Learning about toe shoes and tutus

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Yasmin Torres, 11, and her friend Tanya Harris, 10, both students at PS 72 in Manhattan, were obviously excited. They had never attended a ballet dance performance before, nor been inside the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center. Yet here they were, wiggling excitedly in red plush seats, waiting for the curtain to go up on an enchanted-forest stage setting. Along with 2,600 other New York public school children, Yasmin and Tanya had been invited to a special May morning performance of ``Ballet for Young People,'' presented by the New York City Ballet Company. They were part of the sea of eager young faces that saw fully staged excerpts from the George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins production of ``Firebird,'' from Mr. Robbins's ``Fancy Free,'' and from Balanchine's ``Stars and Stripes.'' Each demonstrates the diversity of the techniques used in such ballet performances.

The children watched, clapped, and squealed, and when it was all over, Yasmin said and Tanya agreed that what they had liked best was the color, the dazzling color of the sets and costumes. Yes, they liked the dancing, too, and yes, they would like to come again to see another performance. Then they returned, in orderly file, to the mass of yellow school buses that had brought them and would return them to their classes.

``You have come to the theater to enter a different world,'' Joseph Duell, the master of ceremonies for the event, told his young audience, ``a world of movement and music, lights and scenery, and, of course, the fairy tales and the stories that are told in dance.''

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Mr. Duell, a principal dancer in the ballet company, explained the stories of the ballets and asked a ballerina to show them her tutu and toe shoes. He demonstrated how to partner a girl dancer and how to lift her gracefully. He also demonstrated the right and wrong ways to land from a jump and how, with graceful control, he could ``land as softly as a cat.''

Between ballets, he had the curtain raised so the children could watch the stagehands change the sets, a marvel of disappearing walls and trees and emerging new elements being hoisted and shoved into place to create new scenes.

To prepare the children for this experience, their teachers, representing classes in all 32 New York school districts, had earlier attended special orientation seminars conducted by the staff of the Education Department of the New York City Ballet. The seminars were designed to acquaint the teachers with both the ballet company itself and the individual ballets being performed. They returned to their classrooms with printed materials and photographs to share with their students, so that no pupil came to the scene completely cold.

The annual ``Ballet for Young People'' program is one of many activities administered by the New York City Ballet's Education Department. It is designed to introduce to the world of classical dancing youngsters who might not otherwise have the opportunity to experience the thrill of a live performance. This year's performance was the sixth such program presented by the company since it was initiated by the late George Balanchine. A massive project, it took four months to plan and coordinate. Along with other Educational Department programs, it was substantially underwritten this year by a grant from New York Telephone.

The Education Department also takes lecture-demonstrations out into the Tri-State area schools. The programs are performed by advanced students from the School of American Ballet, the official school of the New York City Ballet. Students from first grade through high school are thus introduced to the basic concepts of the classical dance art form.

This school year, the Education Department, working through the Lincoln Center Institute, has presented more than 70 such in-school performances, presented in six different formats. A special floor and sound system are set up at each performance.

Former principal dancers, who know how to communicate information in a vivid and understandable way, explain various elements of dance, such as exercises at the barre, turnout, pointe work for women, jumps and turns for men, and partnering. They exemplify the endurance, discipline, and dedication necessary to the dancer who makes it to the top at the New York City Ballet.

Michelle Audet, director of the Education Department since 1979, is always looking for new and different ways to extend the company's commitment to ballet. She would like to see more educational programs for people of all ages, not just children.

She is working on projects that include extensive curriculum materials and workshops for schoolteachers, introductory seminars in ballet history, and pre-performance talks to audience groups, focusing on the program they are about to see.

``All our programs,'' she explains, ``carry on Balanchine's concern with cultivating a future audience for ballet and for ensuring its vitality and relevance to future generations.''

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