Wiles, Utah provides a laboratory in which to work with top-flight dancers who can rapidly respond to her creative and technical demands with equal doses of physical and intellectual dexterity. 

In addition to the euphoric joys and profound rewards that come hand-in-hand with performing, the students experience the multiple demands and perils of a serious balletic career. The relentless challenges that accompany a life on stage are omnipresent as the students balance their traditional academics with the rigors of their dance training.

So, in addition to their morning Milton, Kierkegaard, Math 208, Physical Anthropology and European Intellectual History 1805–1898, they take technique and partnering classes followed by three-hour evening rehearsals, where they learn as many as four ballets at a time, many of them dances that Wiles is either is in the process of creating or has already choreographed.

Learning to reconcile these competing demands creates a well-lit pathway on which none of the difficulties, dangers and frustrations are hidden, ensuring the dancers’ eyes are wide open to the hard work, disappointments and frustrations, as well as the singular excitement, of their unique careers.

Wiles’ vision is to produce fully educated ballet dancers who are confident of their own intellectual powers as well as their physical prowess, dancers fully schooled in the inexorable rigors of a professional career in an art form intolerant of second best.

The dancers’ responses will be tested when they perform as Wiles’ reformed Ballet Next before a sophisticated New York public and and lineup of unforgiving critics at New York Live Arts in February (2019).