Fouettés at Fifth Period: Public School Students “Make a Ballet” with American Ballet Theatre

by Ariel Osterweis Scott

Dancer Magazine, December 2008


Not even the most arts-oriented of schools can boast handmade costumes, Julliard-trained teachers and American Ballet Theatre (ABT) repertoire. When ABT embarked on Michael Kaiser’s 1997 educational initiative “Make a Ballet,” it sought to bring a multifaceted creative experience into the public school system. Recent sponsorship from JP Morgan assures the program (now officially entitled “JP Morgan Make a Ballet”) continued success. Students not only have the opportunity to dance in pieces such as “Sleeping Beauty” and “Rodeo,” but they also have the chance to design lighting, sew costumes, develop a budget and build sets. Primarily centered in the New York tri-state area, “Make a Ballet” prioritizes schools in under-served communities, where the arts rarely find their way into the curricular budget. As if it weren’t thrilling enough to work under the auspices of ABT each week, students of the “Make a Ballet” program get to showcase their efforts by performing on the majestic stage of New York’s Metropolitan Opera House each May.

Although thousands of students have passed through the various “Make a Ballet” programs (which include “Make a Ballet” and “Make a Ballet On Tour,” which has trained students in Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami and Washington, DC), only up to five schools at any one time can participate in the program. The reason for this is that “Make a Ballet” fosters a four-year relationship with each school. With the opportunity to work with professional working artists, the students rotate through a four-part system: performance team, administration team, production team and design team. Middle and high school students work in all four domains, while elementary school students focus on dance.

Those on the performance team have the opportunity to dance in adaptations of ABT ballets such as “The Green Table” and the “Bluebird” variation from “Sleeping Beauty.” While students are not required to dance on pointe, they are nonetheless introduced to movements such as piqués, bourrées, développés and échappés. The dance vocabulary combines ballet and modern dance techniques, and each rehearsal session is preceded by a ballet warm-up.

Dennis Walters, ABT’s director of educational outreach since 2000, calls this “An exposure model. We keep the ideas and themes enticing for kids. It’s not pure classical ballet, but for the past few years, they have used the repertoire of ABT for the creation of their ballets: “˜Rodeo,’ “˜Fancy-Free.’ Last year each school worked on the same theme: act three of “˜Sleeping Beauty.’ Each school performed a different divertissement with its own interpretation. For example, “˜Rodeo’ is not exactly de Mille’s choreography, but they would pay homage to it.” Using this model, dance history attains new relevance in the present moment, as young students take part in recreating what was once considered exclusive territory of the professionally ballet-trained.

This process of recreation relies heavily on behind-the-scenes work. The administration team learns valuable skills that often mystify the most experienced of professional choreographers: budgeting, marketing, ticketing and fundraising. The production team is responsible for lighting design, stage crewing and box office. Finally, the design team actually drafts and constructs sets and costumes. An important benefit of the program is that schools involved do not have to pay a penny for these ever-valuable skills. Moreover, the unique structure of the program allows for instructors of the highest caliber.

“Make a Ballet” selects its teachers from a pool of New York’s best. Jessica Lang has been choreographing for the program for several years. An alumna of Juilliard, Lang’s experience includes dancing with Twyla Tharp’s company THARP! and choreographing on ABT’s studio company. Battleworks dancer Kanji Segawa also choreographs for the program. In fact, Segawa and Lang are married, and their artistic partnership has enabled them to share choreographic duties and fill in for each other when one of them is on tour. Lang finds attractive the program’s practice of hiring two-member teams. When instructors are able to alternate duties, it allows them to continue to pursue their artistic careers alongside their educational roles with “Make a Ballet.” That is not to say, however, that arts and education do not find harmony in “Make a Ballet.” In fact, much creativity goes into restructuring classics such as Agnes de Mille’s “Rodeo” for young dancers. Furthermore, Lang is currently engaged in the planning stages for a “Make a Ballet” project that involves the abstract expressionist paintings of Jackson Pollock. Lang tells me, “I will take students through structured improvisation so they have their own movement and ideas in the piece, and then we will apply Pollack’s methods to their improvisation.” Another painter that Lang’s students will explore this year is the very geometric Piet Mondrian. The design team will recreate Pollock and Mondrian paintings to function as sets. Key to the “Make a Ballet” approach is helping students develop a sense of creative responsibility in which they recognize their own input in every facet of the process, from choreography to set construction.

While dancing is a huge draw of the program, students come away with an equal amount of excitement for the other types of theatrical labor learned. Students have been known to go onto college programs in design after participating in “Make a Ballet.” Award-winning costume and set design duo Michaels Bottari and Ronald Case train students in all aspects of design and construction. Other students aspire to open their own arts-related institutions.

It is no accident that the program boasts such a fine balance between art and business. Walters’s own background is comprised of ballet and education. Having taken ballet for 14 years, he went on to earn his BA in educational theatre at New York University. He subsequently landed an internship at the New Victory Theatre before working for ABT. In addition to overseeing the educational programs of ABT, Walters teaches administration in “Make a Ballet,” including lessons in public speaking and funding visits to Citibank and corporate board rooms.

Walters emphasizes the importance of training for future success. The fact that “Make a Ballet” does not directly function as a training program for ABT is precisely that which allows the program to affect so many students on a variety of levels. Walters says, “There is no pre-professional goal to the program, but we find opportunities for students who have talent. We provide connections or scholarships if students perform at a high level.” Furthermore, students sometimes get hired in administrative departments of ABT upon completing the program. “One college-aged student was hired in the production department of ABT; we follow the students when they go off to college,” says Walters.

In fact, I had the opportunity to speak with a “Make a Ballet” student who is currently interning in Walters’s office. Michele Treadwell is a 17-year-old senior at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Long Island City, where she majors in dance. “Because of an injury, I have no professional dreams of dancing,” she tells me. Despite this setback, Treadwell hopes to employ alternative skills learned through “Make a Ballet” in her future career. She says, “I may want to open a dance studio.” In her internship, which is called the Tony Bennett apprenticeship program, Treadwell says, “I learn about the business aspect of ABT””its education programs, the “˜Young People’s Ballet Workshop'””I love it. I’m working but it’s fun.” She wants to teach one day: jazz, tap, ballet, contemporary and hip-hop. One highlight of performing at the Met last year was “seeing ABT perform and their behind-the-scenes warm-up.”

Treadwell’s experience displays how attuned the program is to the strengths and interests of individual students. According to Walters, this attention begins with “Make a Ballet’s” commitment to nurturing the particular demands of each school. Walters says, “Relationships built with individual schools are very in-depth. We become a part of the community.” He explains that it takes a large amount of effort to keep the program running — it is time-consuming. For this reason, “five schools is the maximum in order to be effective.” “Make a Ballet” had its inception at The Frederick Douglass Academy (FDA), a college preparatory middle and high school in Manhattan. Located in Harlem, FDA is committed to academic achievement in the African-American community, which is not typically represented in the ranks of ABT. Though it’s an arts education program and not a conservatory, “Make a Ballet” is doing work to minimize ballet’s traditional association with certain classes of people. FDA has an existing dance program, and “Make a Ballet” was able to work with the existing dance classes. Even schools (unlike FDA) which are not equipped with a pre-existing dance class find that their students are extremely enthusiastic about dance and its related creative fields.

“Make a Ballet” tailors its program differently to schools like the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, where high school students major in a specific performing art, such as dance or acting. In the case of FSS, “Make a Ballet” works specifically with dance majors — students who are seriously considering a career in dance. Their annual concert (which is performed in addition to the Met showcase in May) boasts a plethora of styles, from tap and lyrical to ballet and modern. In the context of FSS, “Make a Ballet” makes its impact as one of several types of dance styles. Thus, ballet augments the FSS students’ simultaneous training in jazz and tap, for example. The partnership between “Make a Ballet” and the FSS also happens to represent a pairing of two pioneering arts organizations that were erected in an effort to fill a void in American arts education: American Ballet Theatre’s “Make a Ballet” and “Exploring the Arts.” The latter is a program that was founded by Tony Bennett, a huge proponent of public arts education. Walters reminds us, “The amount of arts money per student in public schools is barely enough to provide for even one dance teacher.” Partnerships like that of “Make a Ballet” and “Exploring the Arts” could potentially benefit students all over the country, given the appropriate platform.

Perhaps other arts programs will take note of “Make a Ballet’s” rigorous yet flexible structure. According to Walters, “There are various models””not just for high school. As the program became popular, middle school, elementary then afterschool elementary age programs were started.” Regardless of age and experience, all students have the opportunity to perform at the Met. “Make a Ballet On Tour” is the week-long model that makes an impact nationally, beyond the east coast. Students in all versions of the program respond positively to the combination of prestige and accessibility. ABT’s stellar artistic reputation paired with “Make a Ballet’s” sensitivity to the specific terrain of each school makes for an especially effective program.

To see the Frank Sinatra students rising to the occasion in their rendition of “Sleeping Beauty” is evidence of art at work. As quartets sissonne past each other in carefully crafted flowing blue costumes and smiles spread across the faces of one dancer after another, it becomes impossible to imagine a school without dance. Yet, it hardly takes much reminding to realize that FSA is one of very few schools in this country privileged enough to have exposure to””let alone training in””dance. ABT’s “Make a Ballet” is careful not to confuse education with exclusivity, and nurtures each student’s sense of purpose””and passion””in a historically prescriptive genre. To find a place for a wide array of students in ballet is to tap into potential and to come to the realization that ballet always has been about much more than pointe shoes and perfection. Instead, invention and construction frame “Make a Ballet’s” innovative model of ballet education. The four-part system of performance, administration, production and design provides students with skills to excel in a number of fields, having learned individual skills in a collaborative environment. Most of all, students emerge from “Make a Ballet” with a sense of accomplishment, affiliation and agency. High schoolers like Michele Treadwell are now able to claim, “I can make a ballet!”

Whether teaching at a conservatory, a local studio or an afterschool program, dance instructors can have a great impact on their students. The principles behind “Make a Ballet” can inform dance pedagogy on various levels. To introduce students to the backstage tasks necessary to build a dance is to attract unexpected new practitioners to the field and to provide serious dancers with tools that will inform their future careers. One needn’t look beyond the field of dance for an interdisciplinary curriculum: it is all right there””art, business, design and production. One could start simply, introducing marketing techniques one semester and costuming the next. Similarly, the “Make a Ballet” model could be applied to other styles and formats as well. Why not conceive of a class that “makes a modern dance” or “makes a Broadway show?” The possibilities are endless. While most dance styles depend on the honing of one technique or another, the benefit of a program like “Make a Ballet” is that it allows young artists to understand how their individual abilities develop in cooperation with the rest of the team.

Ariel Osterweis Scott is a contemporary dancer, choreographer, educator and ethnographer. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in performance studies at UC Berkeley and can be reached at aos@berkeley.edu.