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A dancer's tale of two countries

By Margaret E. Willis / September 7, 1982



London

One of the newest members of the American Ballet Theater, now rehearsing for the 1982-83 season in New York, is a tall, slim American girl who has recently received rave reviews in the usually conservative British press here in London.

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Jennet Zerbe, aged 19, completed her training in July at the Royal Ballet's upper school and danced the role of Odette in the second act of ''Swan Lake'' in a week of graduating concerts at the famous Sadler's Wells Theater in Islington. She performed the role twice.

Her excellent technique, calm assurance, and soft, lyrical approach impressed the critics and indicated the solid foundation of the Royal Ballet's training. And her later experience confirmed how crucial such first-rate training is, especially in light of the immense challenges involved in joining a world-class company.

When I talked with her recently, she was looking forward to her audition in New York with Mikhail Baryshnikov for a place in the American Ballet Theater. (She did win a place in that company.)

A scout for Baryshnikov, sent over here from New York, saw her second-night performance as the Swan Queen. She had taken a class with ABT when it was on tour in Los Angeles, and had first been noticed at that time. The agent had come to see the result of her London training.

Would she have liked to join the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden? I asked. ''Yes, I most probably would have accepted if I had been asked,'' she said. ''I love England and its people and will be sad to leave. But nothing has been said and I must get a job.''

Entering the Royal Ballet Company is difficult, even for the most talented. Vacancies occur only when members retire or decide to move. At the same time, the need for work permits and for approval by the British Equity Union makes entry difficult for non-British dancers. This year, only four boys and one British girl from the Royal Ballet School's 150 pupils were acccepted into the company itself. Last year, only one was taken at the beginning of the season. Later, a few others were taken into the Royal Ballet touring company (Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet).

Other school graduates this year found places in more than a dozen British and European companies.

The kind of training Jennet Zerbe received is world renowned. She began dancing in New York, and continued with the Cecchetti method when her family moved to Santa Barbara, Calif. She had her first taste of the British style when she was sent to London by her teacher to attend a summer course at the Royal Ballet School.

Soon she realized she wanted to study full-time at the school. The staff recognized her talent, and arrangements were made. During the training, however, she experienced a couple of accidents, which delayed her progress.

Why did she choose the Royal Ballet School over ones in the United States?

''I felt that nothing in America could offer such good training,'' she said. ''It isn't just one style, but a whole variety. The training included not only items such as makeup and stagecraft, but also how to write down ballet steps in the method known as Benesh notation.''

After our talk, she went from star to walk-on courtier in ''Giselle'' to complete the graduation week. Now she is busy rehearsing for a new career in New York.