At Miami City Ballet, there’s a new school of thought in training young dancers

You won’t find Miami City Ballet’s dancers, scattered for vacation, at the troupe’s Miami Beach studios during the summer. But there was plenty of movement there on a recent summer day as the Miami City Ballet School’s summer intensive program kicked off.

The big main studio was filled with lean, leggy teenage boys as vital and nervous as young racehorses, reaching into the air in imitation of their teacher, former MCB dancer Arnold Quintane. Down the hall, girls in their mid-teens giggled at voluble French instructor Olivier Pardina. “ Alors, si vous plait — this is the most beautiful city, the most beautiful organization, the most beautiful studio!” he says. “What more do you need? Let me see a little joy!” Upstairs, veteran teacher Carter Alexander strode about a roomful of older girls hovering on the verge of a ballet career and lifted a pale blond sylph’s leg still farther up toward her ear, carefully sculpting her foot and her movement in the air.

The focus on the changes at Miami City Ballet has been on new artistic director Lourdes Lopez, and what she and the dancers are doing on stage. But Lopez is making other changes at the company’s school that, while not as obvious or immediately visible, will ultimately have a major effect on the troupe and its future.

A new director, Darleen Callaghan, former head of the dance school at the North Carolina Dance Theater, came on in March. She has been joined by Pardina, a former understudy of Rudolf Nureyev brought in to beef up the men’s division and run a new student dance company. They are tasked with expanding and intensifying the training at the school, in part to prepare potential dancers for the different repertory that Lopez is planning.

“It’s always been my focus to create very diverse dancers,” says Callaghan, who was raised in Chicago but whose two decades in North Carolina have left her with a faint Southern lilt. “That’s exactly what Lourdes was looking for.”

Founded by Linda Villella, the wife of founding artistic director Edward Villella, in 1993, the Miami City Ballet School grew from a few classes for the couple’s daughter Crista and her friends into an internationally known program that has become an important source of dancers for the company. By 2010, almost half the troupe’s members had come through its school. They currently include some of its most prominent dancers: Miami sisters Jeanette and Patricia Delgado (whom the New York Times recently cited as among the best ballerinas in the United States); Brazilians Renan Cerdeiro, Kleber Rebello, Nathalia Arja, and Andrei Chagas; soloist Sara Esty and her sister Leigh-Ann; and rising talents Chloe Freytag and Skyler Lubin.

Teachers worked closely with Edward Villella to inculcate the musical sensitivity and sense of movement quality and style he sought, particularly in the uniquely intricate Balanchine repertoire that was the company’s backbone. The focus was on individual talent, personality and zest for dancing. “The most important thing is how a person moves, how a person can physicalize music,” Villella said in a 2010 interview. “I can teach technique. I can’t teach talent.”

Lopez says she aims to broaden the school’s range, emulating New York City Ballet’s famed School of American Ballet. She studied there in the ’70s before joining NYCB, where the teachers came from Russia, England, and Denmark — centers for major schools of classical dance — as well as from Balanchine’s company. “The school trained you to dance absolutely everything,” she says. “So I want to put in place teachers who will create a fully rounded dancer.”

Callaghan also trained at SAB in the ’70s, and performed with the North Carolina Dance Theatre, a small troupe headed by former NYCB stars Patricia McBride and her husband Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux. Callaghan took charge of the couple’s school in 1996, building it from a small, casual place to a serious training program with 700 students. Since the North Carolina troupe did a healthy amount of modern dance and contemporary ballet, she made sure the school’s training included those genres. “We taught them to be employable anywhere,” she says. “We wanted to create dancers amenable to anything thrown their way.”

She emphasizes that she is building on the MCB school’s considerable strengths, by increasing the intensity, number and variety of classes, beginning serious training at a younger age, and creating a formal syllabus for teachers to follow.

“We’re very grateful to the Villellas,” Callaghan says. “We wanted to define what [the students] were getting more clearly.”

For the summer intensive, Callaghan added classes in modern dance and auxiliary training such as Pilates, yoga, and weight lifting for the boys; the younger students will get musical theater and basic repetory classes. For the regular fall program, there will be additional classes for very young children as well as adults. Children will start in the ballet program a year earlier, at 5, and begin a professional track program at age 7. As they continue, they’ll be required to take more classes per week, in various aspects of ballet and in areas like modern and jazz dance. There will be additional classes and scholarships for younger boys, ages 7 to 9. Pre-professional students, who train at MCB fulltime, will add classes in choreography (with its own showcase performance) and lectures in dance history and music theory; and will perform in a new student company, the MCBS Ensemble.

The school is planning an Open House on Aug. 10 with free trial classes for adults and children, and auditions for those hoping to join the school.

New teachers this summer include Quintane and Miami-raised Maribel Modrono, both prominent former dancers with the company. But Pardina is the most prominent new hire. A longtime teacher at the Harid Conservatory in West Palm Beach, he trained at the Paris Opera Ballet and danced with regional French troupes; he has taught at the Youth America Grand Prix, a famous student ballet contest, and frequently coached students for competitions. Pardina will focus on the advanced, pre-professional students and new student company. He’ll also be tasked with developing the program for boys, still rare and sought after in ballet; the MCB school currently has just a handful in the younger levels, which Lopez hopes to change by expanding scholarships.

The summer intensive, which began June 24 and runs through Friday, is a feature at most top ballet schools. It brings potential talent from across the United States and abroad to MCB; of the 150 students this year, 33 are from Latin America, with 24 of those from Brazil, the result of a program focused on bringing talented young dancers from that country. (Another 59 Brazilians will participate in a separate two-week intensive for younger students from that country, alongside 75 younger aspirants from the United States.) Five of those Brazilian students, including principals Cerdeiro and Rebello, are now with MCB; the Esty sisters, from Maine, also came to the troupe through the summer school.

In a Level III class for 15- to 16-year-old girls, Pardina delivers a stream of instructions laced with flamboyant French expressions and jokes, drawing laughs even from Callaghan and Lopez, who stop in to observe. “You broke my heart!” he tells one girl. He urges them to breathe, to open up, to be more expressive. “Dancers don’t know how to tell a story anymore — that’s why people don’t go to the ballet,” he says. “It’s not ‘Yes sir, I do whatever you like.’ ”

“The job of a teacher is not to say ‘this is wrong’ but ‘here is a different way,’” Pardina says later. “All these kids have different styles and backgrounds. We don’t want to discourage them.

“It’s very exciting for me to be part of this new chapter here. It is magical to see a kid you had in school performing on stage with the company.”

Alexander, working with the most advanced girls in their upper teens, has a different style, breaking down the rhythm, separating soft and sharp qualities within a rond de jambe, a circling leg movement, that takes a fraction of a second. “For a double pirouette the rhythm is one and two,” he says, and “Plie arabesque needs to be like an elevator,” his leg raised high behind him as he sinks and rises with a seemingly effortless smoothness.

Callaghan watches the potential talent pool closely. “At this level, we look for that special joy, the passion and sparkle in their eye, students we’d like to have stay for the fall,” she says as Alexander mimics a student drifting off. “We look for attention, how quickly they pick things up.”

Alexander, who has been head of the MCB school’s faculty, and his wife and two daughters are is leaving for Plano, Texas, near where he grew up and his elderly parents; he’ll teach at a performing arts school. He is a student of Truman Finney, a renowned and influential teacher, mentor and ballet master, and his departure could mark a shift in the school’s teaching philosophy.

But Alexander said the school’s new leadership seemed ready.

“I think between Lourdes and Darleen they have a real idea of where they want to go,” he said. “It’s a process; just like building the school and the company is a process. Lourdes will expand the repertory, and I would think the school would … make dancers to fit into that.”

While Villella’s reputation and that of the company he built was a big draw for students, the current crop of aspiring young dancers seems just as eager and excited about the school. Sarah Anne Perel, 18, an advanced student from SAB, said her experience at MCB last summer brought her back this year. “I improved so much,” she said. “And I like the idea of change. And we’re all going to be looking for jobs soon, so I think change here is good.”

Her friend, fellow SAB student Dain Son, 16, admires MCB dancers like Jeanette Delgado and is excited about the company’s future. “I feel like the company is going to grow,” she says.

For the South American students, particularly the Brazilians, MCB’s growing history of dancers from their home countries remains a particular inspiration.

“It’s been my dream since I started dancing to come here,” says Gustavo Pacheco, 17, of Brazil. “The school and teachers are amazing, and all the dancers are so beautiful.”

Victoria Barros, 12, studies at the same Rio de Janeiro studio that produced the Brazilian dancers now in the company. “They became brilliant dancers here,” Barros says. “Maybe one day I can come to Miami and be a principal dancer with this company.”

Her friend Isadora Manata, 14, also from Brazil, came here in 2011 and has similar hopes. “I liked Edward a lot, and I think it’s important the company continues like that,” she says. “But I think the company continues to work really well.”

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