In May 2013, 16 dancers from Boston Ballet entered the Northeastern University-Boston Ballet Education Program, a first-in-the-nation partnership that enables the company’s professional dancers to earn college degrees while continuing to perform.
This May, almost to the day, two of those dancers walked, in caps and gowns of regal black and gold, in the College of Professional Studies graduation ceremony, crossing the stage to receive their diplomas. They followed in the footsteps of Sarah Wroth, a member of the company’s corps de ballet who received a master’s in nonprofit management through the program last year.
In 1,000 years I never would have dreamed that I would graduate from an American college. This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance.
— Boston Ballet member Boyko Dossev, who earned a Master of Science from Northeastern
“This program was such an incredible opportunity for all of us,” says Boston Ballet principal dancer Kathleen Breen Combes, who was the first participant to receive a bachelor’s degree from the program. Having majored in organizational communication and minored in management, Breen Combes says she now feels prepared to cast the net wide in pursuing a career outside of dance when she exits the stage.
Breen Combes joined Boston Ballet in 2003. During her long tenure, she has danced numerous lead roles, including Juliet in John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella in Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella, and Swanhilda in George Balanchine’s Coppélia. Still, she had always wanted a college education—all five of her siblings had received one. But with rehearsals and performances running up to 12 hours a day and the high cost of tuition, “college didn’t seem feasible,” she says. “I knew that a dancer’s career was short. I wanted to go as fast as I could to ensure that I graduated.”
A unique pas de deux
Together, Northeastern and Boston Ballet have made that possible. The program is flexible and customized to accommodate the dancers’ packed schedules—even touring—by offering classes not just on campus but also online, complete with videos of professors’ lectures and group chats with classmates. Two Boston Ballet board members, Jack Meyer and Henri Termeer, H’11, donated to a scholarship fund to cover the lion’s share of tuition.
“In 1,000 years I never would have dreamed that I would graduate from an American college,” says corps de ballet member Boyko Dossev, who earned a Master of Science in corporate and organizational communication at Northeastern. He has added it to his other degrees: a bachelor’s degree in ballet teaching and a master’s in choreography that he received from institutions in his native Bulgaria.
“This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” says Dossev, who has been with Boston Ballet since 2006, appearing as Drosselmeier in Mikko Nissinen’s The Nutcracker and Benvolio in John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet, among other roles.
“I didn’t know much about the field of organizational communication when I started, but I quickly fell in love with it,” says Dossev. “The teachers were accomplished, inspiring professionals who taught us not just theory but also how to apply what we were learning to the real world.”
Remarkable support came, too, he says, from Northeastern’s advisors and program organizers as well as the university community as a whole. Administrators and volunteers associated with Boston Ballet provided support and tutoring at company headquarters. “The university did everything possible for us to succeed,” says Boyko. And the resources? “I was blown away,” he says. “That library. When I had any time I would go there and study.”
Both sides now
Dancing and academia may seem worlds apart—as distinct as body and mind. But actually, say the dancers, the former prepares you well for the latter.
“To be a professional ballet dancer you must be extremely disciplined and committed, and that completely transferred to my schoolwork,” says Breen Combes, who graduated summa cum laude, grabbing time in the theater, dressing room, and even between acts to write papers and study for tests. “Dancers work toward perfection.”
They are also terrifically resilient and open to criticism, because they spend a lifetime in the studio quickly integrating corrections from teachers, directors, and choreographers.
Conversely, attending Northeastern, says Breen Combes, “changed the culture of the ballet company.” Perspectives broadened, conversations expanded from “the bubble of the company and the dance world,” she says, to embrace what the now college students were learning in their classes.
The experience also added dimension to their dancing. “I gained resources that helped me convey ideas on stage,” says Dossev. Dance, unless it has a narrative line, can be difficult for people to understand, he says. “My communications courses opened my eyes to how we communicate with each other as dancers and also how we communicate with our audiences. I had never thought of myself as a ‘communicator’ but just went with the flow or emotion or choreographic idea.”
Now he is very aware: “We are sending messages,” he says, “using dance as a tool.”