Kathleen Breen Combes checks her watch. It’s getting late. She has pointe shoes to sew and a massage to get to.
A new ballet premieres in days, and the 31-year-old Boston Ballet dancer was just told she may need to take the stage in a day or two. “I have to take care of my body right now,” she says, rounding Krentzman Quad on Huntington Avenue.
But she needs to be here, too, participating in new student orientation at Northeastern University.
College and ballet are often clumsy partners. Ballet careers begin at 17 or 18 but start descending at a time when most people’s careers are in ascent. By their mid-30s, dancers begin contemplating the mortality of their careers. Without a degree — only four of Boston Ballet’s 52 company dancers have a bachelor’s — life after dance can be bleak.
“I didn’t think it was too fair what we were doing to these dancers,” said Jack Meyer, the Ballet’s board chairman. “We enjoy watching them. They should be able to lead full lives.”
‘It’s all tailored to make them succeed.’
Northeastern and Boston Ballet no longer want dance and education to exist separately, hoping instead to integrate the two with a little flexibility. They are partners in a novel initiative that allows dancers to earn a college degree while they dance.
This first group of 16 dancing students started in May, and dancers have six years to complete their degrees. Classes will be online, on campus, or at the Ballet’s Clarendon Street headquarters. The courses are accelerated, with a semester’s worth of material compressed into as little as six weeks.
Instructors are keenly aware these students have jobs that keep them in rehearsals and performances for up to 12 hours a day, administrators assured dancers during orientation. They have tours to prep for, shows to perfect. On this day, “Coppélia” was set to premiere in just three days. (Class begins in eight.)
“It’s all tailored to make them succeed,” Northeastern president Joseph Aoun said. “We started by looking at the dancers and by saying what is their schedule? When are they going to be in Boston? When are they going to be on the road? When are they going to be performing? And when are they going to be rehearsing? And we devised a program based on their program and their needs.”
Other schools had been approached by Ballet trustees, but nothing worked out. Schedules and finances were the big hurdles. Both were overcome by Northeastern.
The university accommodated the dancers’ schedules, and two board members — Meyer and Henri Termeer — donated about $1.5 million to create a scholarship fund that removed the financial barrier. The scholarships cover 80 percent of tuition, which can run upward of $40,000 a year. Dancers’ salaries range from the $30,000s to $80,000 annually.
While this is not the only professional ballet company to collaborate with a university, it is the only one that allows dancers to choose from an array of degrees.
“We are in the business of attracting and retaining a world-class dance force, and believe this Northeastern program is going to be a calling card,” Boston Ballet executive director Barry Hughson said.
All dancers know there will come a day when their craft transitions from a living to simply a love, but it’s usually a thought put off for a later day, easy to do when dancing remains the singular focus.
“The whole idea was to get into a company as young as possible,” said Breen Combes, who started dancing at age 3. At 13, she enrolled in a dance conservatory. “By 18, I had a full-time job.”
Sarah Wroth, one of the company’s four dancers with a degree, says her education at Indiana University’s School of Music helped provide entry to the professional world of dance. It also would serve as a cushion should her professional career crash to an end.
“If something happened to me, I could live and survive,” she said.
About four months ago, the power of that sentiment hit home when she had back surgery to remove a portion of a disc that was pinching a nerve. She had lost all feeling in her left leg, and the experience left the 31-year-old wondering “if I would dance again.”
Wroth recovered but is reinforcing her safety net by pursuing a master’s degree in nonprofit management through the Northeastern partnership.
A tiny conference room at the ballet’s headquarters doubles as the classroom for the undergraduates’ intro to sociology, a six-week course focused on diversity.
The first class begins in 20 minutes, but professor Kristen Lee Costa is already there.
Students trickle in for the two-hour class at the end of what’s already been a day packed with rehearsals. They spent 90 minutes before class readying themselves to perform “Symphony in Three Movements” for their tour in Washington, D.C.
Arms and legs whirled into pose after pose. Female corps members took synchronized, staccato steps more akin to contemporary dance than classical ballet. They were in a constant state of motion, stretching and bending even when the pianist stopped. Now, their bodies must become stationary, their minds active.
“You’re going to be very different when you walk out of here,” Costa tells them. “I believe learning is transformative.”
For six weeks, they’ll push beyond diversity buzzwords — inclusion, tolerance, gender, race — and build a diversity consciousness.
But right now, for Brad Schlagheck, it’s all about logistics. He has already started this week’s readings and reviewed the requirements for their paper. Now, he needs to know if papers need subject headers.
“Wow!” Costa said. “You’re really ambitious.”
“I was really bored last week at the theater,” he responded. Or “maybe, it’s because I haven’t been in school in 10 years. I was super nervous.”
Boston Ballet has been his home for nearly a decade. The 27-year-old Floridian moved to Boston after graduating high school early.
Still, Schlagheck’s parents urged him to continue his education. And he tried, looking into a few schools, but advisers’ requests just seemed overwhelming.
But this opportunity with Northeastern was too good to pass up.
“I would say I’m at my peak. It’s very weird for me to be, like, ‘Where am I going to be in 10 years?’ ” he said.
And while six weeks doesn’t necessarily bring him any closer to making a future career choice, it did resolve anxieties about college, something classmates like Rachel Cossar didn’t have.
The 24-year-old has been pursuing a political science degree online. And while she didn’t necessarily need this introductory course to complete her degree, she wasn’t going to pass it up either.
Conversations were filled with perspectives on everything from America’s bootstrap mentality to representations of women in the media and what those messages said about positions of power and influence for women but also for men and masculinity.
Eyes were opened. Students felt empowered.
“We came out of ourselves,” Schlagheck told Costa on the last day of class in late June. “You gave us something to talk about like a normal person.”
“This class lent itself to some pretty life-changing discussions,” Costa responded. “A math class will be different.”
College, after all, is as much about finding yourself as it is about getting a degree.