Young Spirits Taking Flight
When the pandemic put a halt to groups performing together, dancers from American Ballet Theatre’s teen training program found a way to create—and perform—new work.
The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School is the associated training program of the American Ballet Theatre, one of the world’s leading classical ballet companies. Founded in 2004, the school is named in honor of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a former board member of the ABT.
The JKO School follows a specific graded curriculum, divided by age. A children’s division instructs kids aged 3 to 12. The pre-professional division trains students from age 12 to 17. ABT Studio company prepares a select group of 17- to 21-year-olds for a career in professional ballet. Admission for most ages is by audition only.
The training curriculum combines elements from French, Russian, and Italian styles of training. It encompasses classical ballet technique, pointe, partnering, character, modern technique, variations, and pilates, and includes a wellness program focusing on dancers’ health. Graduates of JKO School have joined ABT, the National Ballet of Canada, and The Royal Ballet, among other premiere dance companies.
When the pandemic forced the world into lockdown, there was collective shock, soon followed by what looked a lot like the five stages of grief, as defined in the 1960s by the Swiss psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Some moved quickly through this process. Others got stuck along the way. Those who found acceptance quickly, and could, began adapting the way they lived. Others, for whom human contact was essential to their work, struggled. If working alone from home was already your norm, this was less disruptive. But as the summer came to an end, some orchestras, theatre companies, and at least one ambitious group of young ballet dancers in New York City began finding ways to rediscover their bliss.
Charles: I guess, I was training to here and then ended up there.
Shui and Mei: It was a fun experience and I know that we are very grateful and, like, had a lot of fun doing it.
Sasha: This could be something that we could do instead, and keep ballet alive in our hearts.
Caroline: Well, I thought we would just, like, maybe perform it on the stage, or, like, in a studio. And I had no idea, like, it’d become this big.
These are members of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis ballet school, JKO. Co-founded by the late first lady, it’s the incubator, the pre-professional division of American Ballet Theatre, one of the world’s foremost dance companies. Many of its more recent graduates not only danced with ABT, but in many other prestigious companies around the globe. The work these future ballet stars created began backstage at the Metropolitan Opera House, ABT’s home stage.
Sasha: Around two years ago now, my friend, Audrey Molly, who’s also in this ballet, and I were just playing around and it was the year that Misty Copeland was performing Firebird. And then Charles would always play the piano in between our classes. And he saw us doing it. He’s like, “Oh, I wanna create music for that.” I’m like, “Okay, go do that.” And then he comes back two weeks later, with, like, a 20-minute long piece of music. At the beginning, we were all saying, “Charles, this is a joke. Come on, this is never gonna be a real ballet. We’re just kids. We can’t do it. And especially now, I mean, we can’t even go outside and ballet’s canceled.” And he really was like, “No, no. We can do this and we can make something.”
Charles: I asked people what characters they wanted to be. And then I took all of those characters and made a story. And then I sent it to Ava. And I told her what each character was doing in each song. And she choreographed the dances for each song. And then she sent it to the dancers who were doing it. Since we couldn’t rehearse in a studio, we rehearsed on Zoom.
Sasha: We decided that now we could use Zoom and different technologies to meet. So this is something that just completely evolved and something we’ve all been looking forward to every week.
Ava: So we have Zoom rehearsals and I have to run them, to show people the choreography and teach them the steps.
Charles: So the main characters are; The Waterbird. Then she has, like, a rival, and that’s Ava, the choreographer. And she’s called The Evil Duck and she, kind of, rules all the ducks in the story. Then there’s The Fairy. And The Fairy and The Queen Swan are sisters in real life.
Shui: Hi, my name is Shui-Ling.
Mei: And hi, my name is Mei-Ling.
Shui: But I go by Shui.
Mei: And I go by Mei.
Shui: And I’m The Queen Swan.
Mei: And I’m The Fairy Queen.
Shui: And my name means water.
Mei: And my name means beauty
Charles: So The Fairy turns Bird into The Waterbird and that’s how she gets the name. So the bird gets trapped by The Evil Duck. The Evil Duck kidnaps her, in the story, and then two raccoons find her. But they can’t rescue her by themselves so they go get me, who’s The Eagle, and I’m, kind of, like, the king of the land, I guess. So I have all the keys and all of, like, the knowledge. Then we go rescue The Waterbird.
But they could only make so much progress on Zoom. That’s when they decided to call in the grownups.
Charles: My grandma has put so much into this farm to make it beautiful. And like, why not use it?
Grandma Helen Chapman’s farm in Frenchtown, New Jersey, is a farm in name only. The animals here are her pets, family members, breakfast companions, rather than items on the menu.
Helen Chapman: This is Racket, and he fell madly in love with Leona. And my son-in-law is named Neil and his nickname is Cecil. So this is Neil and that’s Cecil.
And then, two dancers from ABT’s main company came forward to help. Luis Ribagorda, a member of ABT’s corps and a seasoned filmmaker, and principal, Sarah Lane.
Sarah Lane: They came from a really pure place in these kids’ hearts and their talent is just incredible, really. So those two things put together, I think it makes something really special.
Luis Ribagorda: And I remember the first time they talked to me about it, I was just so impressed by the amount of work and what they’ve created. I feel like most professional ballet companies, they haven’t even attempted to do something like this. I mean, it’s very difficult to create a full ballet. And for children to do something like that, I was so inspired.
Lane: I think that we can all learn from children. They see the world so simply, and we tend to make things more complicated than they really are. We want more, more, more all the time. And sometimes just to be grateful for what you have, and to fill your life with more of that simplicity, love, and gratefulness, I think we would all be better off.
Caroline: I think that just whatever you put your mind to, you can do. And just because we’re kids… Like Charles and Ava choreographing and composing the ballet, they were still able to do it just as well as any adults would. So, just anyone can do anything that they put their mind to. And they can make it as big as they dreamed of.
Charles: I guess when people have time, they can do amazing things. And if they care about a project, if they’re inspired by a project and, like, they can do it. We just put all of our minds together and made something really cool.
Today, this group of young dancers are showing the rest of the ballet world, and maybe all of us, that it’s possible not merely to overcome, but to boldly move from isolation to acceptance and in the process to find joy in dreaming, in creating, and being.