Leaping to the next level

This week, top Rock School students step up to the world's largest dance competition.

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On the rise: Esteban Hernandez, 13, of Mexico, rehearses for semifinal of the Youth America Grand Prix, in a piece usually danced by men twice his age.

Esteban Hernandez may be only 13, but his jumps soar. In his Don Quixote variation - usually danced by men twice his age - Hernandez's confidence and regal posture belie his youth.

He is a Rock star, a top ballet student at Philadelphia's Rock School for Dance Education. But this week the native of Guadalajara, Mexico, will be aiming even higher - competing in Swarthmore at the regional semifinal of the Youth America Grand Prix, a competition for ballet dancers ages 9 to 19.

To prepare, he and four dozen other Rock competitors spend an extra hour or two a day - on top of five hours in ballet classes - rehearsing for the Grand Prix at the Rock studios at Broad Street and Washington Avenue.

Competitions are a little-known side of the ballet world, and most are designed to showcase professional dancers trying to upgrade their careers. But the Grand Prix focuses on students, who can win scholarships to some of the world's best ballet schools.

"It is the Internet of dance," competition spokesman Sergey Gordeev says, "connecting all the schools and the dancers."

Thousands of students are competing in semifinals in 10 U.S. cities, as well as in Brazil, Mexico, Japan and Italy. Medalists, and those who earn scores of at least 95 out of 100, will move on to the April 16-21 finals in New York. And there they may win offers to study at England's Royal Ballet School, Italy's La Scala Ballet School - or at the Rock School (formerly the Pennsylvania Ballet School), which won the Outstanding School Award at the 2007 finals.

The Grand Prix - founded in 2000 by Larissa Saveliev and her husband, American Ballet Theatre soloist Gennadi Saveliev - in only eight years has become the world's largest dance competition. Former participants now have jobs in nearly every major company in the world; New York City Ballet has 13, ABT has 23.

But there are no guarantees. Bojan Spassoff - who runs the Rock School with his wife, Stephanie Wolf Spassoff, like him an ABT alum - says competitors may spend thousands of dollars on choreography, coaching, music and costumes in preparation.

And then, if they are lucky and talented enough to make it to the finals, they're up against 350 of the best young dancers in the world.

The Rock School's directors were initially leery of having their students compete.

"For us, the process is really the prize," Bojan Spassoff says. "I always tell them you always learn a lot more from your failures than you do from your successes."

His wife agrees. "I know it sounds corny, but roses on a rosebush don't all bloom at the same time," she says, bending the shank of a pointe shoe to break it in. "And each one is beautiful."

She says she had the most reservations about competitions "because then there are all these losers," who may have come out on top a different day.

But the Spassoffs changed their minds in 2003, when longtime student Christine Shevchenko blossomed into an exceptionally talented 14-year-old. They trained her for the Grand Prix, and she won first place in both the classical and contemporary categories in the regional semifinal, and made the top 12 at the finals in New York.

"The value of that process is really what changed our minds. We saw what that coaching could really do for dancers," Bojan Spassoff says.

Shevchenko went on to succeed in other competitions, most notably winning gold in the junior division of the 2005 Moscow International Ballet Competition. (Mikhail Baryshnikov had won the senior division in 1969.) No American had won a medal in Moscow since 1981.

"The competitions helped me gain more confidence on stage," says Shevchenko, now an ABT apprentice. "There is so much pressure to perform well during competitions that it helped me to deal with the pressure and nervousness before a performance. I became less afraid to perform."

It was also at those 2003 Grand Prix finals that the Spassoffs met a 12-year-old from Mexico, Isaac Hernandez, older brother of current Rock student Esteban. Isaac was named the best male dancer in the junior division that year.

"Larissa [Saveliev] spoke to us and said, 'There's a very talented young guy, and the family is very interested in having him come to the Rock,' " Stephanie Wolf Spassoff says. "And I said, 'He's 12! How can he come?' And she said, 'It's a good thing. There's 10 kids and they need him to go.' "

An adult sibling, Laura, moved with Isaac to Philadelphia, but the Spassoffs say Isaac also formed a close relationship with them - close enough that last March, Esteban came to Philadelphia to study at the Rock, too.

They were together only briefly. Within months, Isaac had joined ABT II, American Ballet Theatre's second company, leaving Esteban to follow in his tendus, jetés and other footsteps - perhaps all the way to the New York finals.

Though it's Valentine's Day, most of the Rock dancers are wearing traditional black and white or pastel pink.

But Beckanne Sisk, 15, of Longview, Texas, sports a cherry-red leotard and heart-shaped earrings as she practices her solo from La Esmeralda, with tambourine.

Miria Matsuda, a petite 16-year-old - even farther from home (Kobe, Japan) than Beckanne - smiles broadly throughout her variation, from Le Corsaire. ("She's happy all the time. All the kids love her," says Stephanie Wolf Spassoff. "She's working all the time, too.")

Neither Taylor Stanley, 16, of West Chester, nor Lawrence Rines, 17, of King of Prussia, had to move away from home and family to attend the Rock School, but their days are arduous nevertheless. Both participate in a distance-learning program through the school, and Rines' daily commute is 90 minutes each way, on a bus and two trains.

Still, they say growing up dancing is only as hard as one lets it be. "I don't surround myself by negative people, so it's fine," says Rines, who last year did well at the New York finals.

Kara Hanretty, 18, of Syracuse, N.Y., competed the last two years, and went to the finals both times. A strong, flexible dancer, she won a place at American Ballet Theatre's intensive summer program her first year, and her photo, in ads for the competition, has appeared in Dance Magazine and other publications.

This year, she'll dance classical and contemporary solos, as well as a contemporary duet with Stanley, whose wide-ranging talents include acting and singing.

"I have, like, flexibility," he says.

"You have everything," Hanretty responds. "He's really good at jazz."

"[Jazz] can always be with you," he says. But for now, he's all ballet all the time: Two weeks ago, he was accepted on full scholarship to the prestigious School of American Ballet, the feeder school for New York City Ballet. That means this year's Grand Prix, Stanley's first ballet competition ever, will be his last as a Rock student.

During these competitions, Hanretty says, the most important thing is enjoying the work.

"Honestly, I do it more for the experience. I get more out of that than from the competition, I think.

"It's nice to win, it's a really good feeling," she says of the semifinals. But then come the finals - and the challenge of a world's worth of talent.

"I see everyone else," she says, "and I'm just like, 'Oh, man!' "

 


 

See Rock School students rehearse for competition at http://go.philly.com/rockschool


If You Go

The Youth America Grand Prix regional semifinal competition will be Friday and Saturday at Swarthmore College's Lang Performing Arts Center, 500 College Ave., Swarthmore. Tickets are $5 at the door, but seating is limited. Information: www.yagp.org


Contact writer Ellen Dunkel at edunkel@phillynews.com.