American Ballet Theatre and the Segerstrom Center join forces for new academy for young dancers.
By America Hernandez
The Orange County Register
November 18, 2014
[Costa Mesa, California, USA] – – With help from a donation by an Orange County arts patron, New York’s American Ballet Theatre will create a new children’s ballet school at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts – the company’s first academy outside Manhattan, officials with both organizations announced today.
Classes at the ABT William J. Gillespie School will begin in September for students ages 3 to 14 years old and will follow the same curriculum as the children’s division of the nationally known dance company’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, taught by ABT-certified coaches.
Enrollment begins Wednesday [November 19th]. No auditions are necessary;children will be placed at the appropriate skill level, Segerstrom officials said.
|Application and Scholarship forms are available at SCFTA.org/ABTGillespieSchool|
“We’ve commissioned work from ABT and featured many of their world premieres on our stages, so this seemed like a natural expansion of that longstanding relationship,” said Segerstrom Center president Terry Dwyer, who had been in talks for nearly two years with the ballet company’s chief executive Rachel Moore about bringing a world-class dance training program to the West Coast.
ABT and Segerstrom have tapped Alaine Haubert, former ABT principal and ballet mistress and professor of dance at Cal State Long Beach, to head the Gillespie School.
“We’ve been to Orange County every year for almost 30 years, we know the community and are extremely well-aware how committed it is to classical dance,” Moore said. “Having a year-round school that could support our annual productions, and to have our students in those performances, will allow us to be truly committed to Southern California.”
Local arts philanthropist William Gillespie donated the funds to open the school, but has asked the center not to disclose the amount of his gift. Gillespie has been an ABT boardmember since 1999 and has established dance scholarships and studios at UC Irvine.
It is unusual for a performing arts venue to open a ballet school, which is typically associated with a professional company that can audition and hire graduates for roles in productions. The Segerstrom center has no intention of opening a dance company in the near future, officials said.
Because the program at Segerstrom will initially only reach ballet level 4, which is ages 11 and up, students wishing to pursue the final three levels of pre-professional training will have to go elsewhere.
“The talented dancers who rise through the ranks and want to pursue a career will have the opportunity to do so in New York City, and students that don’t will have many other options, including extraordinary college training programs in Southern California at Chapman, UC Irvine, and the Kaufman School at USC,” the president said.
Officials see the new Gillespie school as an outgrowth of the center’s other arts outreach initiatives such as Disney Musicals in Schools, which brings musical theater training to classrooms in underserved communities, its Summer at the Center acting classes and year-round teaching artist residencies. “We have always felt that the more arts activities there are available, the more everyone in the community benefits,” Dwyer said.
Full tuition for a 3-year-old taking one 45-minute class per week will cost $1,150 for the 36-week school year, according to official numbers. That works out to roughly $32 per 45-minute class, nearly double the price charged by other ballet studios.
Students joining level 4 with class 5 days a week for about two hours and twenty minutes each day will pay $5,250 for the year.
The Gillespie school is up to $500 more expensive than ABT’s New York campus, but officials said this is because Gillespie’s school session is longer than the New York school’s.
The Junior Associates Program for more advanced students beginning in January costs $600 for six master classes and the opportunity to audition for ABT productions at Segerstrom.
Segerstrom did not disclose how much scholarship aid would be disbursed per year, saying only that it would help as many people participate as possible.
Members of the local dance community say that Orange County doesn’t really need another ballet academy. “We have so many great schools in Orange County that train dancers really well, but then we have to send them out of Orange County to find jobs in companies,” said Salwa Rizkalla, founder of Southland Ballet Academy and Festival Ballet Theatre in Fountain Valley and Irvine.
In 2011, Pointe Magazine named Southland Ballet Academy one of seven top-producing ballet schools in the nation, with students going on to dance in companies around the world and winning full scholarships to programs such as the Royal Ballet School in London. In Laguna Hills, the Viktor & Tatiana Kasatsky Classical Ballet Academy and the Dmitri Kulev Classical Ballet Academy, as well as the Pacific Ballet Conservatory in Aliso Viejo, have also sent students on to dance with companies in the U.S. and Europe.
“What we need is jobs for our inspired dancers who have spent years honing their artistry, or a junior company – not another school to teach 7-year-olds ‘plié’ and ‘tendu,’” Rizkalla said.
Rizkalla said she was also concerned that smaller dance schools in the area may suffer as serious students flock toward the ABT name, willing to pay more for the classes in hopes of joining that company in New York later on.
In reality, fewer than a handful of ABT’s company dancers are students who have risen up the ranks of the Onassis school in New York. None of the company’s 25 principals and soloists graduated from the school, according to the dancers’ biographies on the ABT website.
About 30 percent of the corps de ballet is made up of Onassis alumni, but a closer look reveals that the vast majority most only attended for the final year or two to polish off their skills at ABT’s invitation, after having been scouted from the audition-only summer sessions or at ballet competitions like the Youth America Grand Prix.
Representatives for the Onassis school have said that virtually all of its students who graduate from level 7 and who wish to join a company are able to find employment.
It is impossible to track how many students choose not to continue their ballet studies at the school, how many are unable to graduate from level 7, and how many choose to attend college in lieu of dancing in a professional company.
Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of ABT, says these numbers miss the point. “When you send your child to school you expect them to study Shakespeare, not to become a Shakespearean actor,” he said, explaining that as public schools cut arts programs it is increasingly up to private organizations to fill the gap.
“Not everyone can be a world-class ballerina, there’s a very few dancers in this world who can get to that place,” said McKenzie, “But there is a huge populace that can learn the lessons of self-discipline, respect between the genders at an early age, the sense of community … all of these things that dance training provides, both for the serious student and avocational learner.”
By contrast, 47 out of 59 total company dancers – that’s nearly 80 percent – were offered a contract after passing through either ABT’s summer intensive program, which holds open auditions in 22 cities across the country to fill 1,000 spots each year, or the ABT Studio Company, which is a small, 14-person junior company that prepares young outstanding dancers for main company roles.
When the Onassis school launched 10 years ago in New York, admission was audition-only and only the uppermost levels were initially offered – it was a pre-professional academy designed to polish well-formed dancers for the professional stage.
For local teachers, the early Onassis model would be a dream. “If they brought an ABT II or ABT Studio Company here, I would send all my dancers there,” Rizkalla said.
For the foreseeable future, no new dance company – junior or full-fledged – is on its way to Orange County.
The 2007 demise of Ballet Pacifica highlighted both the financial difficulties of sustaining a professional corps, and the daunting task of competing with the Segerstrom Center’s international dance program.
Judy Morr, who puts together the center’s dance offerings every season, says the Gillespie school will do young dancers one better: let them watch from the wings.“If I were a student, just this season alone I’d have the unique chance to be backstage with the Mikhailovsky Ballet, Tango Buenos Aires, ABT and Eifman Ballet,” Morr said.
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