A Real Dose of Company Life: Atlanta Ballet’s Professional Intensive Treats Students Like Professionals

Sponsored by Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education
January 4, 2022

Ballet training stresses technique and routine. From rote curriculums to strict dress codes, student programs can feel regimented—even contrary to the self-directed company life that awaits advanced dancers.

That’s how things were for Brooke Gilliam until she attended Atlanta Ballet’s Professional Intensive in the summer of 2015. From the first day, getting to wear whatever she wanted in class came to signify the program’s greatest benefit and challenge: In the Professional Intensive, she was being treated like an actual professional. “They really pushed me to find my own individuality and artistry,” she says, “in dancing, in what you wear and how you present yourself.”

The program launched Gilliam onto her professional track. After two summers in the intensive, she was invited to attend Atlanta Ballet’s Centre for Dance Education on scholarship and went on to join the second company and then the main company. While many schools boast such career development, Atlanta Ballet’s Professional Intensive is the rare intimate program offering students true, intensive coaching and guidance.

Brooke Gilliam, in purple pants and a tank top, balances on relevé with her right leg extended à la seconde. She is dancing on an outdoor stage at night with trees in the background.
Atlanta Ballet’s Brooke Gilliam. Photo by Kim Kenney, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet

Beyond Technique Class

In her years as an educator, Sharon Story, dean of Atlanta Ballet’s Centre for Dance Education, found that summer intensive programs’ focus on technique above all else was doing older students a disservice. “They were just taking classes all day long, which is good. You always need to enhance your basic technique,” she says, but “getting them into the studio to actually rehearse, work on their artistry, have coaching and working with ballet masters, that is very rare.”

A highly selective program accepting only 25 dancers per year, ages 18 to 22 (with some advanced 16- and 17-year-olds accepted), the Professional Intensive offers more than just a taste of company life. Morning class is followed by a full plate of rehearsal, repertory and new choreography, followed by a performance at the end of five weeks. Professional Intensive students are accepted through the annual summer audition tour, this season conducted in person, and can opt into room and board at nearby Georgia Tech.

Company ballet master Rory Hohenstein serves as one of the rotating teachers throughout the program, taking on the role of teacher and coach. He believes that the contemporary work students are exposed to in the Professional Intensive is particularly important for this age group, and it’s not something dancers will get from classical ballet training alone. “Sometimes you just have to feel awkward or ugly,” he says. “You’re going to be asked to take yourself off your leg, drop your weight, roll through your spine, put breath into your rib cage.”

The repertory taught in the Professional Intensive closely mirrors what the main company performs. Students often learn ballets recently performed that season, with the company asking its world-class guest choreographers permission to set their work on the students. In 2022, Atlanta Ballet dancers will set original choreography on the Professional Intensive cohort, an experience many dancers won’t have until they’re a few years into their professional careers.

Professional Pathways

With such close connections between the Professional Intensive and the company, the program serves as a natural recruiting ground. Like Gilliam, multiple alumni have gone on to the school’s advanced school levels, Atlanta Ballet 2 and the main company. Story says that the artistic director leaves a few Atlanta Ballet 2 spots unfilled entering the summer months to evaluate its Professional Intensive dancers.

Brooke Gilliam crouches low to the ground with her right bare leg extended sideways. She is in a dance studio and wearing a long maroon dress and whipping the skirt's fabric around her torso.
For Brooke Gilliam, now a member of Atlanta Ballet, attending the Professional Intensive set her on a pathway to joining the main company. Photo by Kim Kenney, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet

Those spots are coveted, but Story reassures that it isn’t a cutthroat environment. “The whole goal is to give them an experience of evolution and empowerment. We’re here to have them grow.” What’s more, the evaluation is a two-way street. The professional atmosphere gives the dancers a chance to see if Atlanta Ballet—as a company, city and culture—would be right for them. If it’s not the right fit? Story will actively recommend strong dancers from the Professional Intensive to her colleagues at other ballet programs and companies.

Aspiration to Self-Discovery

Gilliam progressed from learning ballets in the Professional Intensive—choreography that she’d only previously seen on YouTube—to performing them as a professional dancer. And Story has seen things crystallize for summer students in other ways. “I’ve had dancers come in really wanting to be a professional dancer, and then they see what it takes and decide ‘You know? This isn’t really for me.’ So it helps them make the decision either way.”

Ultimately, faculty members are invested in facilitating self-discovery, no matter students’ paths. “I try to at least once a week have a 20-minute conversation with them, just checking in,” Hohenstein says. He invites students to open up about the experience and in turn ask questions they have about company life, like auditioning and working with choreographers. It’s exactly the kind of guidance he would have liked to have had on the cusp of his professional career.

Most importantly, Gilliam’s experience in Atlanta Ballet’s Professional Intensive renewed her conviction that she wanted the life of a professional ballet dancer and everything that comes with it—something that’s easy to lose sight of as a student training day in and day out. “It reminded me, as much as you give to this art form, it gives so much back to you,” she says.

Audition and Attend

Auditions for the Professional Intensive, additional summer programs and Atlanta Ballet 2 will be conducted at one of seven in-person audition dates throughout the Northeast, South and Central regions, January 8–February 20, 2022.

Learn more and register here. Some absentee video auditions will be accepted. Email questions to [email protected].