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Tag Archives: The Courage-Determination-Athleticism of the Boy Dancer

When the 16-year-old South African was told he was too short to become a principal dancer, it motivated him to prove himself. He talks medals, 6am starts and two-minute naps


Leroy Mokgatle at the Genée International ballet competition (Elliott Franks, Royal Academy of Dance) 2015


By David Jays
The Guardian
January 26, 2015


Ballet came to me almost by mistake. At school, we had to choose an extra-mural activity, like soccer or basketball. I saw ballet on the list, and chose it because I didn’t really know what it meant. I was the only boy in the class, but straight away I loved it. I enjoyed how inside it’s always challenging, but on the outside you have to make it look immaculate and effortless.

Now I’m in my fourth and final year at the Art of Motion School in Johannesburg. I live at the school – but it’s more luxurious than Hogwarts! Our day starts at 6am, and ends at 6.30pm. It’s a long day, very challenging and intensive – I had to get my body used to the programme. When I first joined the school, I didn’t feel ready to get up in time for a 6am class, but now I enjoy it. Sometimes I’ll take a two-minute nap to recharge my batteries. It’s 46C here at the moment, so at the end of the day, I’ll jump in the pool and cool down before I do homework.

We start with conditioning and fitness, and then ballet and contemporary class. In the afternoon, we do our academic studies – that’s the stressful part for me! If you come straight from a class where a turn hasn’t worked as well as you would want it to, you’ll be thinking about it during maths. But the school is flexible – if you’re struggling with a variation you can ask for more time to work on it.

In the evening, we rehearse for productions or work on our competition solos. I am doing a lot of major competitions – the South African and then Varna International ballet competitions. When I choose what to dance, I don’t look at flashy tricks and turns – I just have to listen to the music and then I know. Something like Le Corsaire is often danced by more muscular boys, but I’m healthy and outgoing and it can fit my personality. At a competition, although we’re competing, backstage we’re all together. It can be a little awkward competing against someone you know, but in the end it’s about exposure to international artistic directors. You mustn’t think about medals, but about performing.

Winning the Genée International ballet competition at Sadler’s Wells last year was a complete surprise. I was dancing my heart out, and for a minute or two forgot it was a competition. I was dancing for the audience, not for the medal. In one section, we had to dance an original solo. Esmé Hoffmann, who runs the school, created Freedom the Tribute for me: it is set to a song about Nelson Mandela which says “I’m looking for freedom”. It really touched me. I may be small, I might not have the most extended feet or longest legs – but I have what I have, and when I’m on stage I’m in my own world.

I’ve had a few people say, you’re not going to make it into a ballet company or become a principal dancer because of your height. That doesn’t discourage me – instead it motivates me to prove that I can be someone.

It took my family time to get into my dancing. They are more on the academic side – metallurgy, IT – and did ask, “Are you sure you want to do this?” They would understand sport, but I want to be different. I want to do something no one else can. Esmé told us – don’t ever make a plan B for your life. If you do, it’s as if you’re saying, “it’s OK if this doesn’t work out.” For me, there is no plan B.


© 2016 Guardian News and Media Limited


Leroy Mokgatle – age 14, South African International Ballet Competition 2014  Scholars Classical Solo – Gold Medalist


Leroy Mokgatle – age 14, South African International Ballet Competition 2014  Contemporary Solo – Gold Medalist

James Applewhite and Alicia Holloway in the Snow Pas De Deux from SNB's Peanutcracker - The Story in a Nutshell. (Mark Rauh, Rauh Photography) 2015

By Rosine Bena
Reno Gazette-Journal
December 22, 2015


[Reno, Nevada, USA] – This is the season of holiday tradition and Sierra Nevada Ballet celebrates by presenting annual performances of “The Peanutcracker – The Story in a Nutshell” in Reno and Carson City. This year’s production (which ran Dec. 4-15) featured James Applewhite as the Snow Prince/Russian Prince.

Applewhite is a tall, thin, handsome, elegant, African-American dancer well-suited to the title of “prince.” In fact, he said that growing up in middle school, he was affectionately given that nickname by his friends.

“Performing arts gave me the path to an education and helped me discover my personal light while showing me the path to sharing it with others.”

In his younger years, Applewhite was the only African-American in his elementary    school in Florida and found that he was not    fond of school and was not a very good     student. One teacher told him: “James, you     will never be on the honor roll.”

Then he attended a performing arts middle school in Florida and discovered dance. Students were required to take dance as an accepted part of education. At this institution Applewhite found that his grades began to go up and that he actually liked school. He continued on to a performing arts high school, developing a special aptitude for ballet. In 10th grade, he had great success performing in the Nutcracker and established a fine performance reputation at school, later graduating on the honor roll. “Performing arts gave me the path to an education and helped me discover my personal light while showing me the path to sharing it with others.”

Upon graduation from high school, Applewhite was offered scholarships to the best ballet schools in the world. He continued his ballet training at the JKO School of American Ballet Theater in New York and was then offered a professional contract with the National Ballet of Canada, the Orlando Ballet and later the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

James Applewhite as the Russian Prince from SNB's Peanutcracker - The Story in a Nutshell. (Mark Rauh, Rauh Photography) 2015

Applewhite’s path was not always easy. He found that he continuously fought against being stereotyped, not only as a male ballet dancer, but as an African-American ballet dancer. He discovered that those two labels conjured up a number of preconceived notions that had no relevance to his position in life. Many people were surprised to find that he was “a strong, straight, intelligent African-American man capable of supporting a woman in every way – on stage and off.” Applewhite is a gifted partner and, while he enjoys solo dancing, one of his greatest joys is dancing pas deux, a dance for a man and a woman.

When asked if he has advice for young male dancers interested in pursuing a career in ballet, Applewhite shares, “I do not feel in a position to offer any advice, as I consider myself on an individual path to self-discovery. But I will say that ballet was developed by a man, and that man was a king. Ballet elevates the soul. Anyone who has the opportunity to study ballet should feel fortunate and filled with gratitude. I personally find it an honor and privilege to study such a beautiful, elegant, regal, spiritual art form.”

In Applewhite’s opinion, all children should have the opportunity to learn the arts as part of their regular education. “The arts can help children in so many important ways. Ballet has taught me self-discipline, coordination, honesty, spirituality, a strong work ethic, how to work with others and how to relate to a mentor/teacher in order to absorb instruction without feeling insecure. It has given me self esteem and taught me to find my center, anatomically, emotionally and spiritually. These are things that we can all take with us throughout our lives.”


Copyright 2015 Reno Gazette-Journal




When you think of ballet, do you think of boys?


By Jamuna Chiarinl
Artslandia Kids
December 14, 2015


[P]rima ballerinas get a lot of the spotlight [but] male ballet dancers play an essential part in the ballet and do a lot of the heavy lifting! Artslandia asked six of Portland’s best professional and pre-professional “ballet boys” (and men) what it takes to wear the tights. Here’s a hint: strength, grace, and inspiration!
[Portland, Oregon, USA] –


How’d you get started?

While many girls are encouraged to “be ballerinas,” or dream about it from a very young age, dance is a discovery that takes many boys by surprise! The boys we talked to report falling into dance by luck, instinct, “genetics,” or even by accident!

Jurica: There were free ballroom classes at Billings Dance Studio where we lived, and my mom pretty much forced us—my brother and I—to go because it was free and she wanted boys who could dance with girls, which would improve her chances of grandchildren and whatnot. We ended up liking it and decided to go to Arts and Communication Magnet Academy, and really got into it in eighth grade!

Simcoe: I was inspired by seeing figure skaters like Scott Hamilton do amazing tricks and turns on the ice. I would always be spinning around the house, tearing up the carpet—so it was actually my father’s idea…to put me in dance lessons. I was convinced that I wouldn’t enjoy it, probably only because it was something new, which I tended to shy away from. My dad proved me wrong, though. After my first dance lesson, where I was taught how to do an actual “pirouette”, I was hooked!

Skinner: My dad was a gymnast on the University of Michigan gymnastics team, and he put me into gymnastics as a kid. My family is very physically active, always doing something physical; I think it’s just in our genetics…We had a really great small civic theater in our hometown. I auditioned for musicals and loved being in those…I was always one of the kids who could pick up movement quickly…so they always stuck me into the dance numbers, and I loved doing those! When I was applying to colleges, I was either going to apply to musical theater or dance…I could sort of carry a tune, but I wasn’t that great…so my path just followed dance…My dad had ideas of me taking business classes, but that held no interest for me.

Both Garcia and Kindell took dance classes at West Sylvan Middle School. For Garcia, it was a choice—but for Kindell, it was a crash course.

Kindell: They had dance for PE, and somehow dance got on my schedule by accident. I didn’t forecast it at all; I was like, “I don’t want to do this,” because none of the guys did dance, and I was so nervous. I was about to change it, but of course I’m a huge procrastinator and I waited until the last minute, and the principal said, “No, you can’t change it; we told all the students they had until this date to change their schedule.” I thought, “I guess I’ll have to do it,” so I did it.


Getting teased, and getting better.

Sometimes, especially when they’re starting out, boy ballet dancers have gotten teased by their friends and classmates for doing what other kids see as a “girl” sport. Especially in conservative communities, and in the past, boys who dance have been given a hard time.

Skinner: As fine as it was in Muncie, it was pretty conservative. Not very many friends knew that I was dancing. I only told close friends; I didn’t feel comfortable talking about it. I decided not to do flap ball changes down the hallway at school. Maybe in this day and age, I’d be all over it…but not in the early 80’s.

In Portland—an open-minded, arts-friendly city—some boys are able to become dancers without ever getting teased.

Jurica: I was already going to an arts school, and it was normal to see kids walking down the hall in their tights, anyway. My friends were already my friends, and if they didn’t like me ’cause I danced now…well, then, they weren’t my friends anymore!

Simcoe: I actually didn’t have any difficulties growing up, which, from talking to others, is quite unusual. I was always known around school as one of the “artsy” kids, but nobody ever gave me any grief about it.

Others report trouble, even here.

Swartz: In fourth grade a few people gave me a hard time, like, “Ahaha; you wear a tutu!” That’s the worst. When I first started dancing, I felt the need to cover up ballet by doing something “masculine.” Heavy music and horror movies became that for me.

Kindell: The fear was so much. I was so scared that I was going to be the only boy in dance.

It’s tough, the boys admit. But as you get older, it gets better.

Swartz: I found that ballet is masculine, I got more confident, got more respect for it, and no longer needed to cover up anything. Now, people are more taken aback, they’re interested. They ask, “What’s it like?” It’s a whole new world that people don’t know about. They’re more accepting the older you get.

Kindell: My issues weren’t extreme. I did have some, but once I got to eighth grade, people became much more supportive.


Fewer boys = more opportunities.

Boy dancers may get teased more than ballerinas, but they also get more of something else: roles! Because ballet has been (unfairly) popularized as a “girl sport,” most people who are trained in it from a very young age are girls. That means a girl dancer has more company in ballet class, but also much more competition when she tries to get a role or a job as a dancer. When a girl auditions, she hopes the director will choose her special talent from dozens—even hundreds —of other trained ballerinas. That’s a lot of pressure, and not just on her toes!

Meanwhile, many dance companies and ballet productions struggle to find enough trained boys and men. When only a handful of boys apply, most of them—sometimes even all of them—will be chosen. It’s just easier to stand out among, say, 5 dancers, than it is among 50.

Skinner: Being a male dancer was definitely a benefit to me…Of the 80 or 100 ballet majors [at college], there were maybe 8- 10 men.

Because they’re so needed, boy dancers have the luxury of starting later and competing more casually—which becomes clear in the way they describe their auditions.

Swartz: With no prior training, [I] auditioned for The Nutcracker. And because there’s always such a need for guys, they took me. I wore jeans to the first rehearsal. I finished up Nutcracker and John Gardner, who was artistic director at that time, approached me and my mother and said, “I’d like to give you some private classes and catch you up to your age group.”

Jurica: [My Juilliard] audition was in San Francisco, and I’d already been there twice and felt comfortable. I didn’t take it too seriously—not to say I wasn’t respectful or anything—but I just did my normal routine. It was really fun—not very stressful, surprisingly comfortable, it was good for me to go into it relaxed. I just had this attitude that if it happens, it happens.

It happened. And it happens for a higher percentage of boys than girls who try. Perhaps the luckiest of this bunch, Garcia got into OBT without an audition at all.

Anthony Jones, School Director of OBT: Kevin Irving [OBT’s artistic director] saw Michael in a [Jefferson Dancers] performance last year, and contacted Steve Gonzales to offer him a scholarship…He really stood out on stage and captivated us! This does not happen that often.


Ballet looks easy, but it’s hard!

When ballet is danced well, it looks effortless, but the boys will be the first to admit it’s actually very hard work! It takes a lot of energy to leap high into the air, and a lot of muscle to lift other dancers above your head. That means these guys have to train and rehearse day and night.

Simcoe (full-time dancer): We start class at 9:30 every morning…an hour and a half long. Then we typically rehearse until 5:30, with our lunch hour at 2. Our schedule changes day to day…Some days, I’ll be in rehearsal all day long…Other days, I may only be scheduled for a couple of hours, in which case I might have time to fit in some physical therapy…I have to do weight lifting to keep my upper body in shape, and a little Pilates, and cross-training exercises to strengthen my core.

Garcia (student): Um, [my schedule’s] kind of hectic. I go to school in the mornings, and then I usually have dance classes in the afternoon, or I go to rehearsal at OBT, or I go back to school for rehearsal or come back to OBT for an evening technique class. [I also do] cross-training—that’s one thing that my family stresses a lot—swimming and doing other kinds of athletics.

They also have to teach their bodies to do moves that, at least at first, feel really unnatural.

Jurica (student): The hardest thing is…handling your imperfections. In the beginning, you don’t care because you don’t know what the technique is. Like when people told me to point my toes, I literally thought they meant to crunch my toes. I didn’t realize they meant point my ankles. Once you understand the technique more, you have more of a responsibility to do things correctly to the best of your ability, because you know. So, actually, the more and more you do it, the harder it is to do!


Advice for dancing…and for life.

So often, we do things we’re told to do, things we’re used to doing, things we think other people want from us. But ballet boys have learned to take risks, make discoveries, and challenge themselves every day. Even when you’re doing something you love, ballet boys know that life is a balancing act.

Kindell: [When] you find this thing that is everything to you, it clicks. Even if there are all these things you have to do that are hard to do, or you don’t have people taking you, or [you don’t] have the money, you know you have to do it—and there are other things you have to give up.

Simcoe: With the minor strains and sprains, it takes a while to learn how to take it easy. Know how much or how little to push your body, while still trying to do your job. I think dancers have a reputation for pushing through the pain a little more than is healthy for them.

Jurica: At the end of the day, it isn’t win-or-lose, but an inner competition: how much better can I be than before? It’s exciting to see that growth.


© Copyright 2015 Artslandia

Ian Brooks, 14, and Quinton Brooks, 10, are the best ballet students Dawn Marti has ever had (Jaime Carrero, The Victoria Advocate) 2015


By Jon Wilcox
The Victoria Advocate
December 9, 2015


[Victoria, Texas, USA] – The two brothers who miraculously danced into ballet instructor Dawn Marti’s life were “a blessing from God.”

With about two years of combined ballet experience, Victoria dance students Quinton, 11, and Ian Brooks, 14, have been selected to dance in a production of “The Nutcracker” by a pre-professional Austin dance academy.

When Marti met the brothers in January 2014 at an event that connects home-schooled students with extracurricular activities, she didn’t know she was introducing herself to two of the most talented dancers she would ever teach.

They met one day at random, said Michelle Brooks, mother of Ian and Quinton. “There was a home-schooling convention at a Lutheran church, and (Marti) had a booth there,” Brooks said.

After starting tap lessons with Marti, the brothers expanded their dance repertoire to include jazz, contemporary and ballet.

“I wasn’t sure they would be students at first,” Marti said. Before long, Marti began to realize how special Ian and Quinton really were. “I just saw such fast progression from these boys that I was amazed,” she said.

Marti said when she sent a video audition of the brothers to the Austin Metamorphosis Dance Ensemble in September, she knew it was a long shot. Although Marti said she knew the company was in need of male dancers for its next production, “The Nutcracker: Suite Dreams,” she was also aware of the level of prestige at AMDE.

The ensemble places strict requirements on any who wish to study at the company and even stricter demands for those who wish to perform.

Quinton and Ian Brooks at the Austin Metamorphis Dance Ensemble's Nutcracker (Danceworks Unlimited) 2015Marti was blown away when she heard the news. AMDE wanted to cast Quinton in the leading role of the Nutcracker Prince and wrote in a new part for his younger brother, Ian. Considering her experience with the brothers, Marti said she probably shouldn’t have been surprised.

They practice about 15 hours each week, but there’s more to their success than simply rehearsal. “Ballet is not their only passion,” Marti said. “These boys are good at everything they do.”

Despite their shared last names and a passion for dance, the two brothers are certainly individuals.

Ian, a quiet young man with thoughtful eyes and long, dark hair enjoys practicing piano, horseback riding and singing.

Many of the skills learned on the back of Snickers, a bay quarter horse, have helped Ian with his ballet, he said. Core muscle strength, flexibility, balance and, especially, patience are essentials in both dancing and riding, Ian said. “He really does have the patience of Job,” Ian’s mother said, referencing the biblical Job. “He sticks with it until he gets it.”

Ian isn’t quite sure what to make of his own dedication. “I just get these boosts of encouragement,” he said. “Then I want to do things better. If I’m here at dance and I can’t do something well, I go home and practice it.”

Despite their differences, the two share one thing in common: an uncanny ability to focus on the task at hand. “A lot of boys don’t have that drive and determination to pursue dance, but these boys are very disciplined and determined,” Marti said. “They love that art and have that appreciation.”

Blond-haired and shorter by about a foot, Quinton’s fearless enthusiasm and easy laugh complement his perpetually confident grin. While his brother prefers to devote his time to horses and music, Quinton spends his time crocheting, reading myths and fairy tales and painting.

He also finds time to care for a saltwater aquarium inhabited by a goby fish and starfish. In his bedroom hangs one of his many watercolor paintings he’s finished, “The Lunar Eclipse.” In 2014, another one of Quinton’s paintings, “The Lonely Flower,” won third place in a contest by the Victoria Art League.

Ian and Quinton may have plenty of other hobbies, but for now ballet is a priority.

Given their level of commitment, Marti has no choice but to reciprocate.”I’m investing in these boys because they want to make something of it,” Marti said. “It’s a good investment.”

She said she has high hopes for their futures. “I think both boys have the potential to take their dancing to a professional level,” Marti said. “There’s no doubt in my mind.”

A former dancer herself, Michelle Brooks said she never pressured the brothers into dancing. She sets herself apart from the stereotypical dance mom persona with a decidedly hands off approach. “I just try to hang back and let (Marti) handle all the corrections,” Brooks said. “Because she has gotten them to where they are. They’ve come a very long way.” Her sons have enough motivation on their own, she said.

Brooks said she enjoys watching her sons succeed, but the real prize is seeing the genuine pleasure Ian and Quinton find in dancing.

She is happy in her confidence that both boys dance because they want to.

For Ian, ballet is a transcendent feeling. “It’s just fun to be floating through the air for a while,” he said. “It’s a little like flying. Who doesn’t love to fly?”


© Victoria Advocate Publishing Co



Teenager’s securing of contract as the Paris Opera Ballet’s first Chinese dancer after four years of hard training is highlight of Jean M Wong’s 55 years as a dance teacher, she says of ex-pupil


Lam Chun-wing, at the Jean M. Wong School of Ballet in North Point (Franke Tsang)


By Fionnuala McHugh
South China Morning Post
August 15, 2015


[Hong Kong] – In 2011, Lam Chun-wing won a place at the Paris Opera Ballet School. He was then 14, the son of an engineer and primary school teacher. He’d just finished form three at STFA Lee Shau Kee College in Kwai Tsing, he liked listening to Leona Lewis and he loved Black Swan. Of Natalie Portman’s Portman’s unhinged striving for perfection, he once said: “I cried. It took half an hour to calm down – that movie takes your heart out.”

A young Lam at Miss Wong's School of Ballet


Lam in a dress rehearsal at Sha Tin Town Hall in 2009

He was a little shy, jet-lagged and sneezy after two weeks of summer school with the Royal Ballet in London, where he’d been desperately homesick. He knew no French. This writer, who interviewed him at the Jean M. Wong School of Ballet’s headquarters in North Point (he’d started at the school’s Tsuen Wan studio, aged seven), wanted to wrap him in cotton wool. How would he fare in the shark tank – forget swans – of the overseas ballet world?

Four years on, Lam has just become the first Chinese member of the Paris Opera Ballet. The achievement is truly remarkable.

The Paris Opera Ballet was founded in 1669, and is the world’s oldest national ballet company. To survive four years of its Darwinian system is a feat of endurance. When Lam started, he and a Ukrainian boy were the only two non-French students in his dance class. “He was my best friend,” says Lam. “And at the end of the first year he was kicked out.”

Lam at the Jean M. Wong School of Ballet in 2011Jean Wong, sitting in on this interview with her daughter Liat Chen, who’s now the school’s director, winces a little at the term. But she knows the unsentimental winnowing of dance. “The first three years were really, really difficult,” continues Lam, calmly. “Shall I explain?”

He now speaks beautifully measured English and French. He’s just as appealing in face and manner but he seems considerably more confident, and his high-stepping, feline grace draws every eye in the school’s corridors.

“I was always alone because I couldn’t communicate properly,” he says. “I was sleeping in a dormitory and I cried a lot. I couldn’t understand anything.” Because of the time difference between Paris and Hong Kong, he was given special permission to make morning phone calls. He rang his mother every day.

When he came home that first December, his parents told him that his aunt – to whom he was extremely close and who’d been particularly supportive of his dancing – had cancer. She died during his second year. He was allowed back to say goodbye; then he returned to his ballet history, anatomy and music exams (in French).

What saved him – apart from his art – were his weekend host families. The school closes every Friday at 5pm and the pupils disperse until Sunday at 8pm. Through Wong’s contacts, he initially stayed with a family in the 16th arrondissement, one of the most desirable districts in Paris. They later moved, as chance would have it, to Hong Kong.

Another host family have embraced him as a son and taught him to cook; he baked a walnut cake for Wong when she came to visit.

In his fourth year, he moved out of the school to flat-sit for the original family, and that’s when he bloomed. There is, after all, a crucial difference between loneliness and independence. Free from living among strangers, he strove joyfully alone. “He is exceptionally disciplined,” says Chen. “It’s quite scary how determined he is. He understands delayed gratification.”

The Paris Opera Ballet was his ultimate goal, but he auditioned for other companies, including, in February, the Hong Kong Ballet.

“They offered an apprentice contract,” he says. An apprentice is a level below the corps de ballet and the contract runs for 12 months. In Paris, he will be in the corps; and his contract lasts until the unimaginable age of 42. It’s the terpsichorean golden rice bowl.

The director of dance at the Paris Opera Ballet is Benjamin Millepied, husband of actress Natalie Portman. Lam has already danced with the company – the five-degree incline of the Palais Garnier’s raked stage was an initial challenge – and met Millepied.

“I think he’s trying to promote young dancers earlier,” he says. “He’s a lot more open-minded. He didn’t have a career at the Paris Opera and I think he will bring good changes to it.” With that shift in rigid hierarchy, any opportunity for a fiercely focused dancer is possible.

He’s learned to be two people: “a different person in both cities,” he says. He finds himself thinking in French. Some of his Cantonese vocabulary is slipping away, and his knowledge of written characters is fading. He doesn’t have a French name but people address him as Mr Wing, which seems appropriate for someone now taking flight.


Life for the Lam family has been transformed in four years: his older sister was so taken with the French lifestyle she’s now studying translation in Lyon.

Last night and tonight, he’s dancing the role of Basilio in the school’s Stars of Tomorrow gala production of Don Quixote, at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. That’s how it raises money for the kind of scholarship that funded his Paris adventure. One day, he says, he may become a teacher himself. But, first, there will be other roles.

It’s 55 years since Jean Wong, a graduate of London’s Royal Academy of Dance, set up a ballet school in Hong Kong, intended for the Chinese-speaking community, not the colony’s expatriates. She estimates that she’s taught more than 10,000 students in that time.

She’s still a wonderfully straight-backed, commanding presence who has seen a dream come true. “The highlight of my career,” she says – and she repeats this in the foreword of the Don Quixote programme – “is Lam Chun-wing’s admission to the Paris Opera Ballet School.”


Copyright © 2015 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd


Read more about Lam : Our own Billy Elliot


In November 2015, Lam wrote: It was 4 years ago, I was accepted by the Paris Opera Ballet School. While I was feeling overjoyed I made this music video to thank my teacher, Ms. Jean M. Wong for bringing me to audition in Paris and for letting me go aboard for professional ballet training.

This video shows more or less my journey in ballet and each person in the photos contributed a lot to my success today. Very touching to me to watch this again today……

By Lyndsey Winship
The Evening Standard
August 4, 2015



Striving to be the best Isaac Fernandez (Matt Writtle)[London, England] – Isaac Hernández is pondering whether he’s ever really been in love. “The more I think about it, the less sure I am of it,” says the 25-year-old Mexican dancer, fresh out of rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet, where he is learning the role of the tragic Montague. “Since I haven’t ended up poisoning myself, I think I haven’t felt what Romeo has felt,” he decides.

Brown-black curls flop into his eyes as he talks and one thing that’s certain is that audiences will soon be falling in love with Hernández, the latest hot young dancer to land in London, and the new lead principal at English National Ballet. Critics have called him “exhilarating”, a “consummate showman” and an audience favourite who is “totally alive to each moment”. He’s one of a wave of Latin American dancers who are making it big in ballet, impressing with their technical prowess and charisma.

The first male Mexican dancer to reach many ballet milestones, Hernández has danced with San Francisco Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and Dutch National Ballet, won prizes in Moscow, Havana and Mississippi and fulfilled a lifelong dream with a guest spot at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. By the age of 24, Hernandez had achieved almost all of the dancing goals he’d set himself, taking lead roles — he particularly loves the romance and technical fireworks of the big classical three-act ballets — and becoming a principal dancer in 2013 (you can see a video online of him being promoted after a performance of Sleeping Beauty). He’d also set up a youth-focused non-profit organisation in Mexico and founded the first free ballet school in the country. “If everything I have done is for myself, and only I experience the benefits, that is a really awful and empty way to live,” he says. Cute, clever and altruistic too. It’s all a bit too good to be true.

But Hernández was not content to sit back and enjoy success, he wanted to be better; he wanted to be the best. And what do you do when you want to be the best in your field? Come to London, of course. Hernández first met ENB director Tamara Rojo as a starstruck 14-year-old, dancing at a gala in Mexico. “Of course I was always dreaming that maybe one day I would be able to dance a full-length ballet in London with her,” he says. Almost a decade later, Hernández came to London to see his little brother Esteban graduate from the Royal Ballet School and bumped into Rojo.

She invited him to perform with her as a guest at the Coliseum in January and it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. “To be able to dance with Tamara …” he starts, a little speechless. “In what reality could I have imagined that? It was impossible! It’s a dream for any dancer to dance in London. In Amsterdam I was well protected, and in San Francisco. They’re companies with a local audience and that creates a very protective atmosphere for the dancers. It was safe, the audience liked me.”

At his first London show he was an unknown. “At the Coliseum, I didn’t feel protected at all,” he says. “It’s a huge stage, a lot of responsibility, the audience didn’t know me. I felt pretty naked basically. I felt very exposed.”

But it was enough to give him a taste for a new challenge. “Personally, I’ve never liked big cities,” he says, “and that is one of the first things I told Tamara. I was very happy in Amsterdam, a small, beautiful city where you can have a very comfortable life. But as soon as I heard myself saying that I thought, I cannot be thinking like that being 25 years old. I want to be able to live every possible experience that I can, while I can,” he says. “At the end of the day that’s all we can take with us, the experiences we’ve lived.”

A Young Isaac Hernandez (5)It’s all a long way from Hernández’s first ballet lessons, aged eight, in the backyard of his home in Guadalajara, where his dad Hector — a former dancer himself — laid thin wooden planks over the slanted ground and erected a makeshift barre for Isaac to learn the basic ballet exercises. Using the windows as a mirror to correct himself, for two years Isaac would practise for three hours at a time. “I’ve always had that in me,” he says. “If I’m going to do something, I want to do it as best as I can.”

As one of 11 children in a crowded house, these lessons became precious father-son time and Hernández senior would tell Isaac stories from his time dancing in New York: about the dancer who could balance on one leg for minutes on end, or of the feeling of flying when leaping through the air in grand allegro steps. Hernández was intoxicated by these things he could barely imagine.

He couldn’t leap through the air himself because there wasn’t space in the small yard. Instead he had to stick to the static barre exercises, which are usually just the beginning of each class. It’s the equivalent of practising writing the alphabet for two years but never forming a sentence. However, when you do start to form words, that handwriting is bound to be beautiful. And so it proved, when some of Hector’s former students clubbed together to help build a studio for Isaac and his unconventional training paid off. “I think the first time I tried pirouettes I did at least four,” he remembers. And from there he’s never looked back.

Rock School alumni Isaac Hernandez and Christine Schevchenko (The Rock School)Hernández started winning local competitions, was offered a scholarship to the Paris Opera Ballet school aged 11 (he took one class there and begged his mum to take him home), and a bidding war broke out between schools when he performed at the Youth American Grand Prix aged 12. He went on to train in Philadelphia and straight into a professional career, which has now led him to London.

He’s only been in London for two days when we meet and how much time he’ll have to explore his new city is moot. Hernández is bedding down in Chelsea but his real home will be ENB’s Kensington studios, where he’ll spend six days a week, pursuing perfection. “I told Tamara when I agreed to come that I wanted them to push me. And Tamara takes that very seriously. That woman is an incredible dancer who pushes you to your best level.”

He’s inspired by being surrounded by his fellow Latin Americans too, he says, talking of Cubans Yonah Acosta (Carlos’s nephew) and Alejandro Virelles, young Mexican Cesar Corrales and Brazilian Junor Souza. “When you are in a class where everybody is so talented, and so able, it pushes you to do more. I’m wondering,” he muses, “how far can we go?”

The proliferation of Latin American men is noticeable in companies around the world, not just this one. Why does Hernández think that’s a trend? “We are people that are passionate,” he says. “And passion is what moves ballet. On stage, we are what we have lived. You have to have lived through bad experiences and good, struggles and happiness, and all of us in Latin America have this.”

There’s an economic imperative too. “Necessity inspires people, of course,” he adds. Dance as a way out, or a step up. “I don’t think it’s precisely a positive thing but it is something that has pushed a lot of dancers in Latin America. It’s pushed me into putting in the extra hours because it is the opportunity to change your life,” he says. “At the end of the day, ballet changed my life.”

Copyright 2015 The Evening Standard


Related Article: Isaac Hernandez seeks to change image of ballet in Mexico


Student ballet dancers from Tuloy Sa Don Bosco Street Children's Village do stretching exercises. Children from the school have earned scholarships to train at a higher level (South China Morning Post) 2015


Filmmaker seeks Kickstarter funding to finish documentary about a school that takes children living on Philippine capital’s mean streets and teaches them classical dance


By Mark Sharp
South China Morning Post
June 04, 2015


[Manila, Philippines] – Father Rocky Evangelista points to a scattering of pocket knives and ice picks surrendered by street children the Tuloy Foundation has rescued in the urban jungle of Metro Manila. “When they say ‘Father, I don’t need these any more’, that’s a victory,” he says. “They can’t find food in the garbage bins so they steal. They kill if necessary,” he says, recalling how one child told him he had stabbed a policeman in the stomach. “He said, ‘Father, you know, life is like that.'”

Despised as pests and preyed on by thugs, rapists, pimps and murderers,for tens of thousands of abandoned orphans and abused runaways life on the streets in the Philippine capital region is unspeakable misery. Amid the grinding poverty, they are easily lured into a life of crime and drug abuse, says Evangelista, founder of the Tuloy Foundation.

His charity cares for more than 200 former street children in Alabang, Muntinlupa City, providing them with food, shelter, clothing and an education at its school, Tuloy sa Don Bosco Street Children’s Village, which is also attended by hundreds of other poor children. But these provisions are mere necessities, he says. “A human needs to play, to laugh … needs to go to a higher level of living. If we want to train these children completely, we should bring them to the arts.”

Jovit Dino, 17, at the Academy One Music and Dance Centre (South China Morning Post) 2015No one knows what orphan Jovit Dino, 17, must have gone through, but he used to hide in a cupboard, squeak like a mouse and need hugs to calm him, says Joonee Garcia, the school’s choirmaster.

In recent years, Jovit has undergone a complete transformation, thanks to an opportunity to join ballet classes at the Academy One Music and Dance Centre, owned by Joonee’s sister, Cherish Garcia. “When he started ballet, he just got so into it. The next thing you knew he was teaching kids in school how to dance, and then he was choreographing,” Joonee says. “He is also with the choir. Every time I see him, if he is waiting for me, he’s got a leg on the balcony railing, stretching. If he’s going from point A to point B, he will do the grand jeté. It’s quite funny because he is just dancing his way throughout the day in school.”

At Joonee’s suggestion, Cherish offered ballet scholarships for 10 Tuloy children four years ago. Jovit is one of several who have flourished, earning scholarships for other ballet programmes in the Philippines, Hong Kong and Britain, and places at art school.

The children’s inspirational story – more Billy Elliot than Manny Pacquiao – is the subject of an ongoing documentary project called Street Dance, by Manila-based artist and creative director Andy Maluche. It was the idea of a filmmaker friend, Greg Garcia, who is also the sisters’ father. “I ran into a family conspiracy to trick me into doing the greatest project I have ever done,” Maluche says, laughing.

Scholarship winner Jovit Dino, 17 (South China Morning Post)The Garcia sisters introduced Maluche to Evangelista, who permitted him to film the children’s progress on the condition that he did not probe their past and cause them to relive any deep-rooted trauma. He will use footage of children still living rough to highlight the contrast between the subjects’ new lives and the appalling conditions they left behind.

“The story had everything – great visuals, a feel-good factor and the potential to become something very beautiful,” Maluche says, describing his first film project as a tale of resilience and overcoming the odds. He began filming at Academy One in June 2013. Bob Clark and Dale Tippin from One World Studios have now helped him launch a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter to finish the project. Maluche expects shooting to wrap up in late 2017 and hopes to release Street Dance in January 2018.

He aims to raise US$38,000 from the Kickstarter campaign, which closes on June 8. The funds will be used for repayments and to complete filming, which includes commissioning original music and hiring an assistant editor. Once the work is finished, he hopes to premiere Street Dance at major international film festivals, including Cannes and Sundance.

John Edmar Semera, 14, practises at the De La Salle Santiago Zobel School

“I am fascinated by how these kids are constantly changing and developing,” he says, citing the example of 14-year-old John Edmar Semera. John was timid when he joined ballet class a year ago as one of Academy One’s second intake of Tuloy students. He was a completely different person when Maluche interviewed him recently. “He sat down in front of me with the confidence of a CEO of a large corporation. In a month or so, he will go to The Royal Ballet School in London for a scholarship,” he says.

The children who have responded well to ballet have found inner reserves of the self-discipline its tough training demands, Cherish says. They have gained a sense of dignity and a newfound confidence, despite being initially withdrawn around their dance classmates from supportive families. “They realise that they can do these things well and their personality changes, especially after their first performance on stage,” she says.

“At first they were shy to wear their ballet outfits and talk to others. After a while they became very comfortable. They have made friends with the paying students, play games with them and share stories. Sometimes I have to tell them to go home because they like hanging out.”

Kezia Dianito, 15, wouldn’t speak or make eye contact before she started ballet. After her first lesson, Kezia told Joonee she also wanted to join her choir. “She started singing and the next thing you knew she was reading in church. Now she can go up to complete strangers and start a conversation.”

        Kezia Dianito, 15, stretches before class (South China Morning Post) 2015         Jovit Dino, 17, at the Academy One Music and Dance Centre (South China Morning Post) 2015-02          Celine Astrologo, 14, along with Jovit Dino, received a scholarship to the Philippine High School of the Arts (South China Morning Post) 2015

The once fearful Jovit has taken leaps and bounds in more ways than one, and Cherish believes she will see him on the stage one day. Jovit, along with Celine Astrologo, 14, are two of only six youngsters in the country to be offered places on the ballet programme of the Philippine High School for the Arts.

Other promising Tuloy youngsters include Raymond Salcedo and Rodney Catubay, both of whom turned 18 in April. The boys were awarded scholarships last year to Jean M. Wong School of Ballet’s International Summer Dance School in Hong Kong. They have now earned places at the Ballet Manila School, the educational arm of the national classical dance company.

“When you are a street child, there is only so much you can look for,” Cherish says. “Something like dance is an equal thing for everyone. Worst-case scenario, there are many dancers that get jobs on cruise ships, in Disneyland, Universal Studios. They make good money. And, of course, best-case is they join a serious ballet company abroad, in Europe or the United States.”

The ballet dancers have become the envy of Tuloy sa Don Bosco, Cherish says. “At the first audition four years ago, very few showed up. Last year they were lined up around the gym.”

When she admitted a second batch of Tuloy children last year, she accepted 15, rather than the 10 planned, because of the keen interest. Despite the demand, Cherish is discerning. “I look at their physique first and foremost. It is a sad reality that classical ballet requires a certain flexibility and turn-out at the hip sockets – nicely arched feet, too. Then I look at their presence; some kids have it from the get-go.”

Rodney Catubay, 18,  performs in a Christmas show in Manila by the De La Salle Santiago Zobel School (South China Morning Post) 2015

Not everyone who is handed the opportunity has the dedication or interest to stick it out, however. Tragically, for some children, the pull of the streets – where there is excitement and the illusion of freedom – is too strong. Cherish says four of the first group of 10 Tuloy children dropped out of ballet, either through a lack of commitment of disciplinary problems at the Tuloy school. She lost two students this year who were discharged from Tuloy sa Don Bosco after being given a number of chances.

Cherish remembers one boy, in particular. “He had fallen in with a bad crowd. We suspected he had started taking drugs and he was just a totally different child. He has come back since and hangs around sometimes, watching the class,” she says. “He was quite good, although a lot of times he was lazy and said he didn’t want to do ballet any more. Later, when everything was taken away from him, you could see the regret, and I think that’s sad. But it’s sadly also a life lesson you have to learn.”

Maluche is filming and interviewing all the Tuloy ballet students because, although there are notable stars, the story is still unfolding and the end is far from certain. “One of the beautiful things about this project is that it provides a great stage for so many possible stories to develop,” Maluche says. “As they do, the documentary might start to focus on specific kids, as opposed to all the kids. One personal story is more powerful than a general approach. Maybe there will be several stories. I have several terabytes of video.”


Copyright © 2015 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd

The School of Pennsylvania Ballet Men's Class (Alexander Iziliaev) 2014


A candid interview with the artistic director of one of the premier U.S. ballet companies discussing boys, sports, bullying and the future of ballet.


By Tor Constantino
The Huffington Post
April 27, 2015


Both of my daughters had ballet lessons for a year or two when they were younger. But as I think back about it, I never saw a young boy in any of the practices or recitals. I never thought much about that until I wrote a couple of articles for The Good Men Project asserting that ballet is more of a sport than other activities such as bowling, billiards, darts, poker…etc.

Those articles got me thinking that within youth ballet, there seemed to be a stark lack of boys –the future of ballet requires boys now. That observation was confirmed during a recent interview with Angel Corella, the artistic director for the Pennsylvania Ballet.

One of the things he shared with me is that ballet requires balance — not just of each individual performer but gender balance because every ballet has specific choreographed roles and responsibilities for men and women.

However, the challenge facing ballet is breaking some of those gender stereotypes to help boys consider ballet to be as fun, exciting, rewarding, challenging and as athletic as more traditional pursuits such as baseball, soccer, football or basketball.

In the excerpted interview below, Corella shares his vision and that of the Pennsylvania Ballet, which has a ballet school for boys and girls that seeks to maintain that all important balance.


What led you into ballet?

The way I got into ballet is kind of strange because I came from a country [Spain] where men just didn’t do that type of thing because of its machismo culture.

Regardless, I’ve been dancing since I was three years old. During that time in the late 1970s, the movie Saturday Night Fever was incredibly popular and I would mimic the dancing I saw of John Travolta’s character every chance I could get. It was a way for me to express my need to dance without formal training.

Then my sisters began going to ballet class and I would go with them because I was taking karate class nearby. But I would often watch their ballet lessons and really began to appreciate the beauty and athleticism of ballet. I continued to go to karate classes until a friend of mine suffered a broken bone — so I stopped attending and sat in on my sisters’ classes.

I did that for several days — paying close attention — while my mother would run errands, until I actually began to follow and mimic the movements, joining the class.


How was that for you as a boy in a very masculine culture of Spain?

I had some trouble. When the kids at school found out that I was taking ballet — a few of them followed me home and bullied me saying I wore a tutu and wore tiaras. But I loved ballet so much and it came so naturally to me, I didn’t even care about the ridicule.

Shortly thereafter I moved to a larger ballet school outside of Madrid, where I studied for several years before moving to the U.S. where I became a professional dancer.


Given your fondness for movies about dancing, what was your opinion of the movie Billy Elliot that came out in 2000? Seems like it was something you could relate to.

The School of Pennsylvania Ballet Boys' Class (Alexander Iziliaev) 2014Yes, I could relate — in fact there were eerie similarities. Like in the movie, my father was also a boxer and there was a great deal of tension and difficulty when I told him I wanted to be a dancer. But when you love something so much — you’re willing to fight for it. I was willing to fight for my love of dancing and that was something my father came to understand.


Can you describe the support network you had that kept you going?

It was my family — especially my three sisters. One of my sisters was a dancer with me and she was right beside me to face every challenge together. But I have to say the opposition and bullying made me really strong as a person. I had to grow up quickly. So much so that I began dancing professionally at age 15 — but the ballet provided me a discipline and a great outlet to stay out of trouble. Again, my family has played a critical role and we’re still very close.


I can imagine family support was important because ballet lessons are not cheap, correct?

Correct, they can be a lot of money and they were for my family. My father worked two jobs to support our family and our passion for ballet and my mother was a school teacher. It was incredibly hard, but I’m very appreciative of that. I can tell you that both my parents were incredibly proud and repeatedly told me so after the first time they saw me perform — in fact my father cried the first time he saw me dance, so all that effort really paid off.


Can you talk about the athleticism that’s required of ballet dancers?

Absolutely, it’s one of the few professions that require complete engagement of every aspect of your being — mentally, emotionally and physically. Ballet demands complete control of your body from your toenails to the top of your hair during a performance. It requires complete concentration to make sure you don’t hurt yourself or other performers.

Bottom line, you have to be an athlete — you have to be athletic and extremely well trained. There are extremely high leaps. It’s a physical challenge lifting female dancers above your head several times during a performance.

Such athletic actions require balance, strength and poise because the ultimate goal is to make it look effortless and graceful — like it’s nothing. You can’t show with your face that it’s really, really difficult to create every human emotion with your body.

Pennsylvania Ballet's Soloist Alexander Peters in George Balanchine's Prodigal Son (Alexander Iziliaev)


Ballet has been rewarding for you, even as a young boy. How do you introduce ballet to the next generation of boys?

You first have to make it as easy as possible for them to experience it first, and then continue to make it easy and enjoyable for them to want to continue to do it every day thereafter. It’s critically important to create a very positive atmosphere, and to help families support a boy’s passion for ballet — if he has it.

Usually, when kids — both boys and girls — decide for themselves that they want to dance, there’s no way to stop them. It’s the role of ballet companies — such as the Pennsylvania Ballet where I work as the artistic director –to create the vision and capture the dream for children of what’s possible and what they can become. It’s very exciting to be part of that.


Tell me about the ballet school for kids that’s sponsored by the Pennsylvania Ballet?

A full school year runs for 35 weeks, starting in September and ending in June. There are seven levels of training in the student division in addition to pre-ballet classes we offer for students ages 5 to 7. There is no audition requirement for pre-ballet but all new students between the ages of 8-to-19 do attend a placement class so artistic staff may determine the level of study appropriate for each child.

General auditions take place throughout the year, and each year about 100 students are selected exclusively from the school to appear with the Pennsylvania Ballet in its annual holiday production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker — it’s really amazing for the students and their families to experience. The most important thing is to start them young — the younger the better. Ballet won’t hurt their developing bodies but will make them stronger, more graceful and flexible.

What makes our program unique, is that the boys train with the boys which helps normalize the experience and bonding. Growing up, I only danced with girls and would have benefited from having more peers who were male.


Can you tell me about the need for male dancers in ballet and the important role they play?

Every performance must have balance — just as in life. And that’s one of the reasons why the ballet needs male performers, to provide that balance. Ever since the beginning of balance centuries ago it has been about both male and female performers. Both are equally important for the future of this art form.

The School of Pennsylvania Ballet

Copyright ©2015 The Huffington Post


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