School of Dance

Classic Arts Features   School of Dance
Pia Catton takes us back to school for a behind-the-scenes look at ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School of ballet.

When people ask 17-year-old Alexandra Basmagy where she studies dance, she enjoys a swell of pride: "It feels good to say ABT." Ms. Basmagy is a member of the first class to study a full year of dance at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre. The "JKO School"‹as it is affectionately known‹is ABT's pre-professional program for students aged 13 to 18. Founded in January 2004, initially as the Studio Company Associate Program, the school was expanded and renamed for ABT's devoted benefactor in the fall of 2004.

Those who enter receive training that can‹with hard work and good luck‹lead them to a coveted spot in the ABT Studio Company and perhaps one day, in the company itself. This spring, as the school's nearly 20 students go their separate ways for the summer, they'll all be one step closer to those glittering goals.

The creation of the school has much to do with the need to identify budding talent and bring it to ABT. John Meehan, artistic director of the ABT Studio Company, was a key player in getting the school started. "The idea was to have a pool of talent from which we could draw," he said. "The crucial training years are 14 through 18. Just as in sports, dancers are becoming so mature at such a young age."

To lead those young dancers, the company had to look for just the right person. "What a school needs is a pedagogue, which is quite different from a teacher," Meehan said. "A pedagogue is someone who has a structure and method. They know how one detail leads into another, and that leads into another."

The search didn't take long. In March, the company announced the school's new principal: Franco De Vita, who at the time was dean of faculty and curriculum at the Boston Ballet School.

"I saw him teach and I fell in love with him, as people do," said Meehan.

A native of Pavia, Italy, De Vita began his dance career at 15 and performed with several European companies. After retiring, he earned the Enrico Cecchetti Diploma and set about a teaching career that included stints at the Scuola de Danza Classica Hamlyn in Florence, Italy, the Hartford Ballet's company and school, and the Alvin Ailey School.

Now at the JKO school, he says he has a simple goal: "To make one of the great ballet schools in America."

A New Yorker as of June, De Vita feels passionately about being in the studio with students. "I was a dancer. I became a teacher. I love it, it's my life," he said. "I want to teach as much as possible."

Judging from the eager attitudes of three current students, he will have a very receptive audience.

What 15-year-old Faye Warren, of New Mexico, has enjoyed about her training thus far is the creativity. "They're teaching you the artistic side," she said.

"It's little stuff, like where you put your head and stage presence," said Ms. Basmagy.

"Things you'd never think of on your own," added Devon Teuscher, 16, a Vermonter who moved to New York City (with her mother) to attend the school.

A typical day for these girls and their classmates begins with academics in the morning and switches to ballet at 2:30 in the afternoon. As the JKO school does not house its students, the living situations vary. For Ms. Basmagy, a high school senior living at home in New Jersey, that means getting through her condensed schedule at her local public school from 7:25 a.m. to 11:41 a.m., then taking the train to the city.

Ms. Warren and Ms. Teuscher are studying by correspondence, but Ms. Warren who lives at the home of a company grand dame says it's tough: "I don't have parents around to tell me to study."

Ballet classes‹taught by ABT alums like Susan Jaffe and Ethan Brown‹include technique, pas de deux, character, and modern, as well as Pilates. Saturdays are devoted to a full lineup of ballet classes, but Sundays are free.

Yes, the workload is exhausting, but these young people know what they want. When asked what roles they hoped to perform someday, all three girls gushed at the idea of dancing the lead in Romeo and Juliet.

"It's that balcony scene," said Ms. Teuscher, with a sigh.

It's a fitting goal. These young dancers were, after all, accepted to the school based on their potential to fit into ABT and it's repertory, explained Meehan.

"First and foremost, we select dancers who have a classical technique. It's also dancers who have a range of styles," he said. "If they don't [have a wide range], we forgive it a little more in the school, because you can train it there.

But the school is also looking for dancers who‹even at age 13 ‹have an inner spark.

"It's that they want to say something when they dance. It's like in life, some people wear their heart on their sleeve. For others, it's not in their nature to open up," said Meehan. De Vita points out that sometimes the personality is there, and just needs a little push: "Maybe you don't see it straightaway. Sometimes you wait a little and you have a surprise."

As the JKO school grows, its administration learns how to handle schedules, crises, and everything that comes along with high-school students. Basmagy's family, for instance, had complications when they discovered that the one class that could not be squeezed into her special schedule was‹of all things‹gym. After a summer of legal wrangling, an arrangement emerged.

"I have to write down my attendance record and give it to my school," said Basmagy. "If I stop coming to dance, they can fail me for gym!"

Stop coming to dance? Not likely.

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