Houston Ballet Apprentice Eric Best Credits the Summer Intensive Program—and His Mentor, Lauren Anderson—With His Swift Progression Into Company Life
Lauren Anderson saw Eric Best dance for the first time in the summer of 2019. Then 15 years old, the Indianapolis native was in Los Angeles for a Debbie Allen Dance Academy intensive, where Anderson, Houston Ballet’s legendary, boundary-breaking ballerina, was visiting. “I thought, Wow, besides having very good training, he’s so natural at taking the stage, coordination, physicality, elegance, along with contemporary work,” recalls Anderson. “I was really impressed with the whole package.” Upon learning that Best’s goal was to become a classical dancer, Anderson encouraged him to audition for the Houston Ballet Academy. Little did she know that Best had attended Houston Ballet’s Summer Intensive Program in the past. “I wanted to go back to Houston because I’d really enjoyed it,” says Best. “So it was just perfect timing.”
Since then, Best’s trajectory through Houston Ballet’s training programs has been remarkably swift: In 2020, despite the restrictions put in place by the COVID-19 pandemic, he joined Houston Ballet Academy’s Professional Program as a virtual student, and in 2021—having proved himself via the confines of Zoom—he was promoted to Houston Ballet’s second company and attended the Summer Intensive Program in person for the second time. In August, Best, who only just celebrated his 20th birthday, was invited to join the main company as an apprentice, where he’s already taken the stage in a number of leading roles. Throughout it all, his relationship with Anderson has remained strong: Best is the first recipient of the Lauren Anderson Young Dancer Scholarship. “I’m definitely grateful for everything I’ve been able to do,” reflects Best. “It’s crazy how fast everything has moved.” Having grown up training in a small studio in Indiana, Best credits Houston Ballet’s Summer Intensive Program and its emphases on partnering, performance, and mental and emotional health with his meteoric rise and personal growth.
Pas de Deux Training
“What’s great about the intensive is that every day after your technique class you get experience in partnering,” says Anderson. While this is beneficial for male and female dancers alike, it’s a particular standout for male dancers, many of whom, like Best, come from schools with an uneven gender breakdown and few opportunities for partnering. When Best returned to the Summer Intensive Program in 2021, adjusting to pas de deux was his biggest challenge. “Being virtual for so long, I just didn’t get any of that,” he says. But the demanding class schedule, combined with specific men’s classes, weight training and body conditioning, helped bring him up to speed. “One thing that’s awesome about Houston Ballet’s Summer Intensive is if you’ve been there for, say, two summers, you’re partnering-ready. You’ve definitely improved a level at least on your partnering,” says Anderson, adding that Houston Ballet’s robust men’s program is one if its greatest strengths.
Preparation for Company Life
Pas de deux class is not the only element of the Summer Intensive Program that prepared Best for life as an apprentice. He had the chance to learn a wide range of classical and contemporary repertoire and rehearse it for an end-of-summer performance. “We model the intensive on what the company does,” says Anderson, noting that students learn excerpts from the classics, like Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty, plus work from a variety of choreographers, like Trey McIntyre, Oliver Halkowich and Houston Ballet artistic director Stanton Welch. “They definitely get a taste of what the company does. It’s not watered down.”
Best’s preparation allowed him to slip smoothly into the rigors of being in a professional company, including the unexpected bumps that come along the way. As a freshly minted apprentice, Best was supposed to dance in the second cast of Welch’s Red Earth this fall. “That was already a big deal as an apprentice, and I was a little nervous for that,” he says. But at the last minute another dancer got injured, and Best got moved into the first cast, complete with a brand-new partner. “I was like, ‘I’m young, I don’t know what I’m doing.’ But I really just tried to zone in and was like, ‘Okay, Eric. This is a great opportunity to show them that I’m able to step in and do a good job.’ ” After making it through five shows, Best was so proud of himself. Looking back now, he sees how the work ethic and performance preparation instilled in him at Houston Ballet Academy and its Summer Intensive Program made this leap possible.
The Whole Dancer
When asked why he was eager to return to Houston Ballet’s Summer Intensive after his first turn in 2018, Best immediately cites the school’s culture of care. “Everybody cared about everybody,” he says. “Teachers were always checking up, making sure that everything’s okay with us physically and mentally. I thought that was really special.” This is in part due to Houston Ballet’s partnership with Houston Methodist Hospital. Not only does the company employ two athletic trainers, who tend to the dancers’ physical needs in the conditioning studio, but there is also a nutritionist on staff and mental health professionals on call. “We have all the things to help the complete human, not just the ballet dancer,” says Anderson. And, indeed, the approach has worked. Over the past five years, Anderson has seen enormous growth in Best, both inside the studio and out. “He’s totally different. It gives me confidence that what we’re doing at Houston Ballet is the right thing,” she says. “After all, I’m a product of Houston Ballet Academy. It works. And that makes me very proud.”
For more information on Houston Ballet Academy’s Summer Intensive Program, including how to audition, click here.