School of American Ballet’s Gutsy Kids: ‘They Just Have to Dance’


It’s not your usual ballet recital.

The rite of passage at the School of American Ballet known as the annual Workshop Performances dates to 1965 when the dancing academy hosted its first student showcase. Ever since, it has been the embodiment of hope and hard work, and — more often than not — that magical thing that can elude student performers: gutsy, soulful dancing.

The school, affiliated with New York City Ballet, produces extraordinary young dancers, many of whom go on to careers in that company and around the world. For audiences the workshop showcase is a chance to see them up close, and for students it’s an opportunity to show what they’re made of before they take their first steps in the professional world. When this year’s performances were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, students missed out not just on the show, but also on the experience — hours in the studio, costume fittings, the dress rehearsal — leading up to it.

“I was excited for one last performance with my peers and to perform in front of my family and for my teachers,” said Rylee Ann Rogers, who has a job waiting for her at Ballet West II, in Salt Lake City. “I was just really looking forward to the whole process.”

The upside is that starting Thursday the school will stream footage from past performances, including two from 2018: Justin Peck’s “In Creases” and Jerome Robbins’s “Circus Polka.” (Keep an eye out for Charlotte Nebres in the latter, in pink; in 2019, she became the first Black dancer to play Marie in City Ballet’s production of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.”)

But ballets by Balanchine, the founding choreographer of City Ballet, are the program’s real draw, starting with the pas de deux from “Agon” (1957), performed last year in honor of Arthur Mitchell, the original male lead. That groundbreaking ballet, set to Stravinsky, was unveiled during the Civil Rights movement and paired Mitchell, a Black dancer, with Diana Adams, who was white. “Can you imagine the audacity?” Mitchell said in a 2018 interview, about pairing him and Adams at that time.

Along with it is a workshop first-timer: “Scotch Symphony” (1952) to Mendelssohn, performed in 2017. “We only had one show,” Davide Riccardo, the male lead, said, “but I think that performance completely changed how I dance, how I see dance, how I partnered someone. It was so incredibly special.”

Mr. Riccardo, along with his “Scotch Symphony” partner, Mira Nadon — in a stunning debut — is now a member of City Ballet, along with LaJeromeny Brown, who dances Mitchell’s role in “Agon” opposite Savannah Durham, an eye-catching apprentice.

It wasn’t until 1973 that a Balanchine ballet was included in the workshop. In her introduction to “Scotch Symphony,” Suki Schorer, on the school’s faculty for nearly 50 years, explained that at the start of her teaching career Balanchine told her to “‘teach what you know,’ and what I knew was Balanchine, so I taught Balanchine variations.”

These videos, made for archival and internal reference purposes, were never envisioned for public viewing, yet in the performances there is exuberance, grit and soul. As Ms. Schorer explains: “This is when students realize that all the effort they put into their training now comes into play. Their épaulement” — or the placement of the head and shoulders — “how they hold their hands, how they move how they land in a jump, all that has to come together without even thinking. They just have to dance and all that technique is there for them.”

In “Agon,” staged by the City Ballet principals Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle and set to a complex and elegantly stringent score by Stravinsky, there is a dewy intensity and focus; in “Scotch Symphony,” taught by Ms. Schorer and Susan Pilarre, there is joy, mystery and a glittering Ms. Nadon. Then just 16, she dances with a sophistication and aplomb beyond her years.

Yes, debuts this year will be missed. The streaming event will be shown on the school’s website, along with its Facebook page and YouTube channel from July 9 through July 13. I spoke to four of its dancers — Ms. Nadon, Mr. Riccardo, Ms. Durham and Mr. Brown — about their experiences. What follows are edited excerpts.

There’s the expectation of the pas de deux: Knowing its history and being able to pay homage to that legacy in the best light possible, but also bringing myself to the role.

It is challenging because of the musicality. There are not even counts: It’s so internal. Before Savannah and I went onstage, we would just hold hands and breathe together. It was like a spiritual experience. “Agon” is one of those pas de deux that is not going to go well if you’re anxious and shaky and nervous. You have to be calm.

My biggest concern was making sure that Savannah had everything she needed. In the school, I got to choreograph, and she was kind of my muse. I knew her potential. I was like, wow, this girl is going to be a star. And then, for this ‘Agon’ to be two Black dancers — it’s also really powerful.

To be coached by Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle — I was so star struck. I’ve always looked up to Maria. She’s the tall ballerina and has such gorgeous lines. She would always say, “Just get out there and like leave it all onstage.”

When you come out, from the first few steps, it’s like you’re being shot out of a cannon. You really have to be in sync with your partner and it requires a lot of trust. For me, I feel like it’s harder to get into that fierce side of dancing. I’m not super dominant and in your face so I really had to focus to try to be commanding.

At one of the last rehearsals for “Agon,” Maria said to both of us: “Sometimes before I go onstage, I tense every muscle in my body and I close my eyes and I hold my breath. Then you just exhale and release every muscle and let it all out.” We both did that before we went on: Together, we breathed in and held every muscle and then exhaled. It transferred our energy.

You’re aren’t just a person, you’re this sylph who is a little mysterious and is guiding the man along. I loved the music so much. I would just listen to it to visualize how I wanted the music to carry me. We had lots of different images and little stories behind steps. There’s this one part where the woman does a penché [a lean forward ] and it’s like she’s whispering to the boy. Suki always made a big deal about it: You’re telling a secret.

I definitely felt a new strength in my dancing and I had a slightly different relationship to a dance — if someone gave a combination or taught a variation, I could see how I wanted to dance it, which might be slightly different from how someone else did. I want to be very musical and vulnerable and to be able to emote something without being melodramatic. I want to give the audience something to connect to.

I feel like it’s not until you learn and dance one of Balanchine’s ballets that you actually understand what they’re talking about in class. “Scotch Symphony” is amazing and beautiful, and I remember being onstage and almost wanting to cry. I felt like Mira was a sylph. In that show, I understood how important it is for your partner to trust you. It’s a very hard, long pas de deux. Now Mira and I are very close, but before that we had never talked, ever. I was like, this girl is OK with expecting me to catch her? Because there’s no plan B. I have to be there.

Doing my first principal role in a Balanchine ballet at S.A.B. gave me so much confidence. I was like, I can partner a girl. I can be a principal in a Balanchine ballet and I can look good. Everything clicked. Every time I dance, I want to go back to that magical feeling I had in that one show.

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