Oklahoma City Ballet’s Yvonne Chouteau School: Where Excellence Meets Empathy and Opportunity
In March 2020, Oklahoma City Ballet’s Susan E. Brackett Dance Center went dark following the onset of the pandemic. March, April, and May passed, then Racheal Nye entered the building. Nye had been appointed director of the Oklahoma City Ballet Yvonne Chouteau School that May, and she came prepared. She flipped the lights on and hit the ground running, she says—and hasn’t stopped since.
“That July, we opened for in-person classes,” says Nye, “and in the fall of that year we started a brand-new program: our pre-professional Day Program.” Consisting of Day and Postgraduate levels, the program has grown substantially since its pilot year—so much so that the Yvonne Chouteau School acquired a neighboring building last year to accommodate all of its classes.
In 2021, Nye added a new BRIDGE Choreography Initiative for Postgraduate and Studio Company dancers, and expanded the school’s cross-training and supplementary education opportunities, from resumé writing to auditioning, dancer wellness, and more.
“Most of what I’m trying to accomplish here is based on high achievement and expectations, but also a high level of empathy,” says Nye. “Everything has to do with empowering our students and equipping them with what they realistically need to be successful and happy.”
Meeting a Variety of Needs: Robust Year-Round Programming
Day Program student Talitha Barrington sees that mission come to life in the studio. A former competition-studio dancer, Barrington enrolled in the pre-professional Evening division in September 2019 and transitioned to the Day Program last year. “It was like it was a whole new world for me,” she says, citing the immediate increase in quality she saw in her training. “I’ve heard so many people talk about how it’s different from every other program that they’ve been in. It’s rigorous, and Ms. Nye takes special investment in every student she has; having that special connection helps us work as hard as we do because we know our teachers care about us.”
The Yvonne Chouteau School consists of two divisions: Pre-Professional (Evening, Day, and Postgraduate) and Professional (Trainee and Oklahoma City Ballet II). The programs are tailored to meet the variety of advanced dancers’ needs. All pre-professional students have the opportunity to audition to perform alongside Oklahoma City Ballet in its main-stage productions, a feature that Barrington, 16, points to as a highlight: “I’ve been an Angel and a Flower in Nutcracker, and I’ve understudied for Snow. In Sleeping Beauty, I was a Lilac Fairy attendant, and right now I’m even understudying Balanchine’s Western Symphony, which is major!”
The Evening Program, designed for students ages 3 to 18, offers comprehensive after-school training in ballet, pointe, men’s, jazz, and additional genres. Students who are in search of additional classes and training hours may alternatively consider the Day Program, which is by audition or invitation only and runs weekdays from 8:45 am to 2 pm. Day Program students, who complete their academics through homeschool or online study, also take specialized classes like Pilates, conditioning, and career-focused seminars.
Olivier Muñoz, principal faculty and director of the Men’s Program, emphasizes the difference these supplemental classes have made in just a year. “I can’t speak highly enough about how good it is for students to be exposed to strengthening work like this,” he says. “The progress has been amazing—amazing. And with these career seminars, they are more prepared than I ever was.”
The second highest level of the Professional Division in the Yvonne Chouteau School is its tuition-based Trainee Program. In addition to regular classes and seminars, trainees rehearse and perform company repertoire and works created specifically for them; they also participate in the BRIDGE Choreography Initiative and have the opportunity to take class alongside Oklahoma City Ballet II and main company dancers. This is an opportunity Muñoz sees as a source of improvement among the Men’s Program dancers: “It challenges students to look up to the older dancers. It’s a special kind of learning, and the progress we’ve seen has been huge.”
Dancers in OKCB II, the uppermost level of the Professional Division, receive a stipend for the duration of the school season and are highly integrated into company work. These dancers take class with the main company three days a week and are often eligible for casting in main-stage productions; when they are not rehearsing with the company, they attend Studio Company classes. OKCB II also performs in several community-engagement performances and participates in the BRIDGE Choreography Initiative. Currently, 17 of the 27 main company members are Studio Company or Yvonne Chouteau School alumni.
Finding New Pathways Through the BRIDGE Choreography Initiative
In addition to the Professional Division’s full roster of classes, the BRIDGE Choreography Initiative teaches dancers to put on a fully produced production and gain experience working in backstage elements like choreography, marketing, stage management, and more. Though it is akin to experiences offered at some BFA programs around the country, it’s a rare opportunity for dancers in a company school. The program developed from Nye’s desire to arm Studio Company dancers with additional industry skills. “Even if it’s just an understanding and appreciation for the other parts of what it takes to put a ballet together or run a ballet organization,” she says, “it will expand the dancers’ pathways.”
Each year, students complete a survey about their interests in departments related to ballet, and they are paired with a staff member to shadow. The dancers work together to build a production from the ground up, performing it in the company’s black-box theater. “It’s my favorite program,” says Nye. “The building buzzes with positive, promising energy, and dancers realize talents in themselves they didn’t know existed.”
An Intimate Summer Intensive Experience
On top of its robust year-round programs, Oklahoma City Ballet offers a standout summer intensive experience that emphasizes student–faculty connection. “My personal goal is to learn every student’s name within the first week,” says Nye. “We aim to know each dancer individually.”
With class sizes of around 20 to 25 students, summer intensive dancers receive individualized attention and specific training. “You can work much more in detail,” says Muñoz, “and the students can learn much better from us. I feel it even as a teacher; it’s much more rewarding.”
Barrington agrees. “I love the summer intensive. Clearly—I’m still here! And so are a lot of my friends who attended last year.”
Putting Oklahoma City on the Map
At the end of the day, Nye believes that unique blending of rigorous training and empathy at Oklahoma City Ballet’s Yvonne Chouteau School strives to rival the training offered on the East Coast and the West Coast—and even internationally.
“I would love for people to know that there is a way to approach training that empowers students,” she says. “There is a very high level of investment here; we eat, sleep, and breathe our commitment to our dancers. It’s what we live for.”
If you’re ready to take your training to the next level at Oklahoma City Ballet’s Yvonne Chouteau School, visit the school’s website to learn more about program offerings and registration.