Ballet's Shortest Stars

I’m so used to seeing ballet on a weekly basis, that I often forget how nearly supernatural it is. But I was definitely reminded while watching American Ballet Theater’s Young People’s Ballet Workshop last week at the Met Opera House in an audience filled with NYC schoolchildren. Students from five schools created original works as part of the Make a Ballet program. This was the culminating event––a fully produced concert on the Met Opera stage.


The program began with spring season excerpts by ABT. This is where the magic started brewing. Sitting in an audience filled with kids is quite a different experience. To watch and listen to them clap at the sight of the corps simply standing in their opening positions of Coppelia’s czardas made me smile. Unlike a typical audience that whispers about Paloma Herrera’s banana feet or dazzling pirouettes in the White Swan pas de duex, the kids were mystified by her comparatively simple promenades with Alexandre Hammoudi and shrieked in delight over her bird-like port de bras. And boy, when Hammoudi pressed Herrera above his head, you would have thought you were at a Justin Bieber concert based on the noise level. (Okay, so maybe they weren’t that loud…but pretty close)! Also on the program was Alexei Ratmansky’s The Bright Stream, James Kudelka’s Cinderella and corps member Daniel Mantei’s Tolling Bells. While Mantei’s abstract ballet didn’t go over as well, the young audience loved the mystery of the dancers transforming into different characters.


But the real treat was when the K-12 dancers took the stage. One minute, we’re “oohing” and “ahhing” over the company’s dazzling tricks, and now, we’re watching these youngsters achieve the same rock star status. Make a Ballet splits each school into four teams: performance, administration, production and design. Within these groups, the students are responsible for every aspect of their piece––choreographing, marketing, lighting, costumes and everything in between (all under the guidance of ABT teaching artists). This year, roughly 600 students were involved. They were given the school year to complete their piece about a local public park. In the fall, they visited their chosen park to get inspiration. Then, they spent 15 weeks creating their dances and continued rehearsing once a week. During the spring, everyone had at least one opportunity to perform at various NYC venues and schools. While only 25 kids per school took the stage at the Met Opera itself, the whole group had put their efforts into the project in some way. And you could sense the pride they had in themselves and each other. They sprawled over that huge stage without a shy bone in their bodies. And their peers in the audience screamed just as loud for this portion as they did the first.


Next time I go see the ballet, I may close my eyes for just a second and imagine that I’m eight again.


Photo: Students from the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in the 2010 Young People's Ballet Workshop performance (by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy of American Ballet Theatre)

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