Posts Tagged ‘Ben Stevenson Academy’


Developing a Dancer’s Toolbox: Setting the Stage

July 20, 2011

Guest writer: Jaclyn Youngblood, Academy intern

Arts and crafts aren’t just for elementary school children. Half of the Level 8 students, the highest level at Houston Ballet’s Summer Intensive Program, are taking Set Design for their career studies class. Like its partner course, Costume Design, the Set Design class aims to introduce students to other aspects—beyond exceptional dancing—of producing a world-class ballet.

Thomas Boyd, Director of Production and former dancer with Houston Ballet, teaches 21 students about the use of space, imagery, color, and the relationship between performer and environment—all essential elements of set design. In this case, that means enabling students to use the knowledge they’ve gained to create a 3D scale model of a set for a scene from a ballet, either Giselle or A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

As with the Costume Design class, students are designing through the lens of John Neumeier, renowned American choreographer and Artistic Director of the Hamburg Ballet.  Boyd said he guided the students through research of Neumeier’s style and had them brainstorm a few themes they saw in his set designs. “They noticed he is an unconventional designer, and he tries to represent the unexpected,” Boyd said.  Students incorporated nuances of Neumeier’s style into their designs by playing with elements out of scale, surrealism, and surprise.

Student Set Design of Giselle

In this model of a Giselle scene, the student team explores proportions relative to the figure of the dancer.

Boyd said the first few classes are designed to equip students with the “tools of the trade,” so by the third and fourth classes the students are already working on their models.  The students cut, glue, paint and design their models, paying attention to things like prop placement, the proportion of set elements relative to the dancers, and coloring as one moves upstage; that is, that elements get cooler as they recede from the front of the stage.

Ellen (VA) and Shelby (NC), teammates who are designing Act I from Giselle, love the creative aspects of the class. “I like that the class is hands-on,” Ellen said. “It’s not like we’re just hanging out in chairs getting lectured.” Shelby has enjoyed using a different part of her brain during the Set Design class. “It’s nice to have a change of pace from the intensely physical routine of our classes,” she said.

Student Set Design - Tree

Students use watercolors and markers to create the standing set elements for their models.

The students will present their work to one another during tomorrow’s last Set Design class. Just like the Costume Design class, the top teams will then present their models at the beginning of the Lower School performance at 12 p.m. on July 29.

Jessica (CA) echoed Ellen’s and Shelby’s sentiments, adding that the opportunity to try something new, apart from physical dancing, was terrific. “It’s fun to explore the visual and creative side of producing a ballet,” she said. “I’ve never done anything like this.”


Getting to Know You: Our Summer Bloggers

June 24, 2011

Guest writer: Jaclyn Youngblood, Academy intern

In addition to a weekly update about the extracurricular offerings of the Summer Intensive Program, we’re bringing you a series of video interviews with some of our dancers. In Weeks 1, 3, and 5, you’ll hear from our dedicated video bloggers, Allie and Lauren. In Weeks 2, 4, and 6, you’ll find montages of dance-related videos, like “What’s In Your Dance Bag?” (Week 2) and “Keeping Your Balance: How Dancers Stay En Pointe” (Week 4).

Allie is a Level 6 student from Arizona. This week, she explains what écarté is and why she loves wearing pointe shoes.

Lauren is a Level 7 student from Iowa. In her interview, she talks about the unique experience of “being the art” and how proud practicing a difficult role makes her feel.

Stay tuned!



Just Add Pilates: Developing a Dancer’s Toolbox

June 22, 2011

Guest writer: Jaclyn Youngblood, Houston Ballet Academy Intern

Dancing isn’t the only intensive aspect of the 2011 Summer Intensive Program. One of the goals of the program, especially under Academy Associate Director Shelly Power, is to offer students a comprehensive variety of classes and tools that will enhance their life experiences, even if they don’t pursue careers as professional dancers.

One way the program seeks to provide that balance is through the Pilates program. Students can sign up for five half-hour appointments throughout the course of the summer with one of four Pilates teachers. I spent a few minutes with one of the teachers, Jo Yost Ulrich, a former Houston Ballet company member, to find out more about the Pilates program and what makes it so successful.

Ulrich said the classes are kept small—no more than 3 students are scheduled at a time—on purpose; each student receives meaningful attention and an opportunity to work one-on-one with the instructor. This summer, 75 students are taking advantage of the Pilates program.

Body Conditioning Room at Houston Ballet Center for Dance

Body Conditioning Room at Houston Ballet Center for Dance

As with all cross-training programs, Ulrich said the Pilates training enables students to strengthen already developed muscles while targeting harder-to-reach muscles, too. It also balances out the muscle-work they do in the studio to prevent over-training and injury.

The students are shown some basic Pilates exercises, a sort of “highlights reel” of tools they can use on their own.  It is helpful for the dancers to see they don’t need to have expensive equipment to take care of their muscles and bodies.

 “The ability to do self-maintenance and have these tools to take home is invaluable,” Ulrich said.

It’s clear the dancers appreciate the opportunity to have small-group appointments. I intercepted three dancers, each of whom participated in the Pilates program last summer, on their way out of their appointments. Charlotte (TX) said having an instructor coach her through the exercises helps her understand how each muscle works. Erica (TX) looks forward to her Pilates appointments because she knows they will be tailored to the needs of her body and muscles. Alana (TX) said she likes that the training in her Pilates appointments translates to the work she does in class.

“This year, we have a packet with explanations and pictures of the exercises so we can work on things on our own, too,” Charlotte added.

Ulrich said the Pilates training in its current form has been part of the Summer Intensive Program for about 10 years. She has been a Pilates instructor for seven summers and has enjoyed seeing the extracurricular offerings grow during that time. She mentioned one newcomer to the alternative class list this summer: Dance Fitness with Sarah Irvine. The class is a way to develop strength, flexibility and cardiovascular health. Ulrich said the goal is to create a stronger base so dancers can focus on what’s most important: for example, focusing on technique in technique class instead of working on baseline breath capacity.

“The more we give them new knowledge, the better they can take care of themselves,” Ulrich said.

Championing health and wellness is the best way to prepare dancers for the future, whether that future is on or off the stage.


Ms. Youngblood is interning with the Houston Ballet Ben Stevenson Academy for the summer. She is currently a senior at Rice University, studying history and political science. She will be posting blogs about the 2011 Summer Intensive Program twice a week on a range of topics, like career studies and nutrition classes. You can also look forward to a video interview series with some of the dancers participating in this summer’s intensive. You can stay updated via our “Meet the Dancers” series on Twitter at


Prix de Lausanne Follow-Up

February 9, 2011

Congratulations are in order for our three Prix de Lausanne competitors.  Liana Carpio and Harper Watters advanced to the top 20 finals performance last Sunday, February 6.  Mr. Watters came in sixth overall and won the Contemporary Dance Prize.  You can watch (or re-watch) the 2011 finals at the Prix de Lausanne website.

Read CultureMap’s article about Harper Watters here.

Congratulations to all three of our fine students!


Dancer Spotlight: Summer Intensive Student Heidi Yu

July 30, 2010

Guest writer: Katie Arnold, PR intern

Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy has welcomed over 100 dancers ages 9-20 from 32 states and 13 countries for its 2010 Summer Intensive Program. Today these students will give their final performance before heading back to their hometowns.

Summer intensive student Heidi Yu is from Hong Kong, China and will be joining Houston Ballet II this fall. At sixteen, Heidi is excited to be training with the teachers at Houston Ballet. “My favorite part of the summer intensive is the teachers, and all the different dancing like pas de deux and jazz,” she explained. “I have not danced jazz and pas de deux this much, so this is new and fun to me.”

Heidi Yu, photo by Katie Arnold

Heidi Yu rehearsing The Sleeping Beauty, photo by Katie Arnold.

Also new for Heidi are the types of roles she is used to performing. While dancing the role of Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, ballet master Claudio Muñoz is coaching her to be more soft and princess-like. Sometimes the technical aspects are not the only difficult tasks in roles, but the acting aspects are also a challenge. She says, “I have never been a princess before, so I have to learn how to be a princess. Claudio tells me to be sweet, and he is helping me with my acting.”

The culmination of the 2010 Summer Intensive will be held tonight, July 30 at 8:00 p.m., in the Proscenium Theater at San Jacinto Community College-South (13735 Beamer Road, Houston, Texas). The performance is open to the public, and tickets, which will be sold at the door, are $10 for adults and $5 for students. For more information, call (713) 535-3210.


Q&A with Academy Summer Intensive Student Shaye Firer

July 23, 2010

Guest writer: Sarah Lam, public relations intern

Once again, Houston Ballet Academy is holding a Summer Intensive Program that attracts students from all over the world. They enroll for various reasons, but one draw remains the choreographic workshop that allows young dancers to create and showcase their work. I caught up with summer intensive student Shaye Firer to discuss her experience with the program and to learn about the piece she has choreographed.

How old are you and where are you from?
I’m 18 and I was born in South Africa. I spent about 6 years there before moving to Vancouver, which I consider my hometown, but I currently live in Winnipeg.

How long have you been dancing?
Since I was 3.

Where do you go to school?
I just graduated from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School.

What drew you to the Houston Ballet Summer Intensive Program?
I looked on the internet because I had been at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School for so long that I wanted something different. I found the Houston Ballet Summer Intensive Program online and started watching videos of the company and of HBII and was really impressed. Then I researched the teachers and it seemed like I would receive some good training here. Plus, I had just finished reading Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin so that provided some extra inspiration!

How is this summer program different from others you’ve attended and what do you like about it?
It’s VERY intense! I’m used to intense summer programs but this one is special. However, I really like the challenge it presents. I also like how it’s not all about the technique, although there is a lot of that, but there’s a great emphasis on artistry here. I feel like the artistry in dance isn’t getting as much attention now so it’s nice to have that emphasized here.

I understand that you’re taking the choreography workshop offered here. When did you first become interested in choreography?
The first time was when I was 11 years old.  My teacher didn’t have the time to create a solo for me for a competition so I did it myself! Then, at Royal Winnipeg Ballet, we’re required to take 2 years of movement composition. Taking that class rekindled my interest.

What process do you go through when you choreograph a piece?
It’s different for every piece. With the last two pieces I did in Winnipeg I already had the music and the dancers in mind so I already knew what I wanted. Plus, I had 3 months of time. In Houston I didn’t know the dancers or the music so I had to create the steps in my head before I got here and see how the dancers would do with it. And they’ve been excellent!

What do you find challenging about the choreographing process?
I like the challenge of not knowing exactly what’s going to happen.

What have you learned about choreography from Houston Ballet’s Summer Intensive Program?
I learned to not rely on music so much. Choreography can stand on its own, just like music can. Also, I learned to trust the dancers. They know what they’re doing.

Tell me about the music you’re using.
It’s an original composition by Sasha Behrend. He’s a student with the American Festival for the Arts.  I see the music as having two sections. The first section is very slow, lyrical and smooth. It has a clarinet, violin, violas, and a piano. Then, there’s no big transition but the music suddenly shifts into the second part by being very fast, disjointed and abrupt with lots of percussion. Then, it goes back to the slow section for the ending.

What is the piece about?
It’s choreographed for 6 dancers, 3 boys and 3 girls.  It’s about the merging of identity. How a person can have three identities or more, and yet still be the same person. In life we have to learn how to combine different parts of ourselves into one.

How long have you had to rehearse it?
About a week. Our first performance was Monday, July 19 for the Academy students.  Today it will be performed at Pershing Middle School for the general public, as part of the American Festival for the Arts workshop.

Are you nervous about the performance?
Yes! During performances, if I’m not performing, I like to be in the audience. I tend to tense up a little bit when I know the dancers are getting to a difficult section. If I’m sitting next to a friend I’ll be clutching their arm! I also get nervous about the audience. Everyone should have their own reaction to the piece but I don’t want them to get the wrong idea.

What are your future goals with dance?
I want to get into a classical or classical-contemporary ballet company. Whether or not I will remains to be seen. 


Germany Tour Update

April 19, 2010

It is with great disappointment that we announce the cancellation of HBII’s tour to Schweinfurt and Villingen-Schwenningen, Germany, previously scheduled for April 21-27.  As most of you know, the ash cloud in Iceland has cancelled most flights to and from Europe, and they won’t be able to reschedule our staff and dancers soon enough to make their scheduled performances.

Send us good karma and great vibes that we can reschedule a bigger and better overseas tour for next year!


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