The Teen Dancers of ABT II

Written by:
Michael Wade Simpson
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Calvin Royal III (former ABT II member and now ABT apprentice) partners with Brittany DeGrofft
of American Ballet Theatre II
Photo by Jim Coleman

American Ballet Theatre II: ‘Best Talent in the World’

American Ballet Theatre II may be the farm team for the big company, which is one of the finest ballet companies in the world, but Wes Chapmen, director of the junior group, and self-designated “Ballet Dad,” puts things in perspective. “These dancers are teenagers,” he said in a phone interview, “but they are among the best talent in the world in that age group.”

Chapman and ABT director Kevin McKenzie accept DVD submissions, look at promising students in the company’s New York City school, recruit at international youth ballet competitions, and even check-out YouTube videos. The twelve dancers selected are between the ages of 16-20, and spend up to two years touring with the second company before either being invited to join the main company or accepting a position with a different group. Last year, four dancers were promoted into ABT, and one went to the Houston Ballet.

Among the young dancers in 2010 are Brittany DeGrofft, from Tucson, and Aaron Smyth, from Gold Coast, Australia. For these dancers, being in ABT II is more than a potential stepping-stone to a career with the mother company. They also get to dance principal roles. Once they move on, it’s time to pay their dues in the corps de ballet, a more humbling position. “It’s a good challenge,” said DeGrofft, speaking on the phone from ABT headquarters in Manhattan. “It’s nice to be able to be seen, before joining the corps and becoming part of the scenery.” She says her two years in ABT II, which is coming to an end, were like “a constant audition.”

The dancers hail from Cuba, Brazil and Canada, in addition to various parts of the U.S. and Australia. “We’re like a family,” said DeGrofft. “We work together well. I always learn something from watching the others.” Moving to New York was an opportunity for this young woman to thrive. “Coming from a place where I was the best dancer in class, now I can push myself in a more challenging environment, which is great.” In addition to performing some of the roles from classic repertoire, ABT II dancers have the opportunity to work with contemporary choreographers who set new dances on them. They spent two weeks in October at the Flying E Ranch, a dude ranch in Wickenburg, Ariz., where a warehouse space was converted into a ballet studio, and the group worked with the choreographer Jessica Lang on a new piece.

Smyth, who began childhood in Australia playing soccer and competing as a swimmer, went along with his sister to a ballet class one day and was hooked. “It was something about music and moving,” he said. He’s been dreaming about coming to New York to dance with ABT since he was five years old, he said. He’s been in the company since April and started things off with a tour of Spain. Continuing on tour in the United States, he was one of the male dancers partnering DeGrofft in the Rose Adagio from “Sleeping Beauty,” and he performed the “Grand Pas Classique” with choreography by Victor Gsovsky, and danced in “Allegro Brillante” by George Balanchine. Out of six dances ABT II took on tour, he was in four. “I have to make one costume change in about five seconds,” he said. “There’s a quick change area backstage. It’s a good workout.”

Smyth, who is 19, stands 5 feet 11, an asset for a male dancer, and dreams of playing all the leading roles at ABT, particularly Romeo in “Romeo and Juliet” and Basilio in “Don Quixote.” He partnered fellow company dancer Alys Shee at the USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Miss., last summer (Shee won the silver medal), and he was a finalist himself at the 2010 Prix de Lausanne (see video below) and Bronze Medal winner at the South African International Ballet Competition. Over his summer vacation, he said he also returned to Australia to visit his Mom and have his wisdom teeth removed.

“Ballet Dad,” Wes Chapman, originally from Alabama, joined American Ballet Theatre in 1984 and was promoted to soloist in 1987 and principal dancer in 1989. He danced many of the leading roles in the ballet repertoire, danced as a principal at the Bavarian National Ballet, and became the artistic director of Alabama Ballet in 1996. He’s been running ABT II for four seasons. “I do every single thing except choreograph,” he said. “I stage the classics, choose repertoire, teach class… [T]hey’re teenagers, sometimes it’s about tough love. I think it’s my personal punishment for not having my own children.”

By the time the dancers get to the company, it’s not a matter of working on their technique as much as teaching them to become artists, he said. “I teach them about integrity. How they have to have integrity in every aspect of their careers. I want them to walk away knowing how important it is to be a dancer.”

Chapman says he looks for tall boys and small, glamorous girls to join his group. He works closely with Kevin McKenzie, the artistic director of the larger organization, choosing the choreographers they bring in, who are also auditioning for jobs with the big company, and, of course, the future of each of the ABT II dancers. Both he and McKenzie were performers together in the company and have a close relationship. “I’m just very busy, he’s very, very busy,” Chapman said.

Choosing the right repertory for ABT II is a key part of the experience, Chapman said. “I want the dancers to be successful but challenged. I mix in works made for them with works by Balanchine and Jerome Robbins.” He also needs to find dances that work with a company of 12. “Allegro Brillante,” the Balanchine work he chose, is known as one of the top 10 ballets in the repertoire. “It’s dance for dance sake. Fast. Musical,” he said. The new piece they learned in Arizona was a modern dance with the women “off pointe.” Said Chapman: “They need to learn how to use the floor, how to fall.”

Some of the dancers have artistic qualities naturally, he said, others need a bit of coaching. “We talk about art, right off the bat,” he said. “I’ll ask them, ‘How does the music make you feel here? Show me that feeling.’ Sometimes they haven’t thought about it. Sometimes I can say, ‘When I was dancing this role, I felt…’”

In the upcoming 2010-11 year, the company will be traveling to Europe for four months, which Chapman says is grueling. “It will kick our butts, traveling from place to place. The rest time is limited, eating and language are an issue.” And then there are the raked stages in Europe, the traditional design where the floor slopes up from front to back, allowing audiences a better view, and leaping dancers an opportunity to fly from the back of the stage forward. American dancers rarely have an opportunity to experience this old-fashioned theatre design. “Don’t freak out, this is the big world, you can get over it,” Chapman says he has told other casts. “This is entertainment, not life and death. Lean back and shut up!”

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