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By Lewis Whittington
Photograph by Malcolm S. Drushkin
The Philadelphia  Inquirer
May 06, 2010

 

BALTIMORE – Billy Elliotis the fictional story of a boy who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer.

At the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University here, a handful of boys are living that dream as the first students of Estelle Dennis/Peabody Dance Training Program.

Dennis, a 20th-century champion of ballet in Baltimore, established a trust to support boys seeking careers in dance. The program is under the artistic guidance of Barbara Weisberger, founder and former artistic director of the Pennsylvania Ballet and a onetime protégé of George Balanchine.

“I was not one of Mr. Balanchine’s muses,” Weisberger, 84, said recently. “He saw in me something else. He gave me something just as meaningful.”

What Balanchine saw was a uniquely gifted teacher, one who now is influencing yet another generation of dancers. She and Carol Bartlett, artistic director of Peabody Dance and her partner in developing the program, have assembled a network of professionals to work with the students.

One of them is former Pennsylvania Ballet soloist Meredith Rainey, who initially worked with more than 50 applicants ranging in age from 9 to 15. He was looking for “exceptional boys with the raw ability, facility, and real desire to dance.” Twenty-four made the cut, and a year later 18 are still taking classes, a dozen coming every week without fail.

Most who applied were African American or members of other minority groups historically underrepresented on the ballet stage. The program has had such an auspicious beginning that it is receiving a diversity recognition award this month from Johns Hopkins University.

Weisberger says individual expression is a vital part of expanding vocabulary in all dance. “There is a mixture here of kids from various backgrounds,” she said. “We let the boys do their own improv sessions at the end of the classes.”

Last month, while preparing for an open house for community leaders and teachers, four of the boys – Isaiah Stanley, Isaiah Ball, Dennis Moore, and Troy Rice – talked about their experiences.

Stanley, 16, called the class challenging, “but nothing we can’t handle.” He said barre work can be “a little boring, but combinations [sequences of steps] are always fun.”

Ball, 13, is a fan of jumps – “I like to be in the air, and I’m really working on my split.” Moore, 11, also likes combination work and is particularly good at remembering the complicated steps – “I just get it.”

Rice, 13, is tuned in to “the basics” – “I did hip-hop, now I’m doing ballet.” His music teacher encouraged him to try out.

Were they worried about mockery from their peers? Ball said that though some of their friends “think ballet is for girls,” the taunts don’t bother them. “We just wanted the opportunity to dance” – and sometimes with girls, in partnering classes.

The boys’ instructors – in alternate weeks – are Rainey and Timothy Rinko-Gay, a Peabody dance teacher. Stanley said, “Meredith is easygoing, and . . . Tim is more strict. The smallest mistake, he tells us – but we need to know.”

Weisberger suggested the Philadelphia-based Rainey for the program. “He’s just what I needed because he choreographs, too,” she said, “and is a veteran performer.” Now semiretired as a dancer, Rainey is very much in demand as a choreographer and has just received a $20,000 grant from Pew’s Dance Advance to develop a new work.

Weisberger’s connection with her Peabody boys is immediately apparent as she prepares them for the day’s schedule of class and the open house. All eyes are on her as she says: “This is not just open house to parents – it is for the community.” Her larger message: Don’t change your style, but use ballet as a tool for any type of dance or situation in life.

“Mr. Rainey will be taking you through barre. We just want to show everybody what we are trying to do here. So just do what you do and relax.” Observing will be local educators, parents, and potential funders.

For the open house Weisberger has brought in Jason Reed, a guest instructor from the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. Reed has a background similar to those of some of the boys in class and has tracked their progress since the auditions, when he saw what he called “unrealized potential” as well as “a little bit of them not knowing what they are getting into initially.”

Ballet is as physically rigorous as any sport – in fact, Reed starts his session with football-field calisthenics. He works with students at every level of training and said he could relate to what the boys may feel about a future in dance: “The perception of what it is, and the reality, are two different things.”

After warm-ups, he shows them how to strengthen their cores with Martha Graham techniques; demonstrates how ballet, contemporary, and modern disciplines can be applied to any form of dance; goes from a dramatic contraction to a cool hip-hop lock slide; then bounds into a perfectly executed entrechat. Then Rainey takes them through exacting barre work. Throughout, the boys are completely attentive. This does not look like beginning ballet.

Earlier in the spring, Weisberger was back in Philadelphia at a Pennsylvania Ballet performance, being greeted with obvious fondness and respect by dancers coming off stage. She had with her original photos from the Balanchine Archive, of her long-ago self in the studio with Balanchine. He stands before her as she works out at the barre, youth and experience sharing unconditional love of craft.

Her Baltimore ballet boys will be able to test out their love of the same craft for the first time this month, when they take the stage at Peabody as part of the cast of Bartlett’s adaptation of Sleeping Beauty.

 

Copyright 2010 The Philadelphia  Inquirer

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