Carolina Ballet and NextGen Ballerinas

dance_CarolinaBalletandNextGenBallerinasBy: David Ligon

Columbia, SC has a long and rich history of talented young dancers who begin careers here and then go on to dance with major ballet companies around the world. The newest recruiting class looks to be one of the best to carry on that tradition. Ballet is one of those fickle businesses. The people who evaluate dancers do not judge them by just their passion or desire. What matters to major ballet schools and companies is the length of legs in proportion to the torso, how high the arch is in the foot, or how much rotation there is in the hips. According to some institutions, this is what makes a good dancer. At the summer auditions for the School of American Ballet in New York City before a dancer even gets to plié, the audition teacher and an assistant with a clip board walk around to each dancer, asks her to face away from the barre, stand in first position and tendu, or pointe each foot; then she is asked to stand in second position, again away from the barre and towards them and grand plié. This can be humiliating, but it shows the degree of turnout and the height of the arch of the feet. They have already decided the dancer’s fate before even seeing her move across the floor and really dance. This however does not stop little girls and boys from pursuing a dream of becoming a professional ballet dancer.

In the halls of the Columbia Music Festival Association (CMFA) at the Center for Dance Education there is the Carolina Ballet, the Midlands premiere youth ballet company and training ground for the future generation of ballet stars. Carolina Ballet is the place where many professional dancers have gotten their start.
It began with Ann Brodie and Naomi Calvert, two dancers who met while high kicking as Radio City Rockettes in New York. They started a school in the Midlands, the Calvert-Brodie School for dance and this institution has produced some amazing talent over the decades that have danced with major ballet companies: Stacey Calvert, Elizabeth Walker, Sara Mearns, Christian Tworzyanski (New York City Ballet), Ashley Tuttle (American Ballet Theatre), Kyra Strasberg (Boston Ballet), Jessica Teague (Het National Ballet & Royal Ballet of Flanders) McCree O’Kelley (CATS), Mariclaire Miranda, Bonnie Boiter-Jolley (Columbia City Ballet) Sarah Hairston (Cincinnati Ballet), Joseph Phillips (San Francisco Ballet ABT, and Gold Medalist at International Ballet Competitions), Alex Christian (Royal Ballet of Flanders), Matias Dingman (Birmingham Royal Ballet and English National Ballet), and Whitney Huell (Ballet West & Kansas City Ballet), just to name a few.

Ann Brodie is a dance legend her in the Midlands. She was the founding director of the Columbia City Ballet (CCB), and in 1988 when CCB went professional, Ms. Brodie with the help of John Whitehead, Adolfina Suarez-More, Donna Lewis, Anita Ashley and Mimi Wortham-Brown, established the Carolina Ballet. Carolina Ballet is a community based civic and youth ballet that gives talented youth the opportunity to gain performing experience.

There is a different focus at Carolina Ballet than other schools in Columbia. The emphasis at CB has always been about grooming students with a strong, finished technique to prepare them to take the next step, whether that is joining a pre-professional schools atttached to a major company like SAB, ABT, or San Francisco Ballet where they get a chance to perform with the company, or it is preparing them for a professional career immediately. Other schools in Columbia are not so focused on their students but rather the professional company attached. Young dancers at these schools are made to believe that the ideal for a career is dancing here with that professional company. At Carolina Ballet these young dancers are aware of what ballet’s ideal can look like globally because of the many professional dancers who started here, who these young dancers imulate.

Devin Albertson, a 14 year old freshman who attends Lexington High School, has all the qualities looked for in an emerging ballerina. She has long legs that can developé (lifting the leg) to her ear, she is extremeley limber, and at such a young age she is able to control that flexability. She has been studying with Carolina Ballet since the age of three and has spent the last two summers studying at the Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre in New York City. Only about 250 dancers from the ages of 12-18 are accepted out of thousands that audition for a chance to spend their summer at this world renowned ballet intensive. Going to these summer intensives is so important for a young dancer becuase they are exposed to different styles and techniques and can learn a different point of view. But even more importantly they are seen by the ones who might be thir directors someday and they are surrounded by dancers who they may end up working with. Networking and being personable are key elements to one’s success, something dancers are forced to learn as early as twelve. When I asked Devon what drives her to be a ballerina she said, “I like the challenge of it and there’s always something you can do to improve, and you’re never done learning.”

At Carolina Ballet learning and growing as an artist is instilled in the dancers at a young age by Mimi Worrell and her staff of diverse teachers. Worrell was appointed Artistic Director of the Carolina Ballet after Ms. Brodie’s death in 1999. When students first enter the school they are all taught a modified Vaganova syllabus, which is the world-renowned Russian ballet technique, as well as tap, jazz, modern and musical theater. When the time is right they are introduced to more advanced teachers who have varied styles and techniques.

These young dancers strive to dance principal or main roles in the shows that go on each season at Carolina Ballet. The most important one for them is The Nutcracker. Caroline Hough, age fourteen, who has been with Carolina Ballet since the age of three, danced the Chinese lead this year in Nutcracker. She has also danced the principal roles in Emeralds and was soloist in last year’s production of Cinderella. For the past three summers she has attended the summer intensive at the School of American Ballet, the official school of the New York City Ballet. Out of 2,000 students auditioning annually, only 15% are accepted. Hough has everything a NYCB ballerina is described as: tall, long limbs, beautiful legs and feet, and a love for petite allegro (fast movements).

Ayla O’Day comes from local dance royalty who began training with Carolina Ballet at the age of five. Her Grandmother is Naomi Calvert, which makes Stacey Calvert her mother (Calvert was a soloist at NYCB for 17 years) and her father is the well-known European choreographer. Kevin O’Day. At sixteen, her focus in class is something of a shock when this generation is known for being distracted by everything in the technological era. It is as if she is on stage performing for thousands. “Classical music fills up my soul, fulfills my purpose in life, I have a strong passion for ballet that I’ve always had, but it has [grown] as I’ve aged because there are things that I go through in my life that are harder and harder, but ballet is the one thing that keeps me sane,” she says. She has been attending the summer intensive at the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet for the past four summers and joined their winter term in August 2013. She has danced the lead roles of the Dew Drop Fairy and Marzipan in The Nutcracker at CPYB and Emeralds in their spring showcase.

Itzy Barbosa has trained with Carolina Ballet for the past six years . Her mother is Mariam Barbosa, a modern dancer and teacher here in Columbia. Itzy is only 13 and has already been singled out to perform the pas de deux from Don Quixote and soloist roles in Cinderella and The Nutcracker. She has spent the last two summers at the JKO School in NYC as well as a summer at CPYB.

Marian Morgan, age 18, is the eldest of these young women and her plans for the immediate future are different. Instead of going to a school attached to a professional company, she will be auditioning for those companies starting this month. Her mother is Mimi Worrell, the Carolina Ballet Artistic Director, but Marian’s talents stand on her own. She is tall, with beautifully shaped legs and feet, and is a natural turner and jumper. Last year she performed the title role in Cinderella as well as the Snow Queen and Dew Drop Fairy in The Nutcracker. She would like to join a European company, which can be very attractive to aspiring dancers. Many foreign governments help fund the arts making dancers salaries higher and offering more job security.

It is a testament to Carolina Ballet that former students, now professionals, will come back to the school that gave them the foundation and training, and perform as a guest artist, teach, and inspire the next generation of ballet hopefuls. Worrell has carried on Ms. Brodie’s tradition of training young pre-professional dancers and gives them the opportunity to grow and perform saying “We think we are a step in their career.”

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