By Elena Ferrarin and Kimberly Pohl
The (Arlington Heights) Daily Herald
May 23, 2012
If life falls into place for Arthur Stashak, a year from now he’ll be gazing out at one of Hamburg’s historic canals, taking a quick breather between his pas de deux and variations classes. The 17-year-old, who grew up in this northwest Chicago suburb, wants nothing more than to move to the German port city and study at the Hamburg Ballet School’s postsecondary program under renowned choreographer John Neumeier.
Do well there, and the world will be Stashak’s stage as he embarks on a professional dancing career. “There’s no doubt in my mind this is the life I want to be leading,” Stashak said. “I can’t believe that I’ll be dancing all day soon and even getting paid for it.”
But Stashak needs to finish school first, and for him, that’s in Toronto. He’s a senior at Canada’s National Ballet School, one of the world’s foremost training institutions. He accepted a full scholarship to attend the school after performing three years ago in New York City at the Youth America Grand Prix, one of the world’s most prestigious ballet and contemporary dance competitions.
The move to Toronto came after Stashak’s freshman year at Maine West High School, when it proved too difficult to juggle his dance schedule with traditional schooling. So Stashak decided to sacrifice the comforts of home for the half-century-old school up north.
“I knew we had to send him somewhere he’d get the absolute best training,” Stashak’s mother, Cathy Stashak, said. “I miss his smiling face. I’ve watched his passion and maturity blossom.”
At school, Stashak’s free time is minimal. A typical day starts with four hours of academics in the morning, followed by lunch, an upper-body workout and then three dance classes until about 6:30 p.m. After that, it’s back to the dorm for dinner, homework and an essential good night of sleep. Saturdays may require several more hours of work depending on upcoming performances. “It takes a toll on your body and can be really exhausting,” Stashak said. “But I love being different from normal society, and I couldn’t imagine moving back.”
Industry leaders have recognized Stashak’s talent in recent years, offering him spots in several elite programs. He’s studied under Spanish dancer Angel Corella at an intensive summer course in Segovia, Spain, and twice spent three weeks in Martha’s Vineyard at Stiefel and Stars, a highly selective workshop led by Ethan Stiefel, co-star of the 2000 movie “Center Stage.”
Closer to home, the Des Plaines Arts Council made Stashak a three-time recipient of its fine arts scholarship, allowing him to study with the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago and the Faubourg School of Ballet in Hanover Park.
“Stashak is extremely bright and impassioned about exploring his talent,” said Mavis Staines, artistic director and co-CEO of Canada’s National Ballet School. “And that means he doesn’t find long hours of practice boring, but rather an opportunity to problem-solve and explore.”
Stashak’s journey began about 12 years ago when his mother dropped his twin sister, Katie, off at dance class. “He looked at me from the back seat and said, ‘Why can’t I go, too?’” Cathy Stashak recalls.
Before long, Stashak and his sister won small roles in the Joffrey Ballet’s “Nutcracker” at the Auditorium Theatre. In 2007, which proved Stashak’s fifth and final “Nutcracker” performance because he’d grown too tall, he was the first boy ever cast as polichinelle No. 1 — the first child who comes out of Mother Ginger’s hoop skirt — and danced a 30-second solo.
Even before moving to Toronto, his commitment to dance kept Stashak’s life hectic. Weekdays usually involved a full school day in Des Plaines, baseball or football practice, a brief sponge bath and dinner while his mom drove the 25 miles to Hanover Park, several hours of training at Faubourg, and then homework into the wee hours.
Adding to the stress were peers who bullied him for being a male ballet dancer, a tough period Stashak doesn’t mind now. “If I was a normal, popular kid, I wouldn’t have gone to Canada,” Stashak said. “It was character building and gave me an even greater passion and drive to show everyone what I could do.”
What Stashak can do appears to defy gravity, with his 5-foot-8 frame weightlessly leaping and moving in ways most can’t fathom.
Still, he’s not the model dancer. Many ballet companies are drawn to taller men with long legs and good feet, which extend a body’s line with beautiful arches and flexible ankles.
But what Stashak lacks in technique, he makes up with a certain X-factor. He brings charisma and energy to the stage, and excels at interacting with his partners and portraying a story. Plus, you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who works harder.
“Being onstage just elevates me,” Stashak said. “I may not have a classical body or the best technique, but I can shine.”
That’s one reason Stashak thinks Hamburg would be such a good fit. Unlike more traditional dance companies, Hamburg mixes classical with contemporary dance, which involves more freedom and less rigidity.
He also wants to experience life in Europe. “I hate knowing just one language, and ballet provides an amazing opportunity to learn about new cultures,” Stashak said.
As one of his mentors, Staines believes Stashak will be an asset to whatever company he ultimately joins. “Arthur is incredibly musical and has a particular catlike movement,” she said. “Though he’s working quite hard, it looks fluid and without effort.”
Although he won’t be able to join a company until he stops growing completely, Stashak hopes he’ll find a spot where he can build a reputation that will open stage doors everywhere. “I have the passion and the love and the strive for it,” Stashak said. “This is definitely the life I want to be living.”
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