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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

July 8, 2010


Derek Dunn is a perfectionist.


So, when he looks over pictures of himself from a recent competition, he sees only things he needs to improve. The fact he took home the only medal by an American in the prestigious international contest isn’t lost on him, it’s just that Derek has a passion to succeed as a ballet dancer.

To that end, the 15-year-old Ferndale resident already devotes much of his life to dance. He attends a noted boarding school in Philadelphia that mixes ballet instruction with academics and is currently enrolled in a summer dance program in New York.

“You don’t find people with that kind of talent very often,” said Ashley Canterna-Hardy, his former instructor at the Edna Lee School of Dance in Glen Burnie. “He’s very determined and doesn’t settle for anything.”

Canterna-Hardy, who choreographed two contemporary routines for Derek’s recent competition, added that he has the “perfect body” for ballet and is particularly accomplished at turns.

The young dancer showcased his skills at the 2010 USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Miss. The two-week-long contest is only held once every four years, like the Olympics, and Derek took home bronze in the men’s junior division late last month. He competed against 18 other dancers ages 15 to 18 who were selected to take part. Derek was automatically accepted into the competition based on his win in another contest, officials said.

“For him to come out with a medal was such an honor,” Canterna-Hardy said. “He was the only one (from) the U.S. to win anything.”

In all, Derek had to perform well in six short routines over three rounds to take the bronze. Three of the pieces came in the third and final round: a variation from “Sleeping Beauty,” a variation from “La Bayadere,” and a contemporary routine called “Moonlight” that he performed to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.”

Derek’s favorite ballet, though, is “Don Quixote,” which he said he particularly relishes because of its entertainment value and enjoyable roles.

After he completes the summer dance program, Derek plans to swim a bit. He’s competes in that sport as well, and according to his parents, Brian and Vicki, gives 110 percent in everything. Besides that, Derek said, he’ll probably play some tennis and just try to relax for a couple weeks before school starts.

At The Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia, which Derek received a scholarship to attend, he sometimes dances up to eight hours a day if he’s preparing for a performance. Usually, though, dance “only” takes up about three or four hours a day, he said.

Derek said it was difficult to be away from home at first, but he got used it as his freshman year wore on. He also was allowed to come home more often than he originally thought he would, which helped, he said.

He’s never, ever tired of dance, and said his greatest strength is his ability to show emotion while performing.

“Sometimes, it’s very stressful … but I love what I’m doing,” he said. “When I’m out on the stage, I feel like I can let everything go. I’m relaxed.”


All in the family

Derek’s fascination with dance began his sister. Danielle, 17, took lessons at the Edna Lee Dance Studio, and when she came home from class and practiced, Derek was fascinated. “I’d dance around the house with her,” he said.

Although his parents were initially a little surprised by his interest in dance, they never discouraged him and soon signed him up for lessons, too. Danielle continued dancing until last month, and in the past performed on occasion with her brother. (The siblings also share a love for swimming, something Danielle’s planning to continue at Salisbury University, her parents said).

Neither Brian nor Vicki have a background in dance, but did play sports growing up, which is where they said Derek’s athleticism probably comes from. “It didn’t take long for us to realize he was very good at (ballet),” said Brian, who works for the U.S. Department of Energy.

He added that his son distinguishes himself from other dancers by doing a lot more than just being technically perfect. “A lot of kids are very, very talented, but can’t put the emotion in (and) don’t have his desire,” Brian said.


© 2010 The Capital

Daphna Berman
Jewish Exponent Feature

April 09, 2009


Esteban Hernandez could have been a star on Broadway, but when he was offered the role of Billy Elliot in the eponymous hit musical, the 14-year-old ballet whiz declined. “I didn’t think I was ready yet,” the Mexican-born Jewish dancer said. “I would have been performing all the time, instead of working on my technique.”

A real-life Jewish Billy Elliot? Hernandez acknowledges some similarities. “People say that ballet is only for girls or imagine boys in tutus, and so in that way, we both have to fight stereotypes,” he said. “A lot of people don’t realize that ballet is more complicated than any other sport because you don’t have to just jump — you have to make it look easy. But Billy Elliot’s father didn’t want him to dance, and in my case, my father was my teacher and is a big supporter.”

Hernandez, a student at Philadelphia’s Rock School for Dance Education who arrived in the United States two years ago to pursue his passion, is considered one of the ballet world’s most promising rising stars. He has racked up medals, scholarships and international recognition, and his teachers say a career in a top ballet company is almost certainly assured.

“To say that he is a prodigy is not an exaggeration,” said Bo Spassoff, president and co-director of the Rock School, and a former ballet master at the Pennsylvania Ballet. “His control, balance and strength are incredible, especially given his age. He does stuff that finished professionals can’t and don’t do.”

Hernandez, who started dancing at the age of 8, has a long and impressive résumé: He won gold medals at the Cuba International Dance Competition and at the Youth America Grand Prix International Finals, the largest ballet competition in the world. He also came in first place at the recent Tanzolymp festival in Berlin, Europe’s largest dance competition. And last year, he was honored with Mexico’s National Youth Award, in a ceremony attended by Mexico President Felipe Calderon.

“His career will go anywhere he wants it to go,” said Stephanie Spassoff, the co-director of the school. “I’ve seen a lot of talent, but he is truly amazing. When he dances, he is just brimming with love, joy and a desire to dance.”


Transformed Through Dance

Hernandez has the demeanor of a relaxed and well-adjusted teenager; however, he is simply transformed the moment he begins to leap and pirouette. It underscores a discipline and maturity far beyond his years.

His training is rigorous. He dances more than eight hours a day, and weekends rarely offer time off. “There’s a lot of competition in ballet, and you need to work 110 percent every day.”

Hernandez, the eighth of 11 children, hails from a dance family. Both parents were performers and his older brother, Isaac, a graduate of the Rock School, is a dancer with the San Francisco Ballet. His father performed with the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Houston Ballet.

Enrolled as a ninth-grade student in a school in his native Guadalajara, Hernandez studies in the Philadelphia apartment across from the Rock School that he shares with two older sisters. He only takes tests when he returns to his hometown. Dance is his life, he says, and he admits that it’s difficult for him to connect with people outside of that tight-knit community.

Though Hernandez wasn’t raised in a religious household, Jewish traditions are personally significant, he says. Stephanie Spassoff jokes that she assumed that he and his brother Isaac were Catholic because their family was so large. “But then we were at a restaurant and Esteban said, ‘I can’t eat that because I am Jewish,’ ” she recalled. “I was so surprised. I had never met a Jewish Mexican before.”


Copyright © Jewish Publishing Group



Related articles: Esteban Hernandez wins Mexico’s National Youth Award


                          Leaping to the next level


                          Child Prodigies







October 2008

Rock School student Esteban Hernandez has been presented with Mexico’s National Youth Award in recognition of his achievements in ballet. Esteban was personally honored by President Felipe Calderon in an awards ceremony held on October 3 at the National Palace in Mexico City.

Each year the National Youth Award is presented to the country’s most outstanding young people in categories including science and the arts. Esteban, a native of Guadalajara, is one of this year’s 16 winners, selected from a pool of 33,000 competitors.

Esteban entered The Rock School in September 2007, following in the footsteps of his older brother Isaac, a former Rock School student who now dances with San Francisco Ballet. At the age of 13, Esteban was the second non-Cuban individual to earn a gold medal in the junior division of the International Student Ballet Competition in Havana, Cuba. In April 2008, he won the gold medal in the junior division at the Youth America Grand Prix International Finals in New York.


By Lea Marshall

Dance Magazine

Febuary 2008


Within each dancer lies the story of her talent—how she discovered it, how a teacher fostered it, how it grew within her. It may take years before talent is revealed. But occasionally a student’s raw ability is so exceptional that it’s almost spooky. That’s when she might well be considered a prodigy. What does dance mean to a kid who seems to have been born doing it? What does such a student mean to a teacher? What can the dance world expect from such gifted young people? To find out, Dance Magazine spoke to several such children and their teachers.


The Soul of a Gypsymarlon-dorantes-12
Marlon Dorantes, an 11-year-old boy from California, dances flamenco like a gypsy in Spain. Inspired by his older sister’s dancing, Marlon tried a flamenco class at age 4 and loved it. Seven years later, he’s taking advanced classes with adults and performing with great success around Los Angeles.

“Audiences just eat that little boy up,” says Linda Vega, one of his teachers. “Marlon totally gets flamenco. It’s a complicated art form. It’s not just the dance moves, it’s the rhythms, the singing, the hand clapping, the guitar, and all of it together.”

Juggling classes, homework, and rehearsals can be hard, Marlon admits. “But dancing feels really fun,” he says, “and it’s a time when you can express your feelings.” He loves the fast footwork, and he likes performing to live music. “The singers can sing to you in different ways and it really gets me into the music,” he says. His dream is to go to Spain to study and perform, and his teachers share that dream. “He’s got an amazing talent. He belongs in Spain where he can be challenged, studying every day,” says Vega. “When I announce him in my shows, I call him the niño prodigio.”

From a Dancing Family
As a toddler, Nikolas Gaifullin sat in the lap of coach Pavel Fomin while his parents, Daniil and Stephanie Gaifullin, rehearsed Raymonda. His father has a video of him performing the mad scene from Giselle with his mother in their living room. nikolas-gaifullin-2

Now 12, Nikolas placed second in his division at the Youth America Grand Prix 2007 Finals, and has performed by invitation at the Spoleto Festival in Italy.

The Gaifullins, co-founders of Ballet Amarillo in Texas, remain dumbfounded by their son’s talent, even as they teach him themselves.

“He’s like an old-soul personality. It’s really rare in the ballet world,” says Daniil. Larissa Saveliev, artistic director of YAGP, first saw Nikolas perform when he was 9 years old. “He really lights up the stage. Somehow he can smile without smiling. Everybody around him gets this warm feeling.”


“I’ve been thinking about ballet since I was 2,” says Nikolas. “When I’m dancing, I feel very confident; I know what I’m going to do. And I feel proud of myself.” He likes turns and jumps; he’s working on beats.

His favorite ballet is Spartacus because of the sword fighting, and he hopes one day to dance for Ballet Amarillo in Swan Lake and La Bayadère. As teachers and parents, Daniil and Stephanie are doing their best to lay the right path for Nikolas. Even in the face of his obvious talent, they say, “We’re trying to take care of our son slowly. We’re just wishing him a happy, not too stressful, artist’s life.”

Mind Body Spirit

“There used to be a ceiling fan in my grandma’s house, and when I was a baby my feet would move to the beat of the fan. Whenever I heard music I would start banging my feet on the floor,” says Krithika Rajkumar, a 15-year-old student of the Indian classical dance form Bharata Natyam in Oak Park, Michigan.

From the age of 4, Krithika has studied with Sudha Chandrashekar, who noticed right away that she was exceptional. “Her attitude toward the dance was very happy—excited to perform and very happy to learn,” Chandrashekar says. “She retained what she learned, and I could try the most difficult moves with her.”

Krithika made her debut at age 12. Her preparations included long hours of rehearsals, strength training, and focus on expression—not her strong point at the time, she says. But with a successful debut behind her, Krithika continues to delve into different branches of Bharata Natyam. “It is such a big world,” she says. “It’s like an ocean of knowledge.”

In Krithika, says Chandrashekar, “The mind-body-spirit link is very much there. She has a natural talent for it. All this success has not gone to her head. I believe that she has understood the essence of the dance.”

In the future, Krithika hopes to use her dancing as a tool for community service, offering workshops to children with disabilities. And of course, she hopes to continue performing. “I like to connect with my audience, and I like when people enjoy my performance,” she says. “When you get involved in it, it’s an uplifting experience.”

Tap City
New York-based tapper Ayodele Casel started teaching Warren Craft when he was 9 years old, and she saw immediately that he had the gift. With tap, she says, you can tell right away who has that ear, that natural ability to pick it up. Warren did, and Casel taught him privately every Sunday for two years.

“He was the dream student. I was able to communicate advanced concepts with him the way I would with an adult. If there was anything he’d have trouble with, he’d have it corrected by the next week.” When talking about him as an improviser, she mused, “I wonder if I’ll ever have a student like that again.”

Warren, now 14, loves improvisation. He also trains in ballet, which he believes helps his presentation as a tap dancer. He has performed with American Tap Dance Foundation’s Tap City, and in Casel’s Diary of a Tap Dancer, in which voiceovers of each dancer described their personal relationship to dance. “I talked about how accepting the tap dance community is of me and how willing they are to share their knowledge with me,” says Warren. Looking ahead, he would like to perform with Tap City on tour. “My dream job would be to become a song and dance man.”


Positive Energy
With high arches, gorgeous extensions and a brilliant smile, 15-year-old Beth Miller has been catching teachers’ eyes since she began studying ballet in the second grade. In sixth grade, she saw Sylvie Guillem perform Juliet with The Royal Ballet in London, and she realized then that dancing was what she wanted to do.
“Dancing is one of those things I just can’t imagine my life without,” she says. Studying in The Washington School of Ballet’s Release-Time program, she has worked hard to develop the strength to support her flexible frame, and is extending her technique past her comfort zones. “I’m starting to like turns more and more. That used to be my weakness, but I’ve worked hard on them.” Beth hopes to perform the role of Juliet herself one day, and she dreams of dancing for The Royal Ballet.


 Becky Erhart, artistic coordinator of The Washington School of Ballet, has been working with Beth for the past two years. “The thing that really stands out is her passion and her natural movement quality,” says Erhart. Beth’s work ethic and positive attitude shine through everything she does. “You can tell how much she wants it, and how much she loves to dance,” continues Erhart. “When I’m teaching her, I get caught watching her do a very simple port de bras; she’s so involved in the movement. In rehearsals, when everyone’s tired and they’ve worked seven days in a row, Beth is in the corner smiling. She has such a positive energy.”

A Storybook Successisaac-hernandez-12-yagp2003
When he was 9 years old, Isaac Hernandez began studying ballet in his backyard in Guadalajara, Mexico, with his father, Hector Hernandez, who had danced with Dance Theatre of Harlem and Houston Ballet. Within three years, Isaac had won medals at competitions and a scholarship to The Rock School in Philadelphia.

Bo Spassoff, co-director of the school, recalls seeing Isaac for the first time at Youth America Grand Prix in 2002 and being floored by his technique—and his wonderful onstage personality. “He has a beautiful physique, gorgeous legs and feet, a beautiful line, natural coordination,” says Spassoff. “And he turns like a top.” Once he began at The Rock School, co-director Stephanie Spassoff says, “There were times when we’d sit there and watch him, and we’d all just turn and look at each other, and the whole faculty would have tears in their eyes.” esteban-hernandez-junior-mens-solo-yagp-2008

“Ballet was a huge door that opened my world,” says Isaac. “It was the way for me to express myself, and now I enjoy the challenges that I have.” Of all his 10 siblings, only he and his brother Esteban latched on to ballet when their father offered it. (Esteban, now 13, was named Best Male Dancer in his age range at the 2006 American Ballet Competition in Miami.)

Isaac loves the classical repertoire and has performed the Don Quixote variation since he was 11. It’s his yardstick now, the way he measures his progress in technique and expressiveness. “I guess it’s the Latin blood in me. I feel like I was born doing it,” he says. Still, he hopes one day to perform full-length versions of his favorite ballets—particularly Don Q and Giselle. At 17, with a place now in American Ballet Theatre II, that hope seems likely to be realized.

Though a young dancer may possess extraordinary talent, the same work must be done to move the dancer toward success. Commitment, a positive attitude, and hard work combine with time and luck to make an artist out of a prodigy. What Sudha Chandrashekar says applies to both talented students and their teachers: “The inner meaning of art is to strive for excellence. You have to fight against all kinds of obstacles, and then through art you can find yourself.”

Lea Marshall teaches dance at Virginia Commonwealth University and directs Ground Zero Dance Company in VA.


© 2008 Macfadden Performing Arts Media LLC.


By Felicia Homan
South Jersey News Online June 03, 2008 8:10AM


Austin Butler, of Pennsville, in Pennsylvania Ballet's production of the 'Nutcracker.'

Austin Butler, of Pennsville, in Pennsylvania Ballet’s production of the ‘Nutcracker.’

Ever since Pennsville resident Austin Butler could walk he has been pointing his toes, leaping, jumping, and spinning his way into ballet productions.”I was 3 years old, I saw my sister dancing and I wanted to dance, too,” Austin said.

Austin’s sister, Brittany, is a recent graduate of North Carolina School of Arts and is one of his closest companions.

“He is very close with his sister,” said Karen Butler, Austin’s mother. “When Brittany comes home they talk for hours about ballet, he misses her greatly while she’s at school.”

Austin’s dancing talents will no doubt acquire him much fortune in the future, but he is not breaking the bank now to fund his passion. He attends The Rock School of Dance Education in Philadelphia on a full scholarship.

Education is important to the Butler family. Due to Austin’s busy schedule of rehearsals and traveling, he is privately tutored.

“He’s bright, so it has provided us an opportunity to let him pursue even more in his educational studies,” Butler said. “He’s entering the eighth grade in September, but he’s closer to a freshman in high school because of the work he’s completed.”

History and government are among his favorite subjects. He intertwines his love of ballet and history by researching the background of the productions he takes part in.

At only13 years old, Austin’s resume is lengthy including two productions of the “Nutcracker,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “Romeo and Juliet.” His next production is the Pennsylvania Ballet’s “Carnival of Animals.”

Carnival of Animals tells the story of a young boy who accidentally falls asleep in a history museum and allows his imagination to transform his friends and teachers into a menagerie of animals. Austin shares the lead role of Oliver. The show opens Friday at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia.

When Austin heard that the Pennsylvania Ballet was performing Carnival of Animals, he knew he wanted to audition. His mother said that he was skeptical at first, saying “I’m going to be too tall, I’ll never get it.”

Roy Keiser, the Pennsylvania Ballet’s artistic director, personally requested Austin for the production. Austin described it as the happiest day of his life. Joy is something he readily finds in dance.

“I love dancing, so I feel happy whenever I think about the chance to dance,” said Austin.

Austin’s talent is promising for the future, but dance is not the only thing he aspires to do.

“I would like to dance in a company and go to a college, like my sister, for dance,” Austin said. “But, I am also considering the Marines.”

© 2008


This week, top Rock School students step up to the world’s largest dance competition.

By Ellen Dunkel
For The Inquirer
Posted on Sun, Mar. 2, 2008


Esteban Hernandez may be only 13, but his jumps soar. In his Don Quixote variation – usually danced by men twice his age – Hernandez’s confidence and regal posture belie his youth.

He is a Rock star, a top ballet student at Philadelphia’s Rock School for Dance Education. But this week the native of Guadalajara, Mexico, will be aiming even higher – competing in Swarthmore at the regional semifinal of the Youth America Grand Prix, a competition for ballet dancers ages 9 to 19.

To prepare, he and four dozen other Rock competitors spend an extra hour or two a day – on top of five hours in ballet classes – rehearsing for the Grand Prix at the Rock studios at Broad Street and Washington Avenue.

Competitions are a little-known side of the ballet world, and most are designed to showcase professional dancers trying to upgrade their careers. But the Grand Prix focuses on students, who can win scholarships to some of the world’s best ballet schools.

“It is the Internet of dance,” competition spokesman Sergey Gordeev says, “connecting all the schools and the dancers.”

Thousands of students are competing in semifinals in 10 U.S. cities, as well as in Brazil, Mexico, Japan and Italy. Medalists, and those who earn scores of at least 95 out of 100, will move on to the April 16-21 finals in New York. And there they may win offers to study at England’s Royal Ballet School, Italy’s La Scala Ballet School – or at the Rock School (formerly the Pennsylvania Ballet School), which won the Outstanding School Award at the 2007 finals. esteben-hernandez-9-2004-yagp

The Grand Prix – founded in 2000 by Larissa Saveliev and her husband, American Ballet Theatre soloist Gennadi Saveliev – in only eight years has become the world’s largest dance competition. Former participants now have jobs in nearly every major company in the world; New York City Ballet has 13, ABT has 23.

But there are no guarantees. Bojan Spassoff – who runs the Rock School with his wife, Stephanie Wolf Spassoff, like him an ABT alum – says competitors may spend thousands of dollars on choreography, coaching, music and costumes in preparation.

And then, if they are lucky and talented enough to make it to the finals, they’re up against 350 of the best young dancers in the world.

The Rock School’s directors were initially leery of having their students compete.

“For us, the process is really the prize,” Bojan Spassoff says. “I always tell them you always learn a lot more from your failures than you do from your successes.”

His wife agrees. “I know it sounds corny, but roses on a rosebush don’t all bloom at the same time,” she says, bending the shank of a pointe shoe to break it in. “And each one is beautiful.”

She says she had the most reservations about competitions “because then there are all these losers,” who may have come out on top a different day.

But the Spassoffs changed their minds in 2003, when longtime student Christine Shevchenko blossomed into an exceptionally talented 14-year-old. They trained her for the Grand Prix, and she won first place in both the classical and contemporary categories in the regional semifinal, and made the top 12 at the finals in New York.

“The value of that process is really what changed our minds. We saw what that coaching could really do for dancers,” Bojan Spassoff says.

In April 2008, Esteban Hernandez won the gold medal in the junior division at the Youth America Grand Prix International Finals in New York.

In April 2008, Esteban Hernandez won the gold medal in the junior division at the Youth America Grand Prix International Finals in New York.

Shevchenko went on to succeed in other competitions, most notably winning gold in the junior division of the 2005 Moscow International Ballet Competition. (Mikhail Baryshnikov had won the senior division in 1969.) No American had won a medal in Moscow since 1981.

“The competitions helped me gain more confidence on stage,” says Shevchenko, now an ABT apprentice. “There is so much pressure to perform well during competitions that it helped me to deal with the pressure and nervousness before a performance. I became less afraid to perform.”

It was also at those 2003 Grand Prix finals that the Spassoffs met a 12-year-old from Mexico, Isaac Hernandez, older brother of current Rock student Esteban. Isaac was named the best male dancer in the junior division that year.

“Larissa [Saveliev] spoke to us and said, ‘There’s a very talented young guy, and the family is very interested in having him come to the Rock,’ ” Stephanie Wolf Spassoff says. “And I said, ‘He’s 12! How can he come?’ And she said, ‘It’s a good thing. There’s 10 kids and they need him to go.’ “esteban-hernandez-the-rock-school

An adult sibling, Laura, moved with Isaac to Philadelphia, but the Spassoffs say Isaac also formed a close relationship with them – close enough that last March, Esteban came to Philadelphia to study at the Rock, too.

They were together only briefly. Within months, Isaac had joined ABT II, American Ballet Theatre’s second company, leaving Esteban to follow in his tendus, jetés and other footsteps – perhaps all the way to the New York finals.

Though it’s Valentine’s Day, most of the Rock dancers are wearing traditional black and white or pastel pink.

But Beckanne Sisk, 15, of Longview, Texas, sports a cherry-red leotard and heart-shaped earrings as she practices her solo from La Esmeralda, with tambourine.

Miria Matsuda, a petite 16-year-old – even farther from home (Kobe, Japan) than Beckanne – smiles broadly throughout her variation, from Le Corsaire. (“She’s happy all the time. All the kids love her,” says Stephanie Wolf Spassoff. “She’s working all the time, too.”)

Neither Taylor Stanley, 16, of West Chester, nor Lawrence Rines, 17, of King of Prussia, had to move away from home and family to attend the Rock School, but their days are arduous nevertheless. Both participate in a distance-learning program through the school, and Rines’ daily commute is 90 minutes each way, on a bus and two trains.

Still, they say growing up dancing is only as hard as one lets it be. “I don’t surround myself by negative people, so it’s fine,” says Rines, who last year did well at the New York finals.

Kara Hanretty, 18, of Syracuse, N.Y., competed the last two years, and went to the finals both times. A strong, flexible dancer, she won a place at American Ballet Theatre’s intensive summer program her first year, and her photo, in ads for the competition, has appeared in Dance Magazine and other publications.

This year, she’ll dance classical and contemporary solos, as well as a contemporary duet with Stanley, whose wide-ranging talents include acting and singing.

“I have, like, flexibility,” he says.

“You have everything,” Hanretty responds. “He’s really good at jazz.”

“[Jazz] can always be with you,” he says. But for now, he’s all ballet all the time: Two weeks ago, he was accepted on full scholarship to the prestigious School of American Ballet, the feeder school for New York City Ballet. That means this year’s Grand Prix, Stanley’s first ballet competition ever, will be his last as a Rock student.

During these competitions, Hanretty says, the most important thing is enjoying the work.

“Honestly, I do it more for the experience. I get more out of that than from the competition, I think.

“It’s nice to win, it’s a really good feeling,” she says of the semifinals. But then come the finals – and the challenge of a world’s worth of talent.

“I see everyone else,” she says, “and I’m just like, ‘Oh, man!’ “


See Rock School students rehearse for competition at

Copyright 2008


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