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Raising the barre Nervous hopefuls audition to make the grand jeté into the RWB school’s professional division

In the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s studios on Graham Avenue, in the very space where company dancers hone their craft and rehearse for the season’s performances at the Centennial Concert Hall, 18 students are hoping to make their dance dreams a reality.

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In the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s studios on Graham Avenue, in the very space where company dancers hone their craft and rehearse for the season’s performances at the Centennial Concert Hall, 18 students are hoping to make their dance dreams a reality.

These kids, in grades 5 to 7, are auditioning for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School’s Professional Division, a prestigious dance program known and respected around the world. Students, some as young as 11, will move to downtown Winnipeg from all over North America to receive formal ballet training to become company dancers, or choreographers, or teachers.

This is the Winnipeg stop on a 15-city audition tour across Canada and the United States that continues on to Minneapolis and Fayetteville, Ark. — the first one to happen in person in two years owing to the pandemic. A nervous, excited energy hums in the air. Each student has a number pinned to the chests of their leotards or T-shirts, and they are being lead in a group class by Professional Division principal Suzanne André with live piano accompaniment, while RWB School director Stéphane Léonard, Professional Division vice-principal Kelly Bale and Professional Division artistic faculty member Kendra Woo look on from the adjudicator’s table.

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Kaya Jackson, 11, says she feels that with some training, she can take her dance to the next level.

“Don’t worry about the level,” André tells them reassurringly, adding that they might see things they’ve never done before, or maybe things they did two years ago. “The class is just to see the things we need to see.”

What they do not need to see, at this young age, is fully formed dancers, Léonard says.

“We don’t necessarily look for kids that are highly advanced in dance,” he says. “We want to see if they are co-ordinated, if they’re musical, and we want to see that they enjoy it. If they are going to do this every day, they have to love it.”

That’s why kids are auditioned in a group class, as opposed to having to face the adjudicator’s table solo.

“When students are relaxed, and they’re having fun, we really do see their true abilities and their true talents,” vice-principal Bale says. “So we do try to make the audition very fun and inclusive.”

Kaya Jackson, 11, is auditioning today, and not only does she love dance, she’s extremely motivated to take things to the next level. “I feel like I just needed another big push to get me into the dance world,” she says, a No. 1 pinned to her raspberry-coloured leotard. “When I was at my old school, I was in the competitive program — and this year, I went to Nuvo (the dance convention). But I feel like I could do a lot more if I had even more training, especially in ballet.”

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RWB School director Stéphane Léonard says the school isn’t seeking advanced dancers, but instead is looking for students who are co-ordinated, musical and enjoy dancing.

“She’s pretty single-minded,” says Kaya’s mom, Tina Chakraborty, with a laugh. “She’s also very clever about advocating for what she wants.”

If successful at this audition, students will go on to the intensive Summer Session, which will be held in July 2023 in Winnipeg. The summer session is a crash course in student life as well as an audition in itself; not all students who participate in the Summer Session will continue on to the Professional Division. Those who are selected for one of the RWB School’s professional programs will begin their studies in Winnipeg in September 2023.

The Professional Division is composed of three streams.

The Ballet Academic Program is a full-time, seven-level training program designed for students in Grade 6 and up.

The Anna McCowan Johnson Aspirant Program is a full-time, two-year post-secondary program for advanced-level classical ballet students who want to go pro.

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Scarlett Perry, 10, is auditioning for the RWB’s Professional Division.

The Teacher Training Program is a full-time, three-year post-secondary program for aspiring dance teachers, in both recreational and professional environments.

Some 600 students audition for the Professional Division each year. Around 90 to 110 will make it in across all three programs.

The upcoming session’s students will experience the new state-of-the-art Student Living Centre, which opened its doors in January 2022 and boasts a 3,400-square-foot dance studio in addition to improved dorm facilities for boarding students.

Hailey Latigar, 11, is also auditioning today. She’s been a RWB School Recreational Division student for the past seven years, and now she’s hoping to make the grand jeté to the Professional Division. “I’m pretty nervous because I don’t know if I’m gonna get in or not,” she says, a No. 3 affixed to her navy leotard. “But I’m pretty excited because I got invited to audition.” If she gets in, she says she’ll be excited “but I’ll still work very hard.”

Dad Mark Latigar confesses he’s more nervous than she is.

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RWB hopeful Hailey Latigar, 11, has been with the recreational division for seven years and is hoping to make the jump to the pro level.

“I’m very, very proud,” he says. “All that time and training, leading up to something, right? Something big, even if it’s not professional, something else down down the road. It’s good training for her.”

Scarlett Perry, 10, says she, too, is nervous about auditioning, but she wants to just have fun. She’s been dancing for as long as she’s been walking, practically. “I like dance because you can spread your emotions, and you can embrace your feelings,” she says, wearing No. 9 on her black leotard.

“Scarlett’s an artist at heart — she’s very creative and she spends a lot of time in the studio,” says her mom, Andrea Perry. “I thought the summer program was a great opportunity.”

For half a century, the RWB School’s Professional Division has been a pipeline directly to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet company, which Leonard says is one of the biggest — if not the biggest — competitive advantages to pursuing studies in Winnipeg. Alumni typically make up between 75 and 81 per cent of the company, and more than 50 per cent of the school’s artistic faculty.

Bale, herself a graduate with distinction from the Teacher Training Program, is thrilled that in-person auditions are back.

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Professional Division vice-principal Kelly Bale says she’s thrilled that in-person auditions are back after two years of pandemic cancellations.

“It’s so wonderful now to have the energy of the students in the room and see their faces and just see their true love of dance,” she says. “Because that’s what it’s all for, for us. That’s what we’re looking for, and that’s what we we want to share with our audiences in the future is that love of dance.”

jen.zoratti@winnipegfreepress.com

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Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti
Columnist

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.

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