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By Sarina Trangle
The Riverdale Press
May 9, 2012

Benjamin Lepson stood in sweatpants, recuperating from his ballet performance in Gilbert & Sullivan, when a young boy asked the actor to sign his playbill.  Benjamin, a fifth-grader at Robert J. Christen, PS 81, bent down and slowly signed his name in the “script” he’d been practicing at home. “It’s really cool because they really thought I was awesome on stage,” said the 10-year-old. “I feel like a movie star.”

After five years of ballet training, Benjamin danced across the stage with professional ballet artists from Dances Patrelle in his first opera on May 3. He’s also been dancing with his peers as the fifth-grade prepared for a student-choreographed ballet show. PS 81 had ballet teachers introduce the dance genre to fifth-graders and sent classes to the School of American Ballet this year to educate students who were mocking Benjamin for his ballet dancing talents last year.

While Benjamin’s peers were learning new dance moves, Benjamin said he was busy acclimating to the new experience of coordinating his movements with narration from opera singers. “It’s really cool because you actually get to hear — instead of just an orchestra -— singing [at] an opera. The story is more clear,” said Benjamin. “I loved performing in this show and I thought it was a really great privilege.”

Draped in a linen shirt, baggy black bottoms and a red-orange bandana, he leaped across the stage as a pirate, thrusting his sword across his body. A few scenes later, Benjamin returned as a sailor, decked out in a straw hat and collared blue shirt. His arms imitated rowing motions while his feet grapevined him forward.

Benjamin’s favorite dance in the six mini-comedy scenes was the finale, in which “challenging” footwork wove him in and out of a cast twirling British flags and saluting the audience.

“Mostly everyone is out in the finale, so that’s what I like about it. But it’s hard to remember everything — where to put your flag, how to step, and the steps are more challenging. It’s more fast,” he said.

For the past two months, Benjamin has trained for Gilbert & Sullivan using a stick as a substitute for the weight of his sword. Rehearsals sometimes lasted for six or seven hours, but Benjamin never complained, according to his mother Linda Lepson. “The more hours the better because when I tell him, ‘You’re only going to be there an hour.’ He’ll go, ‘Aw,’” Ms. Lepson said. “He loves it. He wakes up in the morning and the first thing he does is dance. He just doesn’t stop moving.”

Benjamin was the only boy in his age group who was selected for Gilbert & Sullivan. He said he was “so excited” when he was offered two roles instead of the one he was anticipating.

His five years of study at The School of American Ballet, the official training academy of the New York City Ballet, have also helped him land roles in Dances Patrelle’s The Nutcracker, Hoboken Children Theater’s Thoroughly Modern Millie and the New York City Ballet’s Swan Lake. Famous performers such as Suzanne Farrell, Darci Kistler and Arthur Mitchell have trained at the Manhattan-based school.

Benjamin’s appreciation for dance began when he was 2, according to Ms. Lepson. “I used to take him to The Nutcracker. And finally when he was old enough to understand what was going on, I said, ‘Do you want to dance?’ because he was mesmerized,” Ms. Lepson recalled. “The first time he went on stage it was a dream because he was doing what he wanted.”

His passion became a part of PS 81’s curriculum for the first time this year when administrators decided to teach ballet to quiet Benjamin’s bullies. The entire fifth-grade planned to put on a show on Wednesday, May 9, featuring a routine choreographed by each class.

Ms. Lepson said she was pleased that the administration found a creative way to teach away the teasing. “Now they’re in a dance program at school together — and these are the kids who were making fun of him — that are in the piece. It’s really amazing,” said Ms. Lepson.

Benjamin said some of his classmates thought ballet was “silly” before. Now, they’ve “gotten used to it.”

© 2012 Richner Communications, Inc.

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