In the wings: ABT Studio Company nurtures next-gen dancers

Scurry Night by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa; photo by Erin Baiano, courtesy American Ballet Theatre Studio Company

Ballet during the pandemic moved to Zoom and YouTube, Instagram and TikTok. Dancers unknown and famous alike filmed themselves in parks, at the beach, in backyards, and often in claustrophobic pop-up dance studios in their living rooms.

American Ballet Theatre Studio Company, which will appear at the Lensic Performing Art Center on Nov. 11, made Advice to the Young, a short dance film available on YouTube.

In the film, a series of young dancers solo, one after the other, in outdoor locations in California, Japan, on a farm, a street, a pier. Meanwhile, the voice of the punk rocker and poet Patti Smith speaks to them. The narration is taken from a video she made for the Louisiana Museum of Art.

“Life. Is. Really. Difficult,” she says.

“You just keep doing your work because you have to, because it’s your calling.”

They dance in tennis shoes and jeans, in the sun, in picturesque outdoor locations representing the corners of the globe where they hid out with their families during the lockdowns.

“Understand that it’s going to be hard,” Smith says, “[but] ... you’ll have some of the most beautiful experiences.”

“When you are suffering it’s part of the package.”

At the end of the film, the dancers suddenly appear together, performing in unison, all 15 of them, in a vast open field.

“[Life is] like a roller coaster ride. It’s never going to be perfect. It’s going to have perfect moments and then rough spots, but it’s all worth it,” Smith says.

The Studio Company, formerly called ABT II, is a training program, a pipeline into the company for dancers 17-21, a way for ABT to prepare new hires for the realities of a dance career. “I look for dancers with the obvious things: a strong technique, proportion, musicality, latent artistry,” said Sascha Radetsky, the former ABT dancer who has been running the Studio Company since 2018. “But I also look for people with intellectual curiosity, who have perspective — a sense of the bigger picture — about the collective effort involved in presenting a performance.”

Most dancers stay in the group a few years before moving up to the ABT or other companies around the world. There are classes in partnering, pointe, tap dance and jazz, nutrition, Pilates, acting, and music. They teach Shakespeare to the recruits, as well as hair and makeup. And they learn a lot of dances. “They learn a broad range of repertory, they get to be seen in principal roles, and they are also involved with new pieces being developed on them. They get to take ownership of a role,” he said.

And then they go on tour. During the 2022 season, they are scheduled to perform in 11 cities so far. “Presenters are still figuring out how to reopen theaters. We will no doubt get more bookings as we get into the year.”

“Sometimes I think I learn just as much as they do,” Radetsky said. “Each dancer has something different to say on stage, in the studio, and in life.” At 44, he considers himself a grandfather figure to his students. “I went into the company at 18. I was thrust into the fire. I had to learn by making mistakes on the big stage. It was sink or swim, and there were moments when I was sinking and not coming up for air. These kids are so much better prepared. I’m astonished at what they can handle, their singular focus, their aplomb, and their resilience. They are doggedly steadfast in the pursuit of their dream.”

Radetsky is married to Stella Abrera, a 24-year veteran and prima ballerina at ABT who retired during the pandemic. She has a new job as artistic director at Kaatsbaan Cultural Center in Tivoli, New York, a 153-acre artist retreat and performance center where many New York dance companies went to quarantine and rehearse during the pandemic and to perform on an outside stage during the summer. The ABT Studio Company filmed two full-length evenings of dance at the facility during two separate working bubbles last year.

The fall and spring bubbles involved the entire company enduring a two-week quarantine in each isolated location, followed by six weeks of training, rehearsals, and filming. “We worked very intensively. We didn’t waste a moment,” Radetsky said. “We created four full-length evenings of digital content. Eight new works were created, and 21 pieces all together filmed at Kaatsbaan.”

A behind-the-scenes video, Bubble: A Dancer’s Perspective, (available on YouTube) was made about each of the two eight-week periods of creativity and collaboration. Between bucolic scenes of the fall and winter scenery in their upstate environs and snippets of these nonpartying college-age young people sneaking chocolate milk, rehearsal scenes show dancers who are light years ahead of what you might call a “ballet student.” Dazzling feats of technique are part of each morning class, and the rehearsals show partnering and artistry that justifies the hype. These dancers are already world class and amazing.

For the fall and winter online performances, the dancers worked with choreographers and coaches both in person and via Zoom. Twyla Tharp, Alexei Ratmansky, Jessica Lang, and Lauren Lovette were among those setting works on the company. Choreographers including Hope Boykin, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Yannick Lebrun, and Sung Woo Han were among those who created new dances on the company. The group spent last summer working on a new dance film on location in Washington, D.C., then returned to New York and a seminormal life of in-person rehearsals in September.

Some things were lost and some were gained during the pandemic months. For one thing, a dancer’s career is short, and, Radetsky says, some of the dancers were more than ready to move up but couldn’t. There was no place to move. The 90-dancer main company wasn’t performing. “One thing that was gained was a sense of perspective and gratitude,” he said. “These dancers will never take performing for granted. There is a great sense of urgency. The time is now.” 

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