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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Fairfax Times
By Elizabeth Coogan

Blond, blue-eyed ballet student Alex Sargent throws his head back and shimmies to music he has committed to memory, showing off his new jazz routine. The 11-year-old Herndon resident is on break from rehearsing at a theater in southeast D.C. for the Washington Ballet's upcoming production of "The Nutcracker," but he just can't seem to stop performing. He hands his earphones to Luis R. Torres, an instructor and one of the company's professional dancers, and proceeds to teach the veteran his moves.

"Shake it like it's broken, shake it like it's broken -- oh my Lord!" Torres says. "I need some water after that; that took all my energy. That's very good, keep it up."

Downstairs in the theater, artistic director Septime Webre has been methodically coaching groups of dancers, some as young as 6, in the minutiae of their routines for what he calls a "very D.C.-centric" version of the popular ballet. He counts, "Five, six, seven, eight!" and more than 20 young performers skip across the stage -- knees up, toes pointed, slender arms extended -- in near perfect synchrony. Despite Webre's frequent interruptions to fine-tune each element of the production he choreographed and premiered in 2004, no performer -- young or old -- shows any signs of fatigue.

"Part of it is there's been a lot of group bonding going on ... there's definitely a team-building ethos around this," explains Michael Segal, whose son, Paul Lytle, 7, plays a bumblebee this year. "There are definitely a lot of professionals involved with this. The whole place just says we're taking this seriously."

That ethos will be on full display Dec. 10, when the Washington Ballet moves its 2009 version of "The Nutcracker" to the Warner Theater in downtown Washington, D.C., after four performances at The Town Hall Education Arts and Recreation Campus, a multi-use facility housing cultural and social services agencies in the District's Ward 8.  The Washington Ballet opened a satellite school at the facility -- known as THEARC -- in 2005, and students from the school have performed in "The Nutcracker" since 2007.

Donna Glover, manager of the Washington School of Ballet's northwest District and Alexandria sites, said 350 students out of a total enrollment of 827 at all three sites will perform in this year's "Nutcracker." Only about 20 of those who auditioned did not receive a part, she said, and each of this year's 25 public performances will feature 86 children.

"Septime Webre tries to incorporate just about everybody, but there's always a costume issue, so if someone's technical ability doesn't match their size" they might not get a part, Glover said.

Sixth-grader Alex Sargent is a self-described veteran of the stage and said he knows the costume dilemma only too well.

"I am Fritz for the third time in a row," he said. "I'm afraid this year will be my last year because I barely fit the costume, so I'm soaking it up like a sponge."

The sheer number of young performers, including 26 sets of siblings, creates an enormous logistical challenge for the Ballet's staff and requires rotating casts not ranked according to ability, Glover said. "Everybody's paying for a ticket to see 'The Nutcracker,' and you'd better be good," she added.

Michael Schlesinger of McLean has two daughters in the production and said casting lots of children not only eases the physical strain on young bodies but helps fill the theater at a time when the ballet is struggling financially.

According to Laura Nunneker, co-director of marketing and communications for the Washington Ballet, the organization lost $1 million in grants from the District this year. She said "The Nutcracker" attracts an audience of more than 35,000 annually and revenue from the popular production tops more than $1.5 million.

Webre agreed "The Nutcracker" is a budget booster.

"It helps support all our other programs because virtually everything else we do loses money," he said.

Fifty students out of 260 from the Ballet's school at THEARC will appear this year, according to Katrina Toews, director of the program.

"I would love to see it higher," she said. "I think the element of being in a professional production really expands the opportunity of exposure for any child. It doesn't matter where you live; it's a huge deal."

Webre said 65 percent of the students at the satellite campus are at or below the poverty line and 100 percent receive some type of scholarship from the Ballet, which spends $1.4 million annually on outreach and education. He said the program at THEARC furthers his company's mission and could even help secure the future of the art form. "The Ballet's mission is to ensure that ballet is accessible to our whole community," Webre said. "The deeper we can insert ourselves into the community, the more ensured our survival will be."

The program "has really been the catalyst for an amazing rebirth in the Anacostia community," Webre added. "These children are not only learning how to dance, but really, life lessons ... giving yourself in service to something. We expect more of these kids than most activities expect of them."

Michelle Helms said her son Jerell Briscoe, 7, took advantage of a scholarship offered by the Ballet and plays a bumblebee in "The Nutcracker" this year.

"I just think that by him being in ballet, it would encourage other people in my low-income area to be involved not just in sports, but ballet, music, modern dance -- anything but sports," she said.

Before a recent rehearsal at THEARC, Jerell dropped to the floor and demonstrated "the frog" for his teacher Torres, dragging himself across the floor while maintaining a full split. The second-grader seemed undaunted at the prospect of performing for audiences both at THEARC and the Warner Theater downtown.

"We gotta shake our stingers ... we have to run around in a circle," he said. He joined ballet "so I could stretch more ... do splits, do the frog, so I could be in 'The Nutcracker,'" he said.

Helms said the ticket prices, which start at $29, will probably keep her from seeing Jerell perform at the Warner Theater.

"It's no big thing, as long as he does good," she said, and added that she prefers to make her investment taking him to and from practice.

Torres, who was born in Puerto Rico and began classical ballet training at age 16, teaches an all boys' class at THEARC and said he welcomes the chance to attract children from lower income families to an art form historically available only to the wealthy.

"Where I grew up, we believed dancing was for rich people," Torres said. "You couldn't dance unless you had thousands of dollars."

Torres also teaches boys' classes at the Ballet's northwest District campus and said he is optimistic that at least one of his students will become a professional dancer. "Yes, yes, yes, because they really love it," he said. "You can tell at a young age when they really love it."

Glover said that even among the teenage students invited from around the world to train at the school's highest level, only about 10 to 15 percent will immediately enter the elite world of professional ballet.

Despite the odds, Alex Sargent has his future pretty well mapped out "dancing jazz or ballet classical."

"With the American Ballet Theater in New York," he said. "I don't care how tiny or how dingy the apartment is."

And when he's too old to dance, Sargent hopes to be "either a choreographer or a biochemist," he said.

Later, the student of Hunter Woods Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences said, "...living the dream, every moment I'm on the stage, I think I'm living the dream."

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