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Ballet buddies

Oklahoma City Ballet teams up with University of Oklahoma School of Dance to help students transition to professionals.

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Ballet majors Micah Bullard and Caroline Young are the first OU students to be trainees with OKC Ballet as they continue their education and training at the university. - PROVIDED
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  • Ballet majors Micah Bullard and Caroline Young are the first OU students to be trainees with OKC Ballet as they continue their education and training at the university.

Two University of Oklahoma students are finding out what it’s like to play in the big leagues, so to speak. Michael Bearden, director of the OU School of Dance, used a sports analogy to describe the school’s new collaboration with Oklahoma City Ballet.

“Let’s say I’m the football coach at OU,” Bearden said, “and what I’ve created or helped to foster is I allow two of my strong players on the OU team to go down and do a minicamp with the Dallas Cowboys. When they come back, maybe their eyes are wide open, like, ‘Oh my gosh. I see what it’s going to take now to get to that next level.’ So that’s kind of what we’re creating here. They’re not on the Dallas Cowboys, but they get their foot in the door, and they get their feet wet in what that culture and environment is like and what the expectations are.”

The collaboration, officially launched earlier this month, allows OU juniors Micah Bullard and Caroline Young to dance with Oklahoma City Ballet as trainees while still attending school. Bearden said he got the idea from a similar program at the University of Utah, where he used to serve as an assistant professor of ballet.

“It’s pretty much the same,” Bearden said. “The concept is basically we have two full-time students that are fully involved with the University of Oklahoma, and we at the School of Dance are just flexible with their schedule. So we allow them to drive up to Oklahoma City and take ballet class with the company. It’s a really good educational tool for them because then they’re learning from the high level of professional dancers in that environment.”

For the students to feel integrated into the professional dance company, Bearden said he wanted to ensure that Robert Mills, director of Oklahoma City Ballet, chose the program’s participants himself.

“I gave feedback as well on the selection,” Bearden said, “but I felt it was important for him to select the dancers from here so that they truly know that he selected them to be part of the organization as opposed to me selecting them, and then they may feel like Robert doesn’t have their endorsement. So this way, they’re truly members of that organization as well.”

Typically, Bullard and Young will travel from Norman to Oklahoma City twice a week to dance with OKC Ballet, but their schedule will get more intense next month as the company rehearses for its upcoming presentation of Septime Webre’s Alice (in Wonderland), scheduled to run Oct. 26-28. Bearden said balancing the demands of a professional dance production with a full academic course load will be the greatest challenge facing the students and their instructors.

“I think the biggest concern is just navigating their schedule to still allow them to get done what they need to get done for their degree because that’s their first priority,” Bearden said. “So in this first year, it’s just learning how we communicate with the students and with Oklahoma City Ballet so we’re all on the same page and make sure that all parties are being served as needed. … But I’m confident that Oklahoma City Ballet’s committed and the students are committed to doing whatever we can to help facilitate these students’ schedules.”

Real work

Bearden, who previously performed as a principal dancer with Ballet West in Salt Lake City, Utah, said transitioning from college to the world of professional dancing involves some adjustments.

“I think in some ways, I was prepared,” he said, “but the intrinsic difference is you go into the professional world and the standard is maybe even higher because now you’re getting paid to do the work. So you’re no longer a student; you’re actually an employee, and that comes with a whole new set of pressures and demands that on some level we just can’t replicate in the academic environment.”

While some of the real-world pressure is impossible to duplicate, Bearden said the school always attempts to mirror the working conditions and expectations of a metropolitan ballet.

“We really strive to create and foster a professional environment for the dancers so that there isn’t that shock going to the professional level,” Bearden said. “They’re really used to that way of working.  … We really have the students dancing about the same number of hours that they would be dancing in a professional environment, so that’s not too big of an adjustment.”

After a week in the program, Bearden said, Bullard and Young’s response has been completely positive.

“So far, I’ve asked the students for feedback, and they said they’re really enjoying being there,” Bearden said, “and they really appreciate getting to observe how some of the high-caliber dancers in the Oklahoma City Ballet operate.”

Convenient collaboration

The collaboration comes at an opportune time for both the ballet and OU’s School of Dance, Bearden said.

“I believe the Oklahoma City Ballet is on a nice climb,” Bearden said. “They’re getting better and better as an organization artistically. So I think we’re really fortunate to be able to establish this relationship with an organization that is just continuing to get stronger and better.”

In a written statement, Mills said a cooperative effort between the two organizations is an intuitive fit because of their shared history.

“Since both OU’s dance program and OKC Ballet trace their roots back to Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo dancers Miguel Terekhov and Yvonne Chouteau, it is only natural that the two entities collaborate and work together,” Mills said. ”I am happy to begin this joint training program with the OU School of Dance and look forward to working with their students in the coming years.”

After performing in famous Ballet Russe, Chouteau and Terekhov found-ed both the School of Dance and Oklahoma City Civic Ballet, which became Ballet Oklahoma and then OKC Ballet, in the 1960s.

The collaboration between OU and the ballet, Bearden said, is another way for the school to achieve its ongoing mission to improve the possible futures of its young dancers.

“What I seek to help facilitate for our students is opportunity — opportunities to learn, opportunities to succeed,” Bearden said. “And even though it’s only a couple of students in this case, it’s nice to have an avenue that is a way for our students to learn and grow. … We’re really excited for this program. It’s important for our school to keep strong connections with the professional dance world for the sake of our students.” 

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