The pull of a professional company’s school can be hard to resist, particularly for serious pre-professional students. If you study at SAB or the San Francisco Ballet School, you are right in the backyard of the company and have an immediate connection with the organization. But a compelling case for youth ballets, which operate independently, can be made as a different means of getting the right guidance at the right age.
In some cases, youth ballets encourage their students to go on to schools connected directly with companies. But for the most part, they offer a distinct style of training that in itself is quite complete.
Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, founded in 1955 by Marcia Dale Weary, provided an early blueprint for schools that want to give students a serious dance education and performance opportunities. The top-level students at CPYB put in 22 hours of classes per week in eclectic training styles and give numerous performances, including George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker and repertory programs. CPYB’s graduates (including Ashley Bouder of New York City Ballet, Tina LeBlanc of San Francisco Ballet, Carrie Imler of Pacific Northwest Ballet and Noelani Pantastico of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo) have famously gone on to dance in companies all over the world.
There are now a number of youth ballets that offer a clear alternative for students who either don’t want to or can’t attend a company school. But not all youth ballets offer the same thing. From performance opportunities and professional placement to academic goals and ages served, there is a surprising range of opportunities.
Maryland Youth Ballet, now in its 39th year, boasts alumni that include ABT stars Julie Kent and Susan Jaffe and dancers with the Joffrey Ballet, Oregon Ballet Theater and Texas Ballet Theater. The students who fit well into MYB, according to principal Michelle Lees, are those who need one-on-one observation and care. “We coach them and train them but also focus on the whole student,” says Lees. “We make sure they have their academic qualifications so they have a backup plan.” The performers in the MYB consist of 40 to 50 pre-professional students ages 13 and higher, schooled with an emphasis on proper placement and the health of the dancers. The students in the advanced division attend at least 10 classes per week, with weekends reserved for rehearsals. MYB gives around 25 performances a year, primarily the classics, such as Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and Les Sylphides. Twenty to 25 percent of the graduates are placed in companies when they leave.
Lees says that one of the unique qualities of MYB is the cohesive teaching staff. “Our faculty works as a team. We are all on the same page. We sit down face-to-face with each student each year and work closely with the parents to augment the students’ goals. It’s a friendly school.” During an economic downturn, MYB successfully relocated into a new facility with five studios in Silver Spring, Maryland.
The Manhattan Youth Ballet (formerly named Studio Maestro), formed two years ago by François Perron and Rose Caiola, takes a very different route. “The reason I created Manhattan Youth Ballet is because I saw lot of kids who were 18 and were not going to a company and couldn’t stay in their school,” says Perron. So with 18 as a base age (a few apprentices have been younger), the 12 dancers (six boys and six girls) in the company and two apprentices have the opportunity to work all day, 10:30–7, taking classes and rehearsing for performances that include repertoire from choreographers as diverse as Balanchine, David Parsons and Perron. “It’s always a shock when you get into a company,” says Perron. “We try to teach them how it really works in a company and how to comport themselves, so they don’t go into shock or a depression.”
Manhattan Youth Ballet is located in the Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, which has a 170-seat theater that the company can use on a regular basis for rehearsing and performing. Perron also gives the dancers opportunities to choreograph or work behind the scenes as technical staff. Half the young professionals are on scholarship, and Perron aspires to the goal of scholarships for all in the performance group. He has placed students with North Carolina Dance Theatre, Complexions Contemporary Ballet and other troupes. The location in Manhattan is convenient for students who wish to attend any New York auditions. Previous alumni include Nicole Graniero and Roman Zhurbin of ABT. Members of the youth ballet can stay with the troupe until the maximum of age 24.
Peter Stark, former director of the Orlando Ballet School, assumed the chairmanship of the Patel Conservatory in July. He says that the disadvantage of training with a company-associated school, particularly one with a budget under $5 million, is that the students are often used to augment the corps de ballet. “That means they are rehearsing and not training,” says Stark. “For me, the benefit of a youth ballet is that you choose a repertory that becomes part of the students’ training and enhances their education.” For example, a male dancer who needs work on partnering can have a pas de deux set on him. Stark views the conservatory as a stepping stone. “I equate this to the collegiate experience for academia—you don’t go to college thinking you are going to get a job there,” he says.
While the company, located in Tampa, is still in the reorganizing and planning stages, Stark looks for dancers ages 16 to 19 (some exceptions are made for talented students as young as 14)—10 apprentice dancers (the most advanced level) and 10 trainees. As part of the larger David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, the company will perform two shows per year—The Nutcracker and a year-end show. “I think they need enough performing so that they feel stimulated and challenged, but not so much that it’s going to take away from their training,” Stark says. Most of the students are home-schooled. “You have to have some sort of flexible academic program to make this possible,” he says.
Karen Mills Jennings, director of the Flint Youth Ballet, has chaired the dance division of the Flint School of Performing Arts for the last 23 years. The 30 dancers in the FYB, says Jennings, form a close-knit community, despite the diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and the different urban and rural areas represented. “In a professional school, the focus is on the professional company, the grown-up. In a youth company, the focus can be on the young people,” says Jennings.
Ranging in age from 12 to 18, the dancers must take a minimum of four classes per week and regularly perform and tour a variety of ballet, jazz, character and contemporary works. Classes and rehearsals are held on weekday afternoons and on Saturday, so that the students, who attend public, charter and home schools in central Michigan, have adequate time for academics. “One of the strengths of the FYB is the expectation that you do all styles with commitment and integrity,” says Jennings. For example, contemporary choreographer Darrell Moultrie recently created a work for the dancers, and the Balanchine Project has sent ballet masters to set works on the company. “Most of our students go through university dance programs—Indiana, Purchase, Florida State, Butler,” says Jennings. “We support that.” But their alumni have also danced in the Dayton Ballet, Texas Dance Theatre and the Sacramento Ballet, among others.
The Maple Youth Ballet, which occupies the studios of the former Ballet Pacifica in Irvine, California, comprises 25 dancers ranging in age from 14 to 19. The company danced 18 performances last year, including works such as Balanchine’s Serenade. The students are engaged in at least 24 hours of classes and rehearsals per week. Charles Maple, the director and former ABT soloist, says that one of the goals of the Maple Youth Ballet is to get them into the company-affiliated schools. “We want to help them with their confidence,” says Maple. “We are not the kind of school who wants to hold on to their dancers. We train them to be able to move into those kinds of situations. A lot of them stay because of the caliber of teaching and being able to dance numerous roles.”
The Maple Youth Ballet tries to create what Maple calls “a neutral dancer,” versatile enough to move into any style. The curriculum includes technique, pointe, variations, modern, jazz, character and improvisation workshops. The company also has seminars where students learn the basics of fundraising, branding, booking studio time and making flyers for a theoretical company. During its short tenure (it was founded three years ago), the Maple Youth Ballet has produced alumni who are dancing with the San Francisco Ballet, Stuttgart Ballet and Tulsa Ballet.
Nonetheless, there are challenges for these youth ballet companies, which are nonprofit organizations competing against numerous schools of all stripes. Perron says that ongoing fundraising is a continual push, particularly in a tough economy. His goal is to eventually have the dancers in the Manhattan Youth Ballet not only tuition-free but also paid a stipend for performances. Stark points out that in the youth ballet setting “the quality of the productions will vary from year to year depending on the quality of students you are working with.” And Jennings says that the Flint Youth Ballet is in competition not so much with the professional company schools but more so the residential ones, such as Walnut Hill School for the Arts or the Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington, DC.
The chance to perform regularly serves as one of the strengths for dancers connected to youth ballets. Philosophies differ, however, when it comes to guest artists being brought in to augment productions. Stark, on the one hand, thinks that it’s wonderful for dancers to see outside professionals at work; while at Maryland Youth Ballet, Lees has a “no guest artist” policy, except for an occasional returning alumnus. “If we don’t have the quality of the students to do the piece, we don’t do the piece,” she says.
So, above all, what makes joining a youth ballet a unique experience? It’s the dancers and the concentrated training, says Stark. “We look for students with intellect and heart,” he says. “Push, drive and focus are what I mean by heart. Company schools are great—they’re like a flower market. But in the end, directors want talent and they’ll take it where they can get it. We strive for a youth ballet that produces high-caliber dancers.” DT
At A Glance
Flint Youth Ballet
Style taught: Russian syllabus
Tuition: by class rate plus $170 participation fee
Enrollment: 240 students
Youth Ballet dancers: 30
Scholarships: 6 merit-based scholarships per year
Auditions: from school or by open auditions held once a year
Manhattan Youth Ballet
Style taught: French, Kirov and Balanchine
Tuition: $3,200 per year for levels 6 and 7 and company
Enrollment: 113 students
Youth Ballet dancers: 12, plus apprentices
Scholarships: half of youth ballet now on scholarship
Auditions: from school or by taking company class
Maple Youth Ballet
Style taught: based on ABT curriculum
Tuition: $400 per month; company dues are approximately $100/month
Youth Ballet dancers: 25
Scholarships: awarded by merit and financial need
Auditions: by application and audition
Maryland Youth Ballet
Style taught: English-based
Tuition: starts at $140 for an 8-week session for youngest kids; $5,865 for 9 months (highest-level students)
Enrollment: 850 students
Youth Ballet dancers: 40–50
Auditions: by taking age-appropriate class
Style taught: Balanchine musicality and speed, classical port de bras
Tuition: $400 per month for trainees; apprentices on scholarship
Youth Ballet dancers: 10 apprentices and 10 trainees
Auditions: by appointment and open auditions
Joseph Carman, former soloist with ABT and the Joffrey Ballet, is author of Round About the Ballet.
Photos from top: by Jack Hartin, courtesy of Maple Conservatory, by Erin Bainco, courtesy of Manhattan Youth Ballet; by Diana Page, courtesy of Flint Youth Ballet; courtesy of Patel Conservatory