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By ANDY DEMSKY, Register Correspondent
Napa Valley Register
February 22, 2010


Studying ballet in San Francisco is turning Ethan Chudnow’s life into a complex dance all its own. From tough two-hour classes to a six-day-a-week commute to recent performances in San Francisco Ballet’s “Swan Lake,” Chudnow and his family find their lives changed in ways they never expected. “It’s a challenge, but we feel really fortunate,” said Ethan’s dad, Mark Chudnow.

Ethan’s Level 3 classes at San Francisco Ballet School are held in the late afternoon Monday through Saturday, in a high-traffic area adjacent to the War Memorial Opera House. “We spend a lot of time in the car,” said Ethan’s mom, Jeanette Chudnow, who shares driving duties with her husband, Mark.

Ethan has studied ballet in Napa since he was in preschool, most recently at Napa Regional Dance Company, where local audiences have seen him for several years in the annual holiday show, “The Nutcracker.”

“When he was 4 he watched his older sister Sharon taking ballet and he wanted to do it, too,” Jeanette said. “He’s always really enjoyed it.”

In September, Napa Regional Dance Company Director Wanda McGill encouraged Ethan’s parents to take him to San Francisco Ballet School’s auditions for a highly coveted spot in the program.

Jeanette drove him to the school, where he was one of more than a dozen boys who tried out before a panel of judges. “Our attitude was that we’d just wait and see,” said Jeanette. “We never figured it would actually happen.”

Within a few days, though, the family received an e-mail from the school stating Ethan had been accepted.

Then came the real decision. “We had to ask ourselves, ‘Can we do this?’” Jeanette said. “We had some big discussions.” It would be a huge commitment, something that would seem unfathomable to most children or parents. Saying “yes” would affect the lives of the whole family. Ultimately, it was too good to pass up, Jeanette said.

For Ethan the hour-and-a-half trip to the ballet school and back can involve doing schoolwork, watching a movie, chatting with mom or dad or just enjoying some quiet time. “It’s actually really nice to get to spend so much time with him in the car,” said Mark. “Sometimes it’s quiet, but a lot of the time we get to talk.”

The family is uniquely situated to make this commitment work. All three of the Chudnow children, Sharon, Ethan and younger brother Asher, are home-schooled. In addition, Mark works from home as one of only a few oboe makers in the country. Jeanette, a former professional musician, jokingly refers to herself at the Director of Homeland Affairs. “We feel lucky that our lives just happen to make this possible,” said Mark.

At the end of January, after only four months of study at the dance school, Ethan got the chance to perform in San Francisco Ballet’s “Swan Lake.” Even though it meant even more trips to San Francisco for rehearsals, Ethan was exhilarated, said his mom.

Act One of the show kicked off with Chudnow playing one of the children in a party scene. The stage was filled with numerous dances, including one in which Chudnow and other children dance for the entertainment of a prince, one of the show’s key figures.

Ethan said he loved the performances. “I thought it was fun being on stage; seeing everyone in the audience was really exciting,” said Ethan.

He said one of the greatest challenges was to learn to listen to the live orchestra and time his dance steps with the music.

“With the show over, we can relax now,” Mark said with a laugh, referring to a return to the six-day-a-week schedule instead of an every day drive to and from rehearsals and performances.

Ethan isn’t the only dancer in the family. His sister Sharon, 13, has been studying at Napa Regional Dance Company for several years and has been accepted into four different summer programs around the country, including the prestigious Joffrey Ballet’s summer program in New York. “That would involve going to New York for four weeks,” Mark said. “At some point we’ll have to decide which program to go with.”

Ethan’s younger brother Asher, 5, started taking ballet classes at Napa Regional Dance Company last year and enjoyed his first performance in “The Nutcracker” at Lincoln Theater just before Christmas.

In spite of all the work and the commitment, Ethan’s enthusiasm for his classes remains high. The focus, he said, is on building strength and precision. “As a male dancer, you spend a lot of time lifting the girls,” said Chudnow. “So I’m doing 32 push-ups a day and 160 crunches.”

Separately, the classes are 90 minutes to two hours long, and they’re a workout. “Some days my teacher really pushes us and when class is over I’m all red in the face and sweaty,” Ethan said.

Students from San Francisco Ballet school have gone on to perform with the Joffrey Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, New York City Ballet and many other prestigious companies.

At 10, Ethan isn’t ready to map out his future. For the moment he’s looking forward to this summer, when the Level 3 San Francisco Ballet School goes on hiatus. He’ll sign on once again for Napa Regional Dance Company and spend a lot less time in the car.


© Copyright 2010, Napa Valley Register

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