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Tanner Bleck at the Prix de Lausanne (photo by Gregory Batardon) 2014

By Amanda Starling
The Tampa Bay Times
February 20, 2014

Tanner Bleck, 15, was one of 69 students in the world to compete in Lausanne, He placed in the top 20 (photo by Will Vragovic) 2014[Tampa Bay, Florida, USA] – Tanner Bleck takes a series of steps across the wood floor. Instructors with the Patel Conservatory bark at his ballet classmates, but he darts from one corner of the room to the other, jerking a stop for rapid tendus, stretching his left foot away from his right.

Tanner, 15, spent years of his childhood on wood floors, practicing balanced movements and leaps in front of mirrors. His feet have carried him from acting classes to small stages to the glowing lights of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.

For the Lexington, Ky., dancer, it’s a series of ballet steps that whisked him from his hometown to prestigious summer ballet intensives to the recently completed Prix de Lausanne, a prestigious international competition for ballet students between the ages of 15 and 19.

Tanner’s day typically involves seven or more hours of ballet study, from class to intensive individual study under the watchful eye of instructors. By 8 p.m., he is bent over textbooks, wrapping up his virtual high school courses.

He recalled being inspired by Steve from Blue’s Clues, who would bound back and forth, singing and dancing on his television screen. He found that dancing was where his heart was, as he learned from after-school classes, as his instructors pointed at his feet and his posture.

He had multiple offers for ballet study at age 13: Houston Ballet Company, Ballet West Coast, the National Ballet of Canada, and the Patel Conservatory at the Straz Center.

Tanner wanted to work with the conservatory’s Peter Stark, known for pushing his dancers to the next level — international. It was an instant connection.

“It takes a combination of innate physical ability and hard work and training,” Stark said. “(Students) have incredible strength and flexibility in their feet, but they have also worked hard to get where they are today.”

Tanner Bleck in NGB's The Nutcracker (photo by SoHo Images) 2013

To realize his dream in dance, Tanner traveled alone to Tampa at 13. He spent a year with instructor Susan Downey and her family. It was different, being away from his parents that long, but the Downey family felt warm and comfortable.

“I’ve been having to mature a lot faster than most people are because I had to move down here by myself,” Tanner said. “I was mostly focused on dance, schooling. If I was sick or injured, I didn’t really have anyone there.”

Lori Bleck recalled crying in the absence of her youngest son. It would be a strain on the family’s tight budget, but she would fly to Tampa every month. Her relatives lived in Land O’Lakes and provided her a place to stay while she visited Tanner. In time, she found work in the Tampa Bay area as a purchaser for a company.

“We’re a very close-knit family,” she said. “Everything we do is for the future of our children. Our whole life is for our children. If we can produce functioning, wonderful human beings that are good role models to others, that’s what it’s all about.”

Her husband, Russell, stayed behind in Lexington and maintained his job as a painting contractor. He traveled with Tanner to the Prix de Lausanne for support.  “I just kind of marvel at him,” Russell Bleck said. “It makes it easier knowing that he loves what he’s doing.”

Only 69 students in the world are selected for the Prix de Lausanne, 10 from the United States. Tanner was one of only three American boys offered the chance to study with the most talented instructors across the globe.

He placed in the top 20 dancers worldwide.

The anxiety he built up on a flight to Lausanne, Switzerland, faded as he entered classrooms and shook hands with talent scouts and instructors from the world’s most coveted ballet companies. The classes were different from the ballet instruction in the United States. In Europe, ballet focuses on classical technique.

“Some people couldn’t do as many turns or jump as high,” he said. “But technique-wise, everything was just so clean. They would just focus on every tiny detail.”

The Prix de Lausanne felt different from other competitions to him. His classmates at Patel were like family, but with a consistent competitive edge. In eight days, he bonded with teens his age, clapping and cheering for each contestant with sincerity. “They were so good that you were happy for everyone,” Tanner said. “I was really expecting something so different. All we could think was that there was not one kid here who doesn’t deserve it.”

Before the Prix, Tanner was offered a full scholarship from the Zurich Ballet for four years, which included college courses. By the end of the eight-day trip, he had scholarship offers from the San Francisco Ballet, the Stuttgart Ballet and the Hamburg Ballet.

His selection won’t be easy, but for now he’s just focusing on his passion. “I just love to be able to perform on stage,” he said. “The second I went on stage, I saw lights and thought, ‘This is fun. This is where I am.’ “

© 2014  Tampa Bay Times

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NGB’s Summer Fantasy features young talent

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Tanner Bleck, Next Generation Ballet, Patel Conservatory

Dream, Reach, Discover, Create
The Blog of the Patel Conservatory
January 25, 2014

[Tampa, Florida, USA] – Congratulations to Next Generation Ballet (NGB) New Artists Tanner Bleck and Olivia Gusti, who will compete in the world’s most prestigious dance competition, the Prix de Lausanne.

Approximately 60 dancers are selected from hundreds of entries worldwide.

Gusti and Bleck were two of only 10 from the United States to be accepted into the competition, which will be Jan. 26 through Feb. 1, 2014 in Lausanne, Switzerland. Bleck, 15, is one of only three American males accepted into the Prix de Lausanne.

The six-day event offers dancers scholarships to world renowned ballet schools.

Bleck moved to Tampa from Kentucky last year to train with NGB. He started ballet at age seven at Bluegrass Youth Ballet in Lexington, KY, and continued at Bluegrass School for the Creative and Performing Arts. Tanner has received scholarships and attended summer intensive programs at the Boston Ballet, Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, Jose Carreño Dance Festival and Next Generation Ballet. He recently placed second in the Classical Senior Men category and in the top 12 in the Contemporary Senior Men at the Youth America Grand Prix semi-finals in Tampa.

St. Petersburg native Gusti, 15, has been with the Patel Conservatory’s dance program for several years. She began dancing at age 6 with Ballet Pensacola before moving to the Tampa area and training at Florida West Ballet under the instruction of Povel Fomin. With NGB, she’s danced feature roles including Godmother in Cinderella and Dew Drop in The Nutcracker. She has also performed with the Moscow Ballet in St. Petersburg. Most recently, she won the Grand Prix award at the YAGP semi-finals in Tampa.

Former NGB dancers Hannah Bettes and William Dugan are now training abroad through opportunities at the Prix de Lausanne.

Best of luck to Bleck and Gusti as they embark on their journey!

By Megan Hussey
Tampa Bay Times
February 15, 2013

William Dugan, 16, will study at the Hamburg School of Ballet in Hamburg, Germany 2013[Tampa Bay, Florida, USA] – If Lori Dugan noticed anything about her little son William, it was his great love for movement. “He was always dancing around my living room,” the New Port Richey mother recalled with a smile. “He danced a lot and did crazy movements.”

Just a few weeks ago Lori watched her son, now 16, move around a different stage. William Dugan, a student of the Patel Conservatory in Tampa and member of the conservatory’s Next Generation Ballet preprofessional ballet company, was selected to compete in the world-renowned Prix de Lausanne dance competition in Lausanne, Switzerland, which took place Jan. 27 through Feb. 3.

Of nearly 300 young dancers ages 15-18 from around the world who auditioned for this competition, William was one of 84 candidates chosen to compete and one of only 10 selected from the United States.

“It was a week of classes where I danced before a panel jury of internationally known ballet dancers,” he said. “Then we performed solos before the jury.”

William Dugan, 16, at the Prix de Lausanne 2013William and the other dancers were judged according to their artistry, physical suitability, courage and individuality, an imaginative and sensitive response to the music, a clear grasp in communicating differing movement dynamics, and technical facility, control and coordination. Although William was not one of the 20 competitors chosen to perform in the culminating show of the Prix de Lausanne, his performance earned him five scholarship offers from ballet schools around the world. This fall he will leave for a two-year course of intensive dance study at the Hamburg School of Ballet in Hamburg, Germany.

This is the latest milestone in the budding dance career of a student who has danced with the Miami City Ballet and last year participated in another international ballet competition, the Beijing International Ballet Invitational. In January, he placed third at the regional level of the Youth America Grand Prix, regarded as the largest student ballet competition in the world. That earned him a place in the national competition in April in New York City. Back home at the Patel Conservatory, he recently danced the role of the Snow King in The Nutcracker, and next he will be seen May 19 in the Next Generation Ballet production of Cinderella, in the male lead of Prince Charming.

“I like how it feels to move,” he said. “I express myself through movement.”

By age 11 William was honing his talents at the Renaissance Academy in Port Richey, studying musical theater, jazz and other dance and performance styles. Yet he knew from an early age that ballet was his discipline of choice.

“There are so many life lessons in ballet,” he said. “You learn to be graceful, controlled, responsible.”

At age 12 William undertook a course of intensive ballet study at the Patel Conservatory, where he now attends classes at least eight hours a day, six days a week. Aside from rehearsing his role in Cinderella, he takes classes in contemporary ballet, partnering and men’s technique. He studies other subjects during evenings and weekends as a student of the Florida Virtual School.

“He puts in a very long day,” said mom Lori, a massage therapist. “I’m very proud.”

William credits his parents and his grandmother, Barbara Sbordon, with encouraging and supporting his passion for dance and his mom with teaching him techniques of movement that will help him avoid injuries while dancing. His primary influences in the ballet world are “Mikhail Baryshnikov and Mr. Peter” — as in Peter Stark, artistic director of the Next Generation Ballet, who teaches William’s ballet classes and filmed his audition video for the Prix de Lausanne.

“William has really worked hard for everything he’s achieved,” said Stark, a former lead dancer with the New York City Ballet who was featured on the cover of Dance Teacher magazine. “He has tremendous character and never moves on from a step until he achieves it perfectly. He’s determined to make it happen.”

Lori Dugan said she and her husband, Tim, are considering relocating with their son to Hamburg this fall; although she looks forward to yet another trip overseas with her globetrotting son, she remembers the Tampa teachers who taught him to move with meaning.

“I have to admit I tear up a bit when I think about leaving the village that raised my son,” she said, “but I also look forward to our next adventure.”

© 2013 Tampa Bay Times

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Dream, Reach, Discover,Create
July 22, 2012

When Tanner Bleck was little, he wanted to be on Blues Clues. “I always wanted to be Steve from Blues Clues, it used to be my favorite show,” said Tanner.

So when he was six years old, he asked for acting lessons for his birthday. From then on, he’s loved performing.

Now an accomplished dancer, the 14-year old from Lexington, KY will perform this Friday along with nearly 150 advanced ballet students from around the globe in Next Generation Ballet’s Summer Fantasy.

The show will be a culmination of NGB’s summer intensive and will include performances from professional guest artists including Jeffrey Cirio and Lia Cirio of the Boston Ballet, and Dylan G-Bowley of Ballet Memphis.

When Tanner was seven years old, through his acting classes, he learned about the concept of the triple threat (an actor, singer and dancer), which piqued his interest in dance. A fan of the television show So You Think You Can Dance, he thought he’d take ballroom dance. But he couldn’t find any local classes. He wasn’t immediately sold on the idea of ballet, but his mom told him that ballet was the basis for most other dance styles.

“She told me, ‘if you can do that, you can do anything,’” he said.

So he decided to take the plunge and signed up for lessons at Bluegrass Youth Ballet.

“Every since I took my first ballet class, I fell in love with it,” said Tanner, who went on to the School for the Creative and Performing Arts in Lexington, and continued lessons at Bluegrass Youth Ballet.

Now, instead of dreaming about being on TV, he dreams of becoming a professional dancer.

Earlier this year, he took first place in the junior classical dance category at the Indianapolis regional Youth America Grand Prix competition. “At competitions, I like that feeling of seeing other kids do really good, and I want to be as good as them.”

He went on to the YAGP finals in New York in April and has since had invitations to study at some of the best ballet schools.

He has chosen to join us this fall at the Patel Conservatory to train full-time in NGB’s pre-professional program. “I kept hearing everyone talk about how Peter [Stark] would be a good fit for me. I had this gut feeling to come here,” said Tanner. “Then I started working with Peter, and I knew this is the one [school] I wanted to go to…

“He’s helped me so much with my technique, and helping me build strength.”

In addition learning how to jump higher and land his double tours, Tanner’s also enjoyed getting to know dancers from around the country these past few weeks. And, he’s earned the privilege to perform a solo in this Friday’s show [July 24].

“No one’s really asked me to do anything like that before, my own solo,” he said.

He’s thrilled to be able “to dance with other amazing dancers from around the world.”

Other guest performers include NGB alumni Drew Nelson and Skyler Martin. Nelson currently attends Royal Ballet School (RBS), and Martin is a recent graduate of the RBS (2012) and new company member with Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam.

Related Articles: Young dancer’s goal is to fill the shoes of ‘Billy Elliot’

By Mary Shedden
Photographs by Jim Reed
The Tampa Tribune
May 26, 2012

The first red flag came from a school guidance counselor. John Paul wasn’t the student he used to be. The seventh-grader at Tampa’s Orange Grove Middle School was driving teachers crazy with constant requests to get water, go to the bathroom or visit the clinic.

If he went to the clinic one more time with complaints of hunger, thirst and fatigue, he’d be suspended, his mother recalls.

“I was thinking he was just a whiner,” Kathy Miecznikowski says.

The aspiring ballet danseur’s antics also worried his instructors at Orange Grove and the Patel Conservatory. He wouldn’t dare miss rehearsals, countless hours of ballet and hip hop, but it looked as if he wasn’t giving his all.

“I actually thought he was giving me attitude,” says Peter Stark, chair of the Patel dance program at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. “This is not him, there’s something wrong.”

In late-November, John Paul and his mom suspected the flu or mononucleosis and headed to a walk-in clinic. The nurse practitioner noticed not only that the tiny 80-pounder had dropped nearly 30 pounds, but the blood sugar that controls his body’s energy was sky high.

Within a day the “problem child” was in the hospital, being treated as one of the roughly 2.3 million Americans living with Type 1 diabetes.

The diagnosis that John Paul’s pancreas had ceased producing insulin was a relief in some ways. He and his family learned that regular monitoring and insulin injections could bring his body back to health.

Indeed, John Paul insisted that as soon as he left the hospital, he go tell his dance instructors the news. “I knew I would keep on dancing, no matter what,” says the 13-year-old.

But the diagnosis also was just the beginning of a difficult blending of chronic illness and a tremendously busy schedule, Kathy says.

Mornings, for example, continue to be a struggle. Most days, John Paul ends up checking his blood sugar and eating breakfast in the car as Mom drives to school. It’s a daily chicken-or-egg decision as to whether the groggy teen should eat some carbs or wait and check his numbers first, she says.

It’s an oversimplification to say John Paul need only worry about the roughly 215 calories an hour someone his weight burns during ballet rehearsals. His disease, growing body and his workouts require constant, diligent monitoring of the calories and carbohydrates he consumes.

Since the diagnosis, the teen has been the one checking his blood sugar levels and handling injections, which average six a day. It hurts when other people inject insulin shots into his legs, he says. “I kind of know I have to do it, so I just get through it,” he says.

It’s not uncommon for dance rehearsals to total more than five hours some days. Earlier this month, John Paul and several classmates in Orange Grove’s dance magnet program simultaneously prepared for spring recitals and a major Patel performance of “Swan Lake.”

That’s why the picky eater has mastered fast-food menus, Kathy says. Chicken nuggets, a soft-serve ice cream cone and unsweetened iced tea can add up to a perfect meal between dance rehearsals. Carpool parents are a big help, too, making sure they have extra drinks in their cars.

“At some point, I have to slip in food somewhere,” Kathy says.

His instructors are acutely aware of what diabetes does to John Paul’s body. Orange Grove instructor Shana Perkins says she’s pushes John Paul in rehearsal to focus on health as much as choreography. “He probably gets annoyed because I ask so much,” Perkins says.

But they also are trying to challenge the talented young dancer to reach his potential. Perkins already wants John Paul to choreograph a piece about his diabetes. And Stark told the boy about a close friend, Zippora Karz, a Type 1 diabetic who danced for the famed New York City Ballet.

“I don’t coddle him,” Stark says. “I yell at him like I yell at all of them.”

Stark says John Paul’s at the age where many dancers decide if they want to pursue dance as a career. If John Paul stays on top of his disease, he can do what’s required.

“It’s a nuisance, but it’s something you can live with. …This doesn’t have to slow you down,” he says.

John Paul knows he can’t take a day off from diabetes. He goes everywhere with his insulin, blood sugar monitor and snacks. Likewise, he can’t imagine a day without dance. And the 13-year-old is determined he’ll learn to master them both, together.

“Now, I’m getting the hang of it,” he says.

©2012 Media General Communications Holdings, LLC

By Ernest Hooper
The Tampa Bay Times
May 27, 2012

It rivaled every high school athletic performance I watched this year, and I saw my son’s championship football team win 15 consecutive games. But it wasn’t a sport.

It sent me reeling in the years to a time when The Big Chill captured the imagination of baby boomers both young and old. But it wasn’t Procol Harum singing A Whiter Shade of Pale.

It reminded me of a New York theatre where neon lights are bright and crowds gather to see stars born. But it wasn’t a Broadway show.

These impactful displays of artistry occurred at the David A. Straz Performing Center’s Ferguson Hall on Wednesday night, and the performers hailed from the center’s Patel Conservatory. With the Spotlight Awards, the conservatory celebrated what may be its most significant year since opening in 2005, and the spotlight shined on dynamic young talent in every performance.

The athlete? That would be 14-year-old Landon Harris from the conservatory’s Next Generation Ballet. His soaring leaps across the stage during his solo to OneRepublic’s Apologize reminded me of a dazzling receiver going across the middle of the field to catch a pass.

I’m certain if a football coach had been in the audience, he would have rushed backstage to sign Harris.

The reminiscent performance of A Whiter Shade of Pale came from a joint effort between the conservatory’s chamber orchestra and its rock school band Wasted Youth. With Lucas Coura lending vocals, Tom Berenger, Glenn Close and Jeff Goldblum flashed through my mind — but I’m going to guess none of the teens even know about The Big Chill.

Katlyn Iacovino delivered the Broadway-style solo with her rendition of Laurie’s Song from The Tender Land by Aaron Copland. If she ends up on an episode of Smash, I’ll be excited, but not surprised.

Time and again, the various performers from the conservatory’s theatre, music and dance departments impressed. As Dr. Pallavi Patel noted, many of the students indeed will grow and shine on bigger stages as bigger stars.

Yet there is more to the conservatory story than developing stars. Led by vice president of education Wendy Leigh, the conservatory expects to recognize a major goal in June when it officially receives accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and School Council on Accreditation and School Improvement — the same folks who accredit Hillsborough’s public schools.

The accreditation process means the administration went through a challenging process and much self-inspection to meet the standards. The end result will be a better school that opens more doors for its students.

Equally impressive are the conservatory’s ongoing community outreach efforts. In nearly every ensemble performance, the audience saw a diverse group of every hue and color. The school has a list of partnerships with schools and agencies and often makes site visits to offer lessons and raise awareness. That work leads to some students receiving scholarships to attend classes at the conservatory.

Greater exposure means some of the students will get a chance to reach that big stage, but a greater impact will be an introduction and appreciation of the arts.

The Patel Conservatory is growing future patrons, and you can’t underestimate the positive impact that will have on the community.

That’s all I’m saying.

© 2012  Tampa Bay Times ·

Dream, Reach, Discover, Create
Patel Conservatory
March 21, 2012

When Landon Harris auditioned for Next Generation Ballet’s summer intensive in Denver, Colo. last month, he immediately knew he wanted to train with Peter Stark, NGB’s artistic director. “I liked all of his corrections and the way he put the class together,” said Landon, 14, of Denver.

At the time, Landon was looking into a full-time ballet program for the fall. But his plans soon changed. He and his family decided to pack up and move to Tampa so Landon could begin his training with Stark right away.

Landon joins the Patel Conservatory this week as a NGB New Artist. He’ll perform along with NGB dancers this Friday [March 23rd] in On the Edge and in May in Swan Lake.

“We knew we’d be leaving with him sooner or later for his training. We thought in the fall. We just pulled our time frame up a little,” laughs Bev Harris, Landon’s mother, who’s been busy this week looking for a place to live in Tampa.

Landon’s mom and twin brother, Ashton will live here while dad George, a financial business consultant, will commute from Denver whenever possible to spend time with the family.

Bev is accustomed to following her son across the country in pursuit of his dreams. Last year, Landon was part of the cast of the Broadway tour of Billy Elliot. In fact, he first heard about the Patel Conservatory when he was here at the Straz with the show last year.

“Touring was a great experience. I got to work with a Broadway company, with Tony Award winning actors and actresses,” said Landon, who played one of the boxing students and a ballet student. “It made me more professional…and more comfortable on stage.”

Landon began dancing when he was three years old with the Academy of the Colorado Ballet. In 2009, he began studying at the National Ballet Academy of Denver. He’s performed in numerous productions with the Colorado Ballet, including The Nutcracker, Midsummer Night’s Dream and in Swan Lake.

He recently placed 1st in Contemporary and 2nd in Classical in the junior division of the the Youth America Grand Prix regionals in Denver. He will compete at the finals in New York City in April.

He also performs with Silhouettes, a professional dance company in which dancers perform “in shadow” behind a screen. His position with NGB will be his first full-time ballet program.

“Yesterday was my first full day, and I’m feeling it,” he said. “It’s a lot of hands-on training. It’s constant, but it’s what I love.”

“For Landon, the tougher it is, the better it is,” said Bev.

An avid skier and snowboarder who tackles the toughest trails and moguls, Landon loves a challenge. “I like the difficulty and challenge [of ballet]. You have to make it flow but also be masculine and strong,” he said. “You’re always working, you never really master it.”

Related Articles:  Youngster performs in Denver’s ‘Billy Elliot, the Musical’

By Laura Kinsler
The Tampa Tribune
Photograph by Next Generation Ballet
December 10, 2011

The Nutcracker Prince is synonymous with Christmas. It’s the iconic role that made Baryshnikov a household name, and it belongs in the repertoire of every great American dancer.

This week, a New Port Richey teenager will slay the evil Mouse King and escort his Clara through a magical world of sweets, snowflakes and sugarplum fairies.

Fresh from a summer spent studying at the School of American Ballet, William Dugan will dance the role of the prince on opening night Friday [December 16th] at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Tampa.

“It’s the lead, and everyone’s watching,” said William, 14. “I get to play the part of being princely and make the magic happen with Clara.”

The teen has been studying ballet at the Patel Conservatory since he was 10. A member of the company’s Next Generation Ballet, he has danced in a “Nutcracker” production each December.

Artistic director Peter Stark said this is the first year William was ready to be the prince. “He has incredible technique and artistry,” Stark said. “He earned it through his ability. He surprised me. A year ago, I would not have imagined him dancing this role.”

Stark said William always had the makings of a great dancer — the right body type and determination. But there was something different about the young dancer when he returned home from New York — a newfound confidence and assertiveness.

“I see what happens when you’re surrounded by other top talent; it really pushes you to excel,” Stark said. “It gave him a hunger to show what he could do.”

William will need that bravura because he will be sharing the stage with superstars of ballet. Jose Manuel Carreno, who retired this year after a distinguished career as principal at the American Ballet Theater, will dance the role of the Cavalier. Boston Ballet soloist Jeffrey Cirio is the Snow King, and Katia Carranza, the Sugarplum Fairy, is a principal dancer with the Miami City Ballet.

“We really strove to differentiate this production from all the other ‘Nutcrackers’ in town,” Stark said. “Everything is at a higher level. Our guest dancers are world-renowned.”

Stark choreographed the show, which features a cast of 150 dancers and gymnasts and an Irish step dancer. “This is a $1 million production,” he said. “It’s visually stunning. It’s resplendent.”

William said the choreography is sure to be a crowd-pleaser. “No one’s seen it before,” he said. “There are more tricks to get the audience up on its feet.”

Although the Nutcracker Prince has the most demanding choreography, William also learned several other roles because cast members rotate. He will play the Mouse King and lead Russian in the Dec. 17 performance. The next day, he will play just a Russian.

“Peter says if you know one role, you should learn every other role because you never know what could happen on a performance night.”

William hopes for a sellout on opening night and expects a contingent from New Port Richey. “My mother invited basically our whole neighborhood,” he said. “It’s the first time I’ve ever danced the lead. I’m kind of nervous, but I know everything will come together.”

This may be William’s first turn as the prince, but Stark thinks it won’t be his last. “This will always be a part of his life,” he said. “There’s not a ballet company in the world that doesn’t do Nutcracker.”

©2011 Media General Communications Holdings, LLC

Related Articles:

Spotlight on William Dugan

Young, gifted ballet dancer ready to split to Big Apple

Boys Take A Crack At Ballet To Shine In Holiday Classic

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