It all started in 1933, when Lincoln Kirstein asked the late George Balanchine to come to the United States to start an American ballet company. Balanchine said he would, ``But first a school.'' The rest is history. They founded what became the New York City Ballet, and under Balanchine's direction a new American style was born -- his dancers are still distinguished by their clarity and athleticism. History is still in the making, and it's still coming out of the school Balanchine insisted on. The School of American Ballet (SAB) trains students rigorously. They start at age 8 and are watched over and weeded out until, at age 18, the survivors are ready to audition for professional companies. Only 5 percent are accepted into the New York City Ballet. The school has turned out some of the finest dancers of the century.
Every spring, its doors open a crack as a team of teachers fan out and comb the US for students from ages 10 to 18 to come to the school's summer session. Two thousand are auditioning this year for 250 places. The five-week stint at SAB ``can open doors [professionally] or open their eyes'' to their possibilities, said Suki Schorer, a former Balanchine ballerina who teaches at the SAB. One Sunday afternoon, Schorer spent several hours at the Boston School of Ballet auditioning 74 hopeful students.
She was looking, she said, for good physique, musicality, and the ability to move. As long as a student is as advanced as the rest in his or her age group, fine points of technique aren't that important. ``Their training doesn't matter so much -- we can train them,'' said Schorer. More important is whether one moves ``in an interesting way. If the way you move intrigues people.'' She said one auditioner with shorter legs than the ideal for ballerinas caught her eye because of her vitality and attack, while another who was ``lovely'' didn't have that vigor.
The teachers have swept through Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Fort Worth, Houston, Kansas City, Louisville, Miami, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City, San Juan, Puerto Rico, Seattle, Washington, and Winston-Salem, N.C. Still to try out are students in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Albuquerque, N.M. Auditions are also held at the school in New York on Wednesdays through April. Students are graded on a point scale, but, Schorer said, every year there are 10 or 11 ``must comes'' -- dancers the school makes every effort to help because of their promise. A promising student may be asked to stay on for the winter term in the school, though Schorer said 12- and 13-year-olds are not encouraged to do so unless someone in their family can move to New York to be with them.
It's a long road from the auditions to the stage of the New York State Theater. But it happens. Jackie Cronsberg, who runs the Ballet Workshop in Sudbury, Mass., has organized the Boston auditions for the last ten years. ``I went to the ballet last week, and there was a boy from the first audition, Richard Marsden. He was 11 when he came,'' she said.
Schorer said the ideal Balanchine dancer is a mythical creature and that what she is really looking for is potential. ``You have to look inside and see if there's a little flame,'' she said.