The Make-Or-Break Year

Classic Arts Features   The Make-Or-Break Year
New York City Ballet's apprentice program gives young dancersthe chance to prove themselves.

Photo shoots are rarely life-altering experiences for students at the School of American Ballet (SAB), but the shoot last June 3, just before a spring Workshop performance, was different. Peter Martins, Ballet Master in Chief of New York City Ballet and Artistic Director and Chairman of the Faculty at SAB, appeared unexpectedly before the eight advanced-level students, aged 15 to 19, and announced that they had been selected as NYCB apprentices.

"I remember I kept thinking, 'Is this real?'" recalls Giovanni Villalobos, who was in the group. "I know I danced that night with a big grin on my face."

To seasoned talent spotters, watching the progress of the new apprentices is a favorite annual ritual, commencing with George Balanchine's The NutcrackerTM and extending through the winter and spring seasons. Apprentices are NYCB's dancers in transition‹and faces of the future‹pirouetting from student to professional during the course of a year. They turn up in large ballets like The Sleeping Beauty and Symphony in C, receive a paycheck, and are identified in the program listings whenever they dance. But they are still SAB students who live in the school dorms and are not listed on the Company roster.

"The whole idea of the one-year apprentice period is to observe and watch and to see if they can adapt and learn quickly," says Mr. Martins. "It's the most interesting period for me because you really see what people are made of, if they have the right discipline, desire and fortitude."

That adaptability and willingness to learn can lead to exciting moments for an apprentice, as 16-year-old Tiler Peck discovered last summer on tour with the Company in California. When a dancer was injured during a performance of Stars and Stripes, Ms. Peck learned the part during an intermission, threw on a costume, and performed. "It was stressful, and I kept thinking about what step was coming next," she says. "But it was still so much fun."

There have been apprentices at NYCB since the time of George Balanchine, who understood the value of a training period for young dancers. But back then, the leap from novice to Company member followed a less predictable timetable. "We came in as apprentices, and whenever we were ready, we'd be asked to join the Company," says former NYCB principal dancer Kay Mazzo, Co-Chairman of Faculty at SAB and a Company member from 1962 to 1981. "It was often a matter of when the Company could take in more dancers financially."

The current one-year apprentice system evolved in the 1970s and '80s and follows guidelines overseen by the dancers' union. Apprentices can perform in up to sixteen ballets, eight in the winter season and eight in the spring. An apprentice who performs a ninth ballet in a given season is automatically taken into the Company. If a dancer is a ballet or two short at the end of the final season, the Company can still choose to offer a contract. Though apprenticeship is by no means a guaranteed path to NYCB, it is all but a prerequisite for entry-level dancers; almost every dancer in the Company is an SAB alum, and all save one of these are former apprentices.

"The program is good because your introduction to being a professional dancer is a little slower," Ms. Mazzo says. "You start taking Company class and go to some rehearsals, but you're still in school, you can come to us if you need guidance, and you still take SAB classes."

Apprentice-picking season, a time of excitement and anxiety, commences around the spring SAB Workshop, but the particulars, from the day of the announcement to the number of dancers selected, change each year. A key factor is the readiness of each dancer to assume the demands of Company life. "Mr. B. used to say, 'I know who you are,'" says Ms. Mazzo. "In the same way, it really helps that Peter sees them at the school, sees them grow up, and also teaches them in class. He has a good idea of who they are, who is ready and who is right for the Company."

The needs of the company are a factor, too, as current corps de ballet member Vincent Paradiso learned during his final spring semester at SAB two years ago. "Tyler Angle, who was also a student, had seen our names on the rehearsal schedule for Swan Lake, and he called me," he says. "I couldn't believe it. I was still working on a Workshop piece, but I was into rehearsal with the Company the next day as a guest apprentice. I was thrilled."

Apprenticeships are meant to help young dancers adjust to life as professionals, and as such, they offer all the requisite highs and lows. "It's a healthy combination of scary and fun," says Mr. Villalobos. "You're kind of tagging along and learning the ropes. Nobody can tell you how to do it. The only way to learn is to do it for yourself."

"Nerve-wracking" is how corps de ballet member Sara Mearns describes the first Company classes she took as an apprentice in 2003. "You don't know what to expect and you want to stand in the back, but that's the worst thing you can do since you're new and you need to be seen," she says. "But it's great having these other dancers in class to look up to. You see them and say, 'Oh, I want to see if I can do that.' It definitely takes you to a higher level."

For many apprentices, the increased workload comes as a shock. "During Nutcracker, I danced Snow and Flowers every night, and it was hard at first," recalls Ms. Mearns, who was also finishing up high school through correspondence classes (she graduated during her apprentice year). And after being the center of attention dancing principal roles in SAB Workshops, it's back to the corps. "It's very, very rough to all of a sudden be one of many in the back row, and you are hardly ever looked at," Mr. Martins says.

In the back of each apprentice's mind is the knowledge that this is a make-or-break experience, a one-time opportunity for them to demonstrate they belong in New York City Ballet. "You're always a little on the edge of your seat, worrying, wondering if you're going to get a contract," says Ms. Mearns. "I definitely feel more relaxed this year."

For most apprentices, the biggest lesson learned may well be the self-reliance they will need as professional dancers. "Joining the Company has added a lot more security, but I try to keep the work ethic that got me my contract," says Mr. Paradiso. "At the School, Olga Kostritzky taught me that in dancing there's always something else, always something to add on. And you can apply that to life."

Terry Trucco writes frequently about travel, design, and the arts.

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