Kirsten Hunsberger began her summer in Houston with a big question in mind. The 17-year-old from Las Vegas wanted to learn if she has what it takes to become a professional ballet dancer.

Hunsberger is one of 309 young people currently training at Houston Ballet’s Summer Intensive. The annual program brings talented students from around the world to the ballet’s state-of-the-art facility downtown to live, work and breath dance for six weeks. 

“We come from all over and all of us have this intense interest in dance,” says Hunsberger. “The friendships grow so much over the weeks and now we have these friends across the globe. It’s an awesome experience.”

This year more than 1,600 students ages 12 to 18 auditioned for the Summer Intensive. The young people are evaluated on their technical ability, dance proficiency and physicality among other factors. The 309 students come from more than 40 states and as far away as Japan, Taiwan and Brazil. The program wraps up this week with six performances by the students this weekend (for information and tickets call 713-227-2787).

Cheryne Busch, the principal of Houston Ballet’s Middle School, says the intensive gives students a unique opportunity to take classes with an internationally renowned faculty, interact with professional dancers and study dance forms they may not have access to back home.

““The students leave the six-week summer intensive technically more proficient with a clearer understanding of the dedication and commitment required to become a professional dancer.” says Busch, who has been with Houston Ballet for 18 years.

Gabriel Jahnke is from Sydney, Australia. The 17-year-old student is experiencing a lot of firsts—including his first visit America.

“It’s pretty amazing to be selected to come here and have such great teachers and train in this facility,” he says. “For me, it’s solidified the fact that I want to make a career out of this.”

Most of the visiting students reside on the University of St. Thomas campus while they’re here. Each day they’re transported to the Houston Ballet’s Center for Dance, the $53 million facility the organization opened in 2011. It’s regarded as one of the premiere dance education complexes in the world.

The days are long. Students practice Monday through Friday from 9 am to 6 pm and a half-day on Saturdays. But in their down time they get experience Houston through a series of weekly outings including the Museum District, Space Center Houston, Wet 'n Wild SplashTown and the Kemah Boardwalk to name a few.

Jahnke says he’s loving the food and his experiences in Houston, but more than that he likes that the program is allowing him to grow as a young adult. “It’s my first time in America, and obviously Texas and I’m getting to do all of this sort of on my own. It’s a big thing.”

Hunsberger agrees. One of the highlights of the intensive for her came at the beginning when the students saw the Houston Ballet company perform Giselle. After the performance they toured backstage and got to ask the professionals a few questions.

“I’m going to leave here with so much inspiration, having watched the talented dancers around me,” she says.

Photo: Amitava Sarkar