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By TARA DOOLEY

Houston Chronicle

Jan. 30, 2009

 

[Edited]

 sebastian-conchas-17-houston-ballet-academy-2009

Bolstered by a commitment beyond his years, 15-year-old Sebastian Concha left behind his friends, family and home in Chile to pursue his education in Houston.

His first order of business when he arrived at his new school was to learn how to pick up girls.

Literally.

“I just couldn’t do it because I wasn’t strong,” Concha said.

It was a skill missing from the repertoire he brought from his home in Santiago. So, soon after his arrival in the United States, he added gym workouts to the hours of physical training required of a teenager with talent and the aspiration to rise in a competitive field and one day dance on the stages of the world’s great ballet companies.

For the past 2½ years, Concha has trained six days a week at the school and as part of Houston Ballet’s pre-professional company, Houston Ballet II.

Now 17, Concha can “lift any girl,” he said. He has moved on to challenges of posture and attitude as he pursues a career that is usually launched at age 18 and ended around the time a dancer reaches 30.

“I would love to dance in London or Europe in general,” Concha said. “Of course, everybody’s dream is to be a principal dancer in a big company.”

Last week, Concha and representatives from the school and Houston Ballet headed to Switzerland for the Prix de Lausanne, a prestigious ballet competition that serves as an international job fair of sorts for the world’s exceptional young dancers and a recruiting opportunity for Houston’s ballet masters and school administrators.

Winning the competition, which ends today, is a near impossibility for most. Cuban Carlos Acosta, who was a Houston Ballet principal dancer in the 1990s and whose name is often uttered in the company of Baryshnikov and Nureyev, won a gold medal.

Last year, Nozomi Iijima, now an apprentice at Houston Ballet, made it through the semifinals. But for most, just being accepted to the competition from a video audition is prize enough.

“It would be thrilling to come back and say Sebastian won,” said Shelly Power, associate director of the academy, who will accompany the teen to Switzerland. “But it is just as thrilling to take him there.”

 

Career started at age 8

Before he started to dance, Sebastian Concha performed professionally on television, starting at age 8. He appeared in commercials on three television shows in Chile.

Concha’s path to a ballet career began with a samba at a local dance school. From the start, the movement of dance appealed to him, he said.

After watching the movie Billy Elliot, he decided to give ballet a try. At the barre and on the ballet dance floor, he felt a sense of destiny.

“Since the first class that I took, I knew that is what I want,” Concha said. “I loved it. Don’t ask me how. I just knew that’s what I would do for life.”

He was 12.

By age 14, he was involved with a professional ballet company in Santiago. But Concha said he felt unprepared for the challenge. He was also surrounded by old people in the company, dancers who were “like 30.”

His chance at an education here, in the company of young dancers and great teaching, arrived when fellow Chilean and Houston ballet master Claudio Muñoz visited Santiago to teach a class.

As Muñoz remembers it, the teen approached the visiting teacher and addressed him as maestro, then launched into a stream of chatter about how much he wanted to be a dancer and study in Houston.

Muñoz said he silenced the boy and told him to go to the barre and to dance, not talk.

When Concha arrived at the Ben Stevenson Academy, “he was a baby,” Muñoz said, just another student in a class that functioned on a high level. About a year ago, the teen distinguished himself with a performance that caught Muñoz’s eye, he said.

“He has a beautiful artistry and body facility and personality,” Muñoz said. “He is bold.”

 

Soft elegance

At 17, Concha has a soft elegance accentuated by giraffelike limbs and baby-blue eyes hidden beneath dark brows. It’s an unassuming beauty that graciously takes back seat to affable enthusiasm.

By his own admission, Concha is undaunted when approaching strangers and new experiences. Though he misses Chile and his family, the feeling comes more from love than a sense of homesickness, he said.

When he arrived, Concha knew little English beyond “Hi,” he said. More than two years later, he speaks in a waterfall of words that sometimes flow in nearly unaccented American slang and other times bear the inflections and structures of Spanish.

In contrast, Concha said, ballet is sometimes hard. It was one of the qualities that drew him to the dance. “There is always something you have to fix,” he said. “You are always working on something.” But the trick is to make it look effortless.

Indeed, a 9 a.m. class for the male members of Houston Ballet’s pre-professional company and upper-level academy students started off looking quite easy.

At the barre, 10 lean boys in tights, T-shirts and ballet slippers in varying degrees of disrepair replicated the patterns of foot and arm movements dictated by instructor and former Houston Ballet principal dancer Andrew Murphy.

In the first 45 minutes of constant movement, the only visible signs of effort were a slight tremor in an arm, or an upper lip quickly swiped with the back of a hand. At the end of the full hour and a half, T-shirts were soaked down the front, hair was curled with moisture, and serene expressions had turned to looks of exhaustion.

“They are about to go into the professional world,” Murphy said. “You have to allow them to learn to work for themselves.”

Members of the pre-professional company — 18 dancers, 11 of whom are U.S. citizens — receive full scholarships for their education and a small stipend for living expenses based on need, Power said.

The annual cost of training the future ballet dancers is about $15,000 per student. Much of the money is raised at the Nutcracker Market each November.

“They have to be very disciplined and very focused,” said Power.

 

Self-confidence shows

At the upcoming competition in Switzerland, contestants are judged not only on their technique but also on their ability to maintain poker-faced poise.

Concha must perform solos from two ballets. Power said she expects Concha to shine. “He has a convincing sense of self-confidence,” she said. That might come in handy among the cream of the world’s young dance community.

In Houston, Power is the reality check for students. She helps them assess their goals and talents and desire to dance, whether in Paris, France, or Paris, Texas.

Recently, Concha had a taste of dancing in a troupe at the Latin Grammy Awards, onstage with Colombian performer Jorge Celedón.

The screaming crowds in Toyota Center were fun. But his heart is in classical ballet.

“I loved being in the Grammys, but I don’t want to do it for life,” he said. “I would like to do it once in a while, but I want to do ballet until I can’t move anymore.”

 

Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle

 

Houston dancer wins scholarship

 

By TARA DOOLEY

HOUSTON CHRONICLE

Feb. 2, 2009

[Edited]

[Sebastian] Concha, a member of the Houston Ballet’s pre-professional company, was one of six scholarship prize winners announced Sunday on the final day of the competition. He placed sixth among 80 dancers chosen to attend the event from a video audition and 20 finalists.

The scholarship includes a year of tuition to a dance school and 16,000 Swiss francs, said Andrew Edmonson, the Houston Ballet’s director of marketing and public relations. That’s nearly $14,000.

The six-day competition began Jan. 27 and required Concha to perform before judges in classlike settings and on the stage in two different ballet roles. It was a grueling process, said Shelly Power, the associate director of the Houston Ballet’s academy, who accompanied Concha to Switzerland.

Though a scholarship was won, the real prize may be the exposure Concha received in Switzerland, said C.C. Conner, managing director of the Houston Ballet.

“It is a great résumé tool when you are looking for a job in a ballet company,” Conner said. “He will have been seen there by people from around the world.”

 

 

Copyright 2009 HOUSTON CHRONICLE

 

 

 

 

 

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