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This article originally appeared in the Culture section of Bloomberg News on June 1, 2006.

June 1 (Bloomberg) — A pair of trim-bodied teenagers are dancing in a huge Lincoln Center studio rimmed with ballet barres. The petite, sweet-faced young woman zooms across the space like a plane on its runway and, airborne, flings herself at her partner head first, body horizontal. He catches her deftly, saving her from sudden death and managing to look princely about it.

These beautiful daredevils are rehearsing for the annual School of American Ballet’s Workshop Performances — this year, two on June 3 and one on June 5 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater — that display tomorrow’s classical-dance stars, nearly all of them under 20. Their academy, founded by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein in 1934, is the chief purveyor of dancers to the New York City Ballet and a rich source for other ranking companies in the U.S. and abroad.

It’s a training ground for finalists. Entry is by a highly selective audition even for the first year’s 8-year-olds. Beginning with the intermediate division, scouts scan applicants nationwide and bring them to the academy’s boarding school.

As the youngsters mature, their instruction becomes progressively more intense. At every level, students who prove to be unsuitable for a professional career are let go. Kirstein liked to call SAB “the West Point of ballet academies.”

Workshop performances are among the most thrilling shows in town because of the pre-professionals’ dazzling technique and stage presence. They’re touching, too, for the glimpses they offer of nascent artistry.

Basic Balanchine

Ten days to showtime, Suki Schorer, a former NYCB principal, is polishing her production of Balanchine’s “Square Dance” (created in 1957, revised in 1976). Her detailed instructions to both ensemble and three alternating casts of principals reveal the basics of Balanchine-style dancing. The emphasis is on extravagant energy, clarity even at breakneck speed, and profound musicality.

One of the girls assigned the ballerina role looks no older than a ‘tween. She has the technique of a prodigy, but her performance is entirely innocent, devoid of personality. Schorer reminds her to inflect it with an occasional smile here, a rakish twist of the shoulders there. “Keep it juicy,” she counsels.

Susan Pilarre, another NYCB alum, is rehearsing Richard Tanner’s staging of Balanchine’s 1949 “Bourree Fantasque.” Like Schorer, she has meticulously deconstructed the choreography so that her dancers understand the precise shape of every step and where it belongs in space and time.

Equally important, she has taught her proteges to put the discrete bits back together. They flow so well now, the dance looks almost spontaneous.

All on Target

The opening section of this ballet is all verve. The middle part is dreamy and romantic. The finale is an organized maelstrom. Here everyone must be on target at every moment: whirling, jumping, leaping, interweaving in kaleidoscopic patterns.

If the execution isn’t nearly perfect, the result will be chaos. Pilarre eyes a run-through intently. Before she delivers her corrections to her breathless crew, she concedes, “A lot of that was good.”

David Prottas, an 18-year-old who has two featured roles in the coming performances, explains why a young dancer needs more than classroom training: “In school it’s easy to forget that dance is actually a performing art. And I want to be known as a performer, not just a technician. When you’re on stage, a certain amount of theatrics is just as important as the movement aspect. In workshop I’ve had a chance to nurture that.”

The program will be completed by Christopher Wheeldon’s “Scenes de Ballet,” created for the NYCB in 1999 and performed by 64 School of American Ballet pupils. In the present cast, the youngest dancer is a fourth-grader; several of the principals aren’t yet old enough to vote.

Toe Shoes and Tears

The piece, a theatrical fantasy on the training of classical dancers, capitalizes on the mystique that surrounds the subject. Those familiar with SAB realize that the process is more prosaic — and tougher. It begins with very young, flexible and well- proportioned bodies and, after some nine years of sweat, toil and tears, produces capable practitioners and the occasional unforgettable artist.

Among the advanced students appearing in workshop performances, some will stay on at SAB for a year or two of further instruction. Others will be launched immediately into their careers. Nearly all of them work with single-minded devotion. And ambition. No one is looking for a safe berth.

Former SAB students include Jacques d’Amboise, Suzanne Farrell, Gelsey Kirkland, Arthur Mitchell, Ethan Stiefel, Wendy Whelan and Edward Villella. The present crew wants to be like that.

© 2006 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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