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By Moira Macdonald
Photographs by Greg Gilbert
The Seattle Times
November 29, 2012

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s DanceChance program finds young movers in Seattle and Bellevue elementary schools and exposes them to ballet. Some go on to perform in “Nutcracker” as students or, eventually, professionals.

Lucas Galvan, 9, rehearses his part in the PNB Nutcracker 2012Many roads lead to “Nutcracker”; some more unexpected than others. Pacific Northwest Ballet’s annual run of the beloved holiday ballet, designed by Maurice Sendak and choreographed by Kent Stowell, begins Friday and features 217 children from the PNB School. Of those, 33 came from the company’s DanceChance community-outreach program — including two of the three boys playing Clara’s brother, Fritz — and two program graduates appear in the ballet’s adult roles.

“Without DanceChance, I don’t think I would have been immersed in this art form,” said Eric Hipolito, a 22-year-old PNB company member who was chosen for DanceChance in 1998 as a third grader at Beacon Hill’s Maple Elementary. He’ll be dancing multiple roles in “Nutcracker” this year — Mouse King, Dervish, Commedia, party-scene father — alongside his 18-year-old brother, Enrico, a DanceChance graduate now in the PNB School’s Professional Division. Darren Huang and Lucas Galvan, two 9-year-olds from Wing Luke and Dearborn Park elementary schools respectively, will share the role of Fritz with Logan Dopps.

Begun in 1994 by Francia Russell, DanceChance brings ballet to Seattle and Bellevue public-school students who might not otherwise be exposed to the art form. The program partners with 22 schools (19 in Seattle, three in Bellevue), all with a high percentage of students on free/reduced lunch programs. PNB faculty members come to the schools, give a presentation about ballet, and audition third-graders with a simple class.

“The class introduces some basic ballet steps, but with a lot of stretching so we can see their flexibility, their body capability, musicality, focus — we’re looking for the whole package,” said DanceChance manager Jennifer McLain. “A lot of kids are amazing dancers, but we’re looking for certain things for ballet.”

“They told us to do the splits, then stretching and skipping and stuff,” remembered Lucas, of his audition more than a year ago. Darren, a quiet boy with an impish smile that should suit the role of mischievous Fritz well, remembered being asked to do tendus — the precise pointing of the foot that’s the basis of ballet. Both boys were invited to join the program. “I told my mom that I got into a ballet school, and she got so excited, it was like she was going crazy,” said Lucas.

About 5 percent of the children auditioned are offered a place in the DanceChance program, which includes free classes, dancewear, transportation to the PNB School, and tickets to PNB performances. To date, about 1,200 students have been enrolled in the program, which lasts for two years, though some leave earlier. At its conclusion, select students are invited to join the regular PNB School classes, where they may apply for financial assistance as needed.

“Nutcracker” is a major event for all PNB students, who must audition annually for the ballet’s 90 children’s roles. (All roles are double-cast; some are triple-cast.) Ali Prevost-Reilly, a DanceChance graduate now in her fifth year of study at PNB sharing the role of Clara with two other students in this year’s production, and numerous other program veterans will appear as Toy Theater children, party guests, infantry and Chinese dancers.

Ballet Master Otto Neubert, right, Darren Huang (center) and Tayler Nguyen, rehearse the party scene for PNB's Nutcracker 2012For Lucas and Darren, currently in their second year of DanceChance, this was their first opportunity to audition for “Nutcracker” — and they’re excited to be playing a major role in the Act I party scene. Lucas described Fritz as “kind of like a little kid, breaking stuff, like a little brat.” (Asked if this would be difficult for him to act, he quickly shook his head, grinning.) They’ve performed on the big stage at McCaw Hall once before — at a DanceChance recital last spring — but this is a much bigger commitment. Each will dance in about 11 “Nutcracker” performances, in front of large audiences. Are they nervous? No. Lucas said he “needs more of a challenge” than the recital. Darren just smiled.

In class, both Lucas and Darren say they enjoy jumping but find changements (jumps in which the feet rapidly change position) and the splits challenging. Away from PNB, both enjoy sports and video games. Asked if they’ll stick with ballet as they get older, Darren said he isn’t sure; Lucas said he’d like to be “a dancer and a football player.”

If these grade-school boys are looking for career models, they needn’t look further than the Hipolito brothers, both of whom knew little or nothing of ballet when selected for DanceChance. Enrico, in his first year of the two-year Professional Division, hopes to be invited to join the company one day — “that would be awesome.” Eric, now in his fifth year with the company, looks forward to more touring and perhaps dancing internationally some day. He said it took him a little while to fall in love with dance, and that only when he began performing small roles with the company (in “Nutcracker,” “Don Quixote,” and others) did he realize that it was what he wanted to do.

“Seeing all the company members onstage, having a live orchestra — you see why you’re doing it,” he said.

Asked what advice they might give Darren and Lucas, or any students following in their DanceChance footsteps, Enrico said, “It gets better as you get older. It gets more fun; you learn new tricks.” Eric said he’d encourage them to take every advantage of the program’s offerings. “All the information you get from these great teachers and faculty, being surrounded by this atmosphere — take it in and absorb it. You’re chosen for a reason; you have potential for this. See how it goes.”

Copyright ©2012 The Seattle Times Company

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