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Celebrating 75: SAB Looks Back and Ahead

By Daniela Amini and Allegra Kent


The School of American Ballet has been the training ground for New York City Ballet since George Balanchine came to this country and set up a school in 1934. This month SAB celebrates its 75th anniversary, and Dance Magazine offers a two-part salute. First we take you through a day in the life of one current student. Then Allegra Kent recalls her days at SAB before embarking on her illustrious NYCB career.


While Kent auditioned and was accepted directly into the school, today most prospective students begin by attending a summer program or two. After it, a select few receive invitations to stay for the Winter Term. That is what happened to Jillian Harvey, a 16-year-old student from Pennsylvania. The youngest of three sisters (all of whom studied ballet), Jillian grew up in Hollidaysburg, PA, where she started commuting to Altoona to train at the Allegheny Ballet. After attending the SAB summer course in 2006, she was invited to stay for the winter term, but she was only 14 at the time and her parents felt she was too young to leave home. She returned the following summer and, after a second invitation, stayed for her first Winter Term in 2007.


Studying at SAB transforms the dream of a career in dance into a palpable, achievable reality. Students often find themselves in class with the same New York City Ballet stars that once graced their walls and calendars, and they now have the chance to be cast in workshops or productions, like
The Nutcracker, that are stepping-stones to an apprenticeship.


Last fall,
Dance Magazine joined Jillian on a typical day in her life at SAB, which is part of the Lincoln Center complex in midtown Manhattan.

 

7:30 am: Grab breakfast in the SAB school cafeteria.

7:45 am: Walk a few blocks to Professional Children’s School, where Jillian is jointly enrolled as a junior.

8:00–8:50 am: Chemistry class. Jillian’s lab partners, Lars and Elizabeth, are also dancers and the three of them quickly engage in measuring and comparing the properties of water, soda, lemon juice, and liquid soap.  Though they stay focused on the task, there’s a lot of camaraderie and easy joking between them.

8:53–9:42 am: Statistics class. The teacher uses a “smartboard” to project web content on the board that helps illustrate problems and solutions.

9:45 am: Walk back to SAB to change for ballet class. On the way, Jillian mentions that one of the things she loves about SAB is that students can get free tickets to watch the New York City Ballet on certain nights. She has many favorite dancers, among them Ashley Bouder: “She is so good…she’s just SO good!”

10:10 am: Stretch in ballet studio prior to class. Many of the girls are carefully bandaging their feet, discussing their aches and pains and exchanging helpful hints. Some listen to inspiring music on their iPods while others stretch or practice pointework.

10:30 am–12:00 pm: Morning technique class. All the girls wear black leotards with pink tights. In her second year at SAB, Jillian was promoted to the “C2 Advanced Girls” level. There is a strong emphasis on musicality and keeping transitions fluid. One of Jillian’s technical challenges is to roll through her feet when coming down from pointe, particularly after a turn. She also works hard on her port de bras. Today, Katrina Killian is teaching. “I love Katrina,” says Jillian. “She teaches a really tough class, but it’s great!”

12:00–12:15 pm: Change back to street clothes in dorm room. Jillian shares a bedroom with another dancer in a suite of shared rooms. Each floor is decorated with a different “theme,” and there are common rooms where recreational activities like pizza-making nights take place. The dorms have resident and desk supervisors who keep close tabs on the comings and goings of each student. Students must report their exact whereabouts through a system of cards on a bulletin board. SAB also enforces standard curfew times for residence students based on their ages.

12:15–1:00 pm: Eat lunch in SAB cafeteria. Jillian grabs a sandwich, soda and snack bar and joins a few friends. They talk excitedly about birthday party plans at a restaurant that evening for one of the girls in their class. Each student’s parents set terms with the school as to how far their child may travel beyond the school environs. Jillian’s parents allow her full access to different neighborhoods in the city, but she is not permitted to use public transportation alone.

1:00 pm: Walk back to Professional Children’s School.

1:19–1:45 pm: U.S. History class. This is taught by one of Jillian’s favorite PCS teachers, known for his sense of humor. Because of scheduling, dancers often leave this class period early while other PCS students remain.

1:45 pm: Walk back to SAB to change for ballet class. For variation and partnering classes, students wear all-white.

2:15 pm: Stretch in ballet studio.

2:30–4:00 pm: Variations class with Suki Schorer. Today Suki is teaching a challenging section from Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15. At one point, she asks the class to watch a video of former City Ballet star Kyra Nichols doing the same section. One of today’s goals is to control a series of fast piqué turns so that they end each time with arms opened in second position facing the audience while at the same time keeping the arms from getting too “hysterical.” On other days, Jillian has a partnering class during this period, taught by Jock Soto. This is another popular class at SAB. “The hardest thing is to try and coordinate with your partner to make the movements smooth and easy while staying on the music,” says Jillian. The goal is to dance “in a way that looks like two people are dancing one part.”

4:00 pm: Depending on the day, Jillian will either return directly to her dorm to start her homework or will first do a half-hour session in SAB’s Pilates room. She might also sign up for an evening seminar organized by the Student Life department. The topics range from nutrition and wellness to drug and alcohol education, community service to diversity. In exchange for attending these programs, students earn a special currency called “SAB bucks” that can be used to bid on prizes ranging from DVDs to iPods at the end of the year.


Once the season gets underway, students may also be spending afternoon and evening hours in rehearsals for The Nutcracker or other City Ballet productions. In October/November, many advanced students participate in the two-week Student Choreography Workshop, which allows them to create short ballets using their fellow students as dancers. In late winter, most advanced students will begin rehearsing for the June Workshop performances, a rite of passage that involves hours of rehearsal and showcases students to artistic directors from many companies.


On the 75th anniversary of SAB, Allegra Kent recalls her days as a student.

 

In the fall of 1951, my mother and I turned up at the School of American Ballet, then located on the fifth floor of a building on Madison Avenue at 59th Street. We arrived inauspiciously, by freight elevator. Mom had arranged for a placement audition, requesting Muriel Stuart to evaluate me.  The great Carmelita Maracci, one of my teachers in Los Angeles, had told us about this extraordinary school and her friend Muriel Stuart, who taught there. We brought with us Carmelita’s personal letter of recommendation. I had already read it 10 times—and considered it my dance passport (Carmelita had described me as “demonic”).   

After changing into a homemade tunic designed by my mother, I followed Miss Stuart into a small practice room. With her sweater sleeved on one side only and a dark skirt almost to the floor, her attire suggested modern rather than classical dance. She had indeed studied with Martha Graham, yet she was English and had been in Anna Pavlova’s company. In retrospect, I can only marvel at her audacity in wearing such a nontraditional outfit in Balanchine’s school.

The barre Miss Stuart presented was simplicity itself and gave me confidence. So I was brokenhearted when Miss Stuart, in a definitive voice, told the executive secretary, Natalie Molostwoff, that I should be in Level B. After a second of silence, “Miss Molo” told us that Mr. Balanchine was presently out of town but might adjust my level when he returned. I wanted the challenge of pushing myself plus the delight of watching more advanced students and New York City Ballet’s great stars. Of course, I didn’t know who they were, but they certainly wouldn’t be in an intermediate level class. Nevertheless, I had great confidence in Mr. B’s judgment, even though I had seen only one of his ballets and his name did not yet create a frenzy in my heart. 

While waiting for my possible advancement, I studied my new dance landscape. In the dressing room, between rows and rows of double-decker steel lockers, Melissa Hayden, to my shock, introduced herself to me while taking off all of her street clothes and putting on a leotard and tights. It wasn’t her moment of nudity that surprised me. It was the social intimacy. I had always thought a great ballerina would be more self-
conscious and aloof.

Luckily, the teachers had their own dressing room. Mme. Felia Doubrovska appeared just a second or two before class started and flew across the room on demi-pointe toward the piano, trailing the scent of Bellagio. Bronislava Nijinska, my other great teacher in California, wore only black pajamas, nothing form-fitting, never colors. But Doubrovska, the original Siren in Balanchine’s Prodigal Son, regarded the classroom as the wings to the stage. Her legs and feet were exquisite and entirely visible. She wore short dresses in lovely tones, ballet slippers with ribbons, and a scarf with no utilitarian purpose except to show her impeccable eye for couture and costume.

In contrast, Anatole Oboukhoff had developed an eccentric facade for his classroom appearances. His outfit was utilitarian: a white shirt over dark pants. His tempos were exceedingly fast, which he emphasized by snapping his fingers quickly inches away from my face and never blinking his eyes. Occasionally, he suppressed a smile at his own fierceness. His antics were so absorbing that I forgot to be tired. He referred to me as “Little Miss.” I loved this personal title. He maintained discipline, but the corrections were never personal.

After two weeks, while I was taking Pierre Vladimiroff’s class, Mr. B walked quietly into the studio, sat down, and watched my group for about seven minutes. He was not one to waste time; I was allowed to advance. This was the moment I observed a remarkable phenomenon—the intense adoration of everyone present for George Balanchine.   


Mr. Vladimiroff also taught adagio class. Jacques d’Amboise was always there and chose three girls as his partners, a different one in every group. I was in second place, after Jillana. Vladdy loved to demonstrate how he had delicately touched the little wings of Anna Pavlova’s costume in Chopiniana, saying, “I show you better.” Before coming to work every morning, he and his wife, Doubrovska, did a barre together—their little gymnastic exercises. He gave superb classes with wonderful combinations. What’s more, he loved butter rum Lifesavers and once offered me one. I may still have it somewhere.


Mr. B used to wander in and out at unpredictable times to visit the school and rehearse his company. This first year, I saw many great dancers—Nora Kaye, Maria Tallchief, Tanaquil LeClercq—in the dressing rooms, in class, or on the large, wide bench in the foyer. They would be resting, sewing ribbons on shoes, and telling jokes. An important season was to be launched that November: Balanchine was choreographing his version of Swan Lake, and Tudor’s Lilac Garden was entering the repertory.


At this moment in the school’s history modern dance was being taught by Janet Collins and character by Yurek Lazowski, but no physical therapy, variations, or accent on stretching. I took one class a day. All the teachers were adamant about students not overworking. The School did not have an annual workshop the way they do now every June. The only outlet to the stage was the New York City Ballet itself—there was nothing in between. This appealed to my mother, who loathed recitals. I did, too, until my first appearance with the New York City Ballet. After three brief rehearsals, I was onstage. Mom was wrong—the preparation for a workshop was essential.


My mother and my sister Wendy, as well as her friend Barbara Horgan, could observe classes whenever they wished. This was the beginning of Barbara’s fascination with dance. She would one day become Mr. B’s personal assistant and later the director of the Balanchine Trust.


My invitation to join the New York City Ballet as an apprentice was presented to my mother by the executive directors of the School of American Ballet. I had never formally met Balanchine until he started to talk to me backstage at the Greek Theatre while I was eating a tomato. We exchanged a few sentences about ballet and botany.


All my teachers were passionate about dance and intent on helping me to improve, but Mme. Doubrovska was my model of explicit beauty. I was aware of her unique gifts—she liked to say, “I have eyes in the back of my head”—and she saw everything. Her knowledge included everything she had learned at the Imperial School in St. Petersburg (Olga Spessivtseva was her classmate). She fled Russia on skis through Finland—oh, for a photo!


Her beauty, dedication, and imagination were freely bestowed on me in every class. Like a physical therapist, she studied my gait—too ungainly, too “mountain manly”—and corrected it. She attended performances to observe and offer suggestions to me about makeup, hair, and technique.


I will be forever grateful, and I toss bouquets on high to Balanchine and these inspired teachers who were so generous to me.


                 
Author of Once a Dancer, Allegra Kent teaches ballet at Barnard College. She was with NYCB from 1952 to 1983 and is now a contributing writer to Dance Magazine.

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