Start Your Journey From Student to Pro at The Sarasota Ballet’s Summer Intensive

Sponsored by The Sarasota Ballet
January 10, 2024

When current Sarasota Ballet coryphée Willa Frantz auditioned for Sarasota Ballet’s Summer Intensive at age 15, she didn’t plan to stay with the company for the next five years. But something about that first audition class, taught by Sarasota Ballet’s education director Christopher Hird, made Frantz feel remarkably close to her goal of dancing professionally. “I remember him giving great corrections, which is rare in auditions,” she says.

Hird, who worked at both The Royal Ballet School and Boston Ballet School prior to joining Sarasota in 2016, would in fact provide the first stepping stone on Frantz’s journey from summer student to main company member. “He pulled me aside after the audition and told me that if I came to the intensive there was a good chance I’d be invited to the Trainee Program. So I took a chance on it, and obviously it worked out very well,” Frantz recounts.

The Summer Intensive as a Bridge to Year-Round Training

Willa Frantz in Coppélia as a student. Photo by Frank Atura, Courtesy The Sarasota Ballet.

Located on Florida’s sunny Gulf Coast, The Sarasota Ballet is a close-knit community with a broad reach. Its Trainee Program, housed within the Margaret Barbieri Conservatory, and Studio Company prepare the next generation of promising professionals for careers with The Sarasota Ballet or other companies. The summer intensive is designed to be the perfect access point to these year-round programs. Whether students attend for two, three, or five weeks, dancers have the opportunity to experience everything the company has to offer, from classes with current company members to performing on the same stage as the professionals at the end of the summer.

Frantz’s first summer intensive experience was vital in preparing her technique and stamina for the demands of full-time training. “I learned repertoire from main company members, including the work of Sir Frederick Ashton, which is very important to the company,” Frantz shares. “I also got to know all of the full-time teachers, which made it feel natural to stay on as a trainee.” Currently, about half of the Trainee Program’s students have come through the summer intensive.

A Robust Curriculum With Classical Roots

Summer students take classes in classical and modern techniques, pas de deux, musical theater, mime, and jazz funk. “We carefully train pure, classical ballet with good placement and alignment, but we also stress the importance of how you interpret the artistry,” Hird says. “With this approach, we often see students who we wouldn’t have considered before suddenly blossom over the summer and we invite them to be a Trainee.”

Willa Frantz in Richard House’s Tomorrow’s Dust

Education faculty member Alberto Blanco echoes this sentiment of how growth unfolds in real time over a summer at The Sarasota Ballet. “When students first arrive from all different schools and types of training, everything’s fresh and new. And then as the weeks progress, you see their bodies absorb the movement. Towards the end of the program, you see the concepts you were talking about in the first week,” he says. “It’s great to train under one teacher, but going out elsewhere and even just grasping a different way of moving, or different styles, is so good for their training.”

Dancers are also encouraged to develop their mental resilience for the challenges of professional dance life through programming provided by Artists Becoming, an initiative run by Shelby Elsbree and Jessica Cohen, both former professional dancers. “Every summer they do a lecture on mental wellness for the dancers with no other faculty present, so students have the chance to express themselves freely,” says Hird. Year-round students are also connected with Artists Becoming to receive one-on-one counseling whenever necessary.

A Pathway to a Company Contract

Willa Frantz and Richard House in George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments. Photo by Frank Atura, Courtesy The Sarasota Ballet.

After her first summer at Sarasota Ballet and two years in the Conservatory’s Trainee Program, Frantz was promoted to The Sarasota Ballet Studio Company. “I started getting a stipend, so I finally felt like a professional dancer,” she says. “It was the perfect bridge to the main company—I was able to take class, rehearse, and perform with them, but continue my Conservatory training in the meantime.” During this time, Frantz also participated in an exchange with the Royal Danish Ballet School. “I got to spend a few weeks in Copenhagen learning the Bournonville style, which was very helpful last season in main company, when we performed La Sylphide.”Currently, The Sarasota Ballet has partnerships with both the Royal Danish Ballet School and Canada’s National Ballet School.

By the time Frantz joined The Sarasota Ballet’s main company in 2022, she already had a confident grasp of its rehearsal process, knowledge of its repertoire, and thriving relationships with the artistic staff and her fellow dancers. “What I love most about The Sarasota Ballet is the supportive environment,” says Frantz. “From that first summer intensive, I’ve always been encouraged to try new ideas and make mistakes without the pressure to be perfect, which helped me grow a lot.”

Spend Your Summer in Sarasota

Former Trainee Jason Shuman, now with Pennsylvania Ballet 2. Photo by Matthew Holler, Courtesy The Sarasota Ballet.

Hoping to follow in Frantz’s footsteps? Audition dates for The Sarasota Ballet’s Summer Intensive continue through February 17. “We’re pleased to be part of the National Summer Intensive Audition (NSIA) collective of 14 professional schools,” says Hird, “so students can also be considered virtually for other programs when they attend our upcoming audition in Sarasota on January 21.” Hird, who teaches at most of the auditions himself, advises dancers to approach his class with an open mind and a spirit of collaboration. “I do like to give corrections to see how dancers react,” he says. “I’m not looking for a finished product, but students who are present, open, and demonstrate a clear love for dance.”

And for younger dancers ages 9 to 11, Sarasota Ballet’s inaugural Junior Intensive is the perfect primer for summer training, with no audition required. “We are excited to offer this new program, with the goal of giving young dancers their first taste of a summer intensive experience,” says Hird.