RWB au­di­tions a chance for young dancers to take the first step to­ward a pos­si­ble ca­reer

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - FRONT PAGE - JEN ZORATTI

SO you think you can dance? On Sun­day, the Royal Winnipeg Bal­let School will hold au­di­tions for its pres­ti­gious Pro­fes­sional Di­vi­sion pro­grams in Winnipeg. It’s the fi­nal stop on a 15-date North Amer­i­can tour seek­ing out as­pir­ing young dancers and teach­ers who are look­ing to trans­late their pas­sion into a sus­tain­able pro­fes­sion — and have got the goods to back it up. (Fac­ulty and staff from RWB School will be head­ing over­seas to hold au­di­tions in Ja­pan next month.) “It’s one of the most ex­cit­ing parts of our job,” says Ar­lene Minkhorst, the school’s di­rec­tor. “We look for po­ten­tial. It’s a very ex­cit­ing process, to see that po­ten­tial be ful­filled. To start the process as the grass­roots level is spe­cial.” The RWB School’s Pro­fes­sional Di­vi­sion was es­tab­lished in 1970 with a prac­ti­cal goal: to pro­vide the RWB with the crème de la crème of clas­si­cally trained bal­let dancers. Prin­ci­pal dancers Eve­lyn Hart, Jor­den Mor­ris, Tara Birtwhis­tle, Vanessa Law­son and Jo-Ann Sun­der­meier rank among the school’s alumni, along with cur­rent artis­tic di­rec­tor An­dré Lewis. The di­vi­sion has three pro­grams. The bal­let aca­demic pro­gram is a full-time, seven-level train­ing pro­gram de­signed for school-age stu­dents look­ing to make it as pro­fes­sional bal­let dancers. If suc­cess­ful in the au­di­tion, stu­dents at­tend a four-week sum­mer ses­sion in July be­fore school starts in Septem­ber. The pro­gram runs Septem­ber to June, along­side the aca­demic school year. Stu­dents can en­ter the pro­gram as early as age 11 (Grade 6). They com­plete Level 7 with a grad­u­a­tion diploma dur­ing their Grade 12 year. The pro­gram is in­ten­sive. A bal­let stu­dent’s day looks like this: grades 6 through 8 at­tend classes in the morn­ing at Nordale School. They are picked up at 2:10 p.m. — dance classes be­gin at 2:45 p.m., and last un­til the early evening. High school­ers dance from 8:30 a.m. un­til 11:30 a.m., and then at­tend classes at the Col­le­giate at Univer­sity of Winnipeg in the af­ter­noon. “All of them are danc­ing on Satur­days as well,” Minkhorst adds. The RWB School is look­ing for one thing. “We’re look­ing for tal­ent,” Minkhorst says. “Our man­date is to train for the com­pany but also the pro­fes­sional work­ing world. We’re look­ing for dancers we can train to have ca­reers in dance. It’s a nar­row tra­jec­tory, but it can start broadly.” Tal­ent, of course, can come in many forms. With very young stu­dents, Minkhorst and her col­leagues are look­ing at the raw ma­te­rial, so to speak: mus­cu­la­ture, lim­ber bod­ies, co-or­di­na­tion, mu­si­cal­ity. But they also seek another im­por­tant piece of the puz­zle: “We’re look­ing for some­one who has a dream and a pas­sion for dance,” Minkhorst says. Minkhorst says the RWB School isn’t too con­cerned about past train­ing for their very young Pro­fes­sional Di­vi­sion prospects. “As they get older, the past train­ing is more im­por­tant. We want to aug­ment it.” For older kids who have been danc­ing for a few years, mak­ing the de­ci­sion to leave their dance school can be a hard one. “One of the things par­ents or dance teach­ers might say: ‘Why should a kid au­di­tion for a school like this?’ We’re work­ing to sup­port young peo­ple with the ap­ti­tude to move on. Our role is not to com­pete with other dance schools. We value our re­la­tion­ship with lo­cal dance schools. They are the teach­ers who re­ally take the first step. They are the ones that rec­og­nize a child’s ap­ti­tude.” The RWB School also of­fers a pair of post­sec­ondary pro­grams: the as­pi­rant pro­gram, which is de­signed for ad­vanced-level clas­si­cal bal­let dancers who are mak­ing the tran­si­tion from stu­dent to pro­fes­sional dancer, and the teacher train­ing pro­gram, which sets dancers up for a ca­reer in ed­u­ca­tion. Many grads spend their ca­reers with RWB; Pro­fes­sional Di­vi­sion grad­u­ates ac­count for more than 70 per cent of the com­pany and over half of the school’s artis­tic fac­ulty. “There are many pro­fes­sional dancers who will have to have a sec­ond ca­reer and a lot of them want to re­main in the pro­fes­sion,” Minkhorst says. A re­cent ex­am­ple is for­mer soloist Alexan­der Ga­mayunov, who re­tired af­ter danc­ing in this past Oc­to­ber’s pro­duc­tion of A Hand­maid’s Tale. He’s one of the fac­ulty’s new­est teach­ers. “It’s a syn­ergy of growth when that hap­pens.” Of course, to get there, stu­dents will be ex­pected to work very, very hard.

“It’s not a part-time ac­tiv­ity,” Minkhorst says. “It’s what you want your ca­reer to be. Peo­ple will say, ‘At 10 years old, you don’t know that.’ And some don’t. But it’s amaz­ing how many young peo­ple do.” Con­nor Cough­lin knew. The 17-year-old Level 7 Pro­fes­sional Di­vi­sion stu­dent was 12 when he au­di­tioned for the bal­let aca­demic pro­gram. He’s now a star stu­dent whose tal­ent and ded­i­ca­tion were rec­og­nized with a cov­eted Prince Ed­ward Award last Novem­ber. In June, he’ll grad­u­ate, and he’s turn­ing an eye to his post-grad plans. “I want to con­tinue my dance stud­ies in New York or Toronto. I’d like to travel around a bit.”

Though he’s got the itch to dance on stages all over the world, he says he’s thank­ful he was able to at­tend a high-cal­i­bre in­sti­tu­tion in his home city. (For many stu­dents, ad­mit­tance to the Pro­fes­sional Di­vi­sion means leav­ing home well be­fore their 18th birth­day.) He’s also grate­ful for the men­tor­ship he’s re­ceived. “There’s just such a com­mu­nity here. The teach­ers have your best in­ter­ests at heart. That’s been very mean­ing­ful to me.” Minkhorst rec­og­nizes that par­ents might have reser­va­tions about the au­di­tion process — or the rigours of the pro­gram it­self. “I think it’s hard for par­ents to know if some­thing like this is the right thing to do,” she says. “En­cour­ag­ing your young per­son to try is great. We try to make the au­di­tion process as un­scary as pos­si­ble, be­cause we know that, for many of them, it’s their first time. We try to set it up so it’s a pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence, even if they aren’t suc­cess­ful in the au­di­tion. If your child has a pas­sion for dance and is in­ter­ested in see­ing what po­ten­tial they have, they should go.” “It’s su­per-im­por­tant to sup­port your kids and their de­ci­sions,” Cough­lin says. “If they’re re­ally pas­sion­ate about it, the ex­pe­ri­ence will be hugely ben­e­fi­cial.” Cough­lin also has some ad­vice for those think­ing about au­di­tion­ing. “I think it’s a great ex­pe­ri­ence even if you don’t get into the sum­mer pro­gram,” he says. “You’ll learn new things about your­self. They want you to suc­ceed; no one wants you to fail. You have to for­get what the re­sults might be and fo­cus on the process.” “It’s a very em­pow­er­ing thing for a young per­son to find a pas­sion,” Minkhorst says. “I am con­stantly told how spe­cial our kids are and how great they are as peo­ple, not just dancers.” Au­di­tions are at the fol­low­ing times: 10-12 years, 9-10 a.m.; 13plus years, 10:30-11:15 a.m.; Bal­let Mas­ter Class, 10-13 years, 11:30-1 p.m.; Bal­let Mas­ter Class 14-plus

years, 1-2:30 p.m.



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