Dancers step into a world of academia at Seattle U
The dancers with the Pacific Northwest Ballet have committed themselves to taking clases while balancing the demands of their busy dance schedules. The company is preparing for the holiday run of Nutcracker.
Photos by Chris Joseph Taylor
Seattle University’s community connections have reached new lengths in an ongoing and longstanding educational partnership program with Pacific Northwest Ballet. In an effort to educate dancers balancing busy rehearsal and performance schedules, SU has brought the university right to the ballet company’s doorstep at the Seattle Center. Seattle University Magazine recently caught up with the program, which we first profiled back in 2003.
Careers are short for ballet dancers—most retire when they hit their 30s. But Seattle University’s relationship with the Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) aims to provide a launching pad for a successful life away from the bright lights of the stage.
“My career can only last so long,” says Ben Griffiths, a PNB soloist who will be in this season’s production of Nutcracker, which begins its holiday run on Nov. 27. “Taking classes is a good way to expand ourselves outside the dance world and prepare for a second career.”
Continuing their education also relieves some of the worry about the unexpected, of life after performing. “The program allows us to feel like we have a plan B,” says Maria Chapman, a longtime company soloist who will play the leading role of Clara in Nutcracker. “If we got injured tomorrow and couldn’t dance anymore, we could still continue with academics.”
Pacific Northwest Ballet company members take a break from rehearsals to hit the books. SU professors teach classes at the dancers’ space at Seattle Center.
Dancers meet in classes of between 15 and 20 students, and take SU Core Curriculum courses such as English, history, science and philosophy. Since it began, the program has served almost 40 students in two cohorts. A third cohort is planned for next fall.
Dancers say they like the intimacy of small classes and the flexibility of their teachers, who may adjust class times to accommodate performance and rehearsal schedules. Taking classes with people they know also enhances the experience, especially during discussions and presentations.
Years of fulfilling the demands of professional ballet makes for a committed and disciplined student body, says Jennifer Schulz, SU English instructor and current program director. “These students know how to dig in and focus,” Schulz says. “They come to class completely serious about their work.”
Initially, dancers do not need to matriculate to enroll in the SU-PNB program. The program offers a cycle of nine courses, for 45 credits, on-site at PNB. Dancers will be required to matriculate at SU after they complete 15 credits if they decide to continue on. “They can receive all the benefits of being regularly matriculated students and can more easily move into a degree program at SU or transfer to another university,” Schulz says.
The program’s progress is impressive considering its beginning when Philip Barclift, SU’s director of liberal studies and the program’s first director, helped guide ballet students toward obtaining their GEDs.
Rick Redman, SU trustee and chairman of Sellen Construction in Seattle, played a pivotal role in helping create the partnership. The ballet already had a program, Second Stage, which helps dancers prepare for second careers, including paying for classes at community colleges. While serving as a trustee at another organization along with President Stephen Sundborg, S.J., the two got to talking about making Seattle University the home of Second Stage’s educational offerings.
“My own experience as a former NFL player gave me a great deal of empathy for the dancers and the transitions that were ahead of them,” says Redman, who recently retired from his work with Second Stage.
Seattle University is only the second Jesuit university in the country to forge educational links with a ballet company. (Fordham University in New York, which works with the New York City Ballet, is the other.) Saint Mary’s College of California also offers a similar program for members of the San Francisco Ballet.
To help fund the program, PNB dancers agree to donate their salary from one performance a year to Second Stage. Donations also come from the ballet company and audiences. These contributions guarantee about $8,000 per dancer to spend toward developing a post-dance profession. Second Stage also links performers with mentors who can offer career advice and skills training.
The success in attracting students to the program lies partly in the support and encouragement from PNB. The organization pays for after-hours security so the building can be used for classes that last beyond the building’s official closing time. The program is also allowed to solicit financial support from arts patrons before selected performances.
As the program evolved from its start seven years ago, students have become more open to making such a large commitment to studies outside their demanding dance schedules. “Some people were scared about taking on that extra work,” Chapman says. “Now it is just part of the routine.”
The performing arts climate also inspires the instructors. Interacting with students in their dance element and watching them perform provides insights they can then turn into relevant teachings. At a performance of Romeo & Juliet, Schulz says she began to understand her students’ ability to transform words into movement. “I started to imagine them as readers through their bodies,” she says. “It opened up new ideas for what I teach them.”
It’s also gratifying, Schulz says, to hear students discussing an assigned reading or debating a topic from class as they come out of rehearsal. “I have worked with some of the best students in my teaching career in this program,” she says.
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