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Royal Winnipeg Ballet School

By: Jen Zoratti
The Winnipeg Free press
January 25, 2014

“You’ll learn new things about yourself. They want you to succeed; no one wants you to fail.’  -Connor Coughlin, student

So you think you can dance?

On Sunday [January 26], the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School will hold auditions for its prestigious Professional Division programs in Winnipeg. It’s the final stop on a 15-date North American tour seeking out aspiring young dancers and teachers who are looking to translate their passion into a sustainable profession — and have got the goods to back it up. (Faculty and staff from RWB School will be heading overseas to hold auditions in Japan next month.)

“It’s one of the most exciting parts of our job,” says Arlene Minkhorst, the school’s director. “We look for potential. It’s a very exciting process, to see that potential be fulfilled. To start the process as the grassroots level is special.”

The RWB School’s Professional Division was established in 1970 with a practical goal: to provide the RWB with the crème de la crème of classically trained ballet dancers. Principal dancers Evelyn Hart, Jorden Morris, Tara Birtwhistle, Vanessa Lawson and Jo-Ann Sundermeier rank among the school’s alumni, along with current artistic director André Lewis.

The division has three programs. The ballet academic program is a full-time, seven-level training program designed for school-age students looking to make it as professional ballet dancers. If successful in the audition, students attend a four-week summer session in July before school starts in September. The program runs September to June, alongside the academic school year. Students can enter the program as early as age 11 (Grade 6). They complete Level 7 with a graduation diploma during their Grade 12 year.

The program is intensive. A ballet student’s day looks like this: grades 6 through 8 attend classes in the morning at Nordale School. They are picked up at 2:10 p.m. — dance classes begin at 2:45 p.m., and last until the early evening. High schoolers dance from 8:30 a.m. until 11:30 a.m., and then attend classes at the Collegiate at University of Winnipeg in the afternoon.

“All of them are dancing on Saturdays as well,” Minkhorst adds.

The RWB School is looking for one thing.

“We’re looking for talent,” Minkhorst says. “Our mandate is to train for the company but also the professional working world. We’re looking for dancers we can train to have careers in dance. It’s a narrow trajectory, but it can start broadly.”

Talent, of course, can come in many forms. With very young students, Minkhorst and her colleagues are looking at the raw material, so to speak: musculature, limber bodies, co-ordination, musicality. But they also seek another important piece of the puzzle: “We’re looking for someone who has a dream and a passion for dance,” Minkhorst says.

Minkhorst says the RWB School isn’t too concerned about past training for their very young Professional Division prospects. “As they get older, the past training is more important. We want to augment it.”

For older kids who have been dancing for a few years, making the decision to leave their dance school can be a hard one. “One of the things parents or dance teachers might say: ‘Why should a kid audition for a school like this?’ We’re working to support young people with the aptitude to move on. Our role is not to compete with other dance schools. We value our relationship with local dance schools. They are the teachers who really take the first step. They are the ones that recognize a child’s aptitude.”

The RWB School also offers a pair of post-secondary programs: the aspirant program, which is designed for advanced-level classical ballet dancers who are making the transition from student to professional dancer, and the teacher training program, which sets dancers up for a career in education. Many grads spend their careers with RWB; Professional Division graduates account for more than 70 per cent of the company and over half of the school’s artistic faculty.

“There are many professional dancers who will have to have a second career and a lot of them want to remain in the profession,” Minkhorst says. A recent example is former soloist Alexander Gamayunov, who retired after dancing in this past October’s production of A Handmaid’s Tale. He’s one of the faculty’s newest teachers. “It’s a synergy of growth when that happens.”

Of course, to get there, students will be expected to work very, very hard.

“It’s not a part-time activity,” Minkhorst says. “It’s what you want your career to be. People will say, ‘At 10 years old, you don’t know that.’ And some don’t. But it’s amazing how many young people do.”

Connor Coughlin knew. The 17-year-old Level 7 Professional Division student was 12 when he auditioned for the ballet academic program. He’s now a star student whose talent and dedication were recognized with a coveted Prince Edward Award last November.

In June, he’ll graduate, and he’s turning an eye to his post-grad plans. “I want to continue my dance studies in New York or Toronto. I’d like to travel around a bit.”

Though he’s got the itch to dance on stages all over the world, he says he’s thankful he was able to attend a high-calibre institution in his home city. (For many students, admittance to the Professional Division means leaving home well before their 18th birthday.)

He’s also grateful for the mentorship he’s received. “There’s just such a community here. The teachers have your best interests at heart. That’s been very meaningful to me.”

Minkhorst recognizes that parents might have reservations about the audition process — or the rigours of the program itself.

“I think it’s hard for parents to know if something like this is the right thing to do,” she says. “Encouraging your young person to try is great. We try to make the audition process as unscary as possible, because we know that, for many of them, it’s their first time. We try to set it up so it’s a positive experience, even if they aren’t successful in the audition. If your child has a passion for dance and is interested in seeing what potential they have, they should go.”

“It’s super-important to support your kids and their decisions,” Coughlin says. “If they’re really passionate about it, the experience will be hugely beneficial.”

Coughlin also has some advice for those thinking about auditioning. “I think it’s a great experience even if you don’t get into the summer program,” he says. “You’ll learn new things about yourself. They want you to succeed; no one wants you to fail. You have to forget what the results might be and focus on the process.”

“It’s a very empowering thing for a young person to find a passion,” Minkhorst says. “I am constantly told how special our kids are and how great they are as people, not just dancers.”

Auditions are at the following times: 10-12 years, 9-10 a.m.; 13-plus years, 10:30-11:15 a.m.; Ballet Master Class, 10-13 years, 11:30-1 p.m.; Ballet Master Class 14-plus years, 1-2:30 p.m.

© 2014 Winnipeg Free Press.

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