Giving ballet hopefuls a Chance to Dance
A unique ballet gala featuring dance students, not stars, raises money and ambitions for the next generation.
What if a group of talented teenage dance students were the headliners of an evening gala, performing in front of some of ballet’s superstars that they not only admire but trained under?
That’s the idea behind A Chance to Dance, a one-night showcase for a handful of aspiring dancers, who had tremendous promise at last summer’s Carreño Dance Festival, a rigorous program that gives teens a taste of what it’s like dancing for a professional company.
A Chance to Dance will be held Dec. 4 at the Hyatt Regency Sarasota, FL ballroom. It was conceived of by Robert de Warren, director of the Carreño Dance Festival, which he co-founded. The Carreño festival, held in August at the Sarasota Opera House, culminated with a Stars of Tomorrow performance where students danced alongside José Manuel Carreño, who co-runs the program, and American Ballet Theatre Principal Julie Kent.
For A Chance to Dance, de Warren invited seven students to return to Sarasota to perform classical and contemporary works as a fundraiser that will also be attended by Carreño and Kent, who will be watching the show.
“To have them in the audience, I can’t even imagine what my daughter will feel like when she’s dancing,” says Liza Sovdsnes, mother of Serena Sovdsnes, 15, who was invited to perform. “I’m a nervous wreck. But she’s so excited.”
Serena Sovdsnes. Photo courtesy the Carreño Dance Festival.
The dancers – aged 13 to 16 – were chosen for the gala based on their ability and that they all live and attend dance schools close to, or fairly close to, Sarasota. “They’re all very distinguished,” de Warren says. “You saw the ones with the hunger and intelligence to catch the corrections from all of our great teachers last summer. To see how they matured in just a few days [at the intensive], it’s just amazing.”
For the show, Serena will perform the grand pas de deux from Don Quixote, a mature role that’s physically demanding, with an older Cuban dance partner Julio Mendez, who didn’t attend the festival. The pair have been coached by Magaly Suarez, formerly with the Cuban National Ballet School who runs her own successful school, The Art of Classical Ballet in Pompano Beach, FL. Serena and her family relocated from Ohio so she could study under Suarez. “I’m excited and so grateful for being given this opportunity,” Serena says. At 3, she started dance training and by 8 ½ she was on pointe learning from teachers at Ballet Tech Ohio, including Claudia Rudolf Barrett and former Cincinnati Ballet Principal Adiarys Almeida (now a Boston Ballet soloist).
Gabriella Stilo, 13, will dance the roles of Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy pas de deux from The Nutcracker with her partner Brandon Carpio, 15.
To prepare, they trained intensely with their teachers Paula Nuñez, a former Venezuelan dancer, and Osmany Montano at America’s Ballet School in Tampa, where they both attend. They will repeat their performance at the school’s Nutcracker shows Dec. 8 & 9.
“We’re very excited to perform in front of Julie Kent and José Carreño,” Gabriella says. “I used to think I got nervous, but I think of it as being excited because it helps me dance better. Brandon and I relax before and listen to music. We feel like brother and sister and that helps us perform together.”
At 6, she caught the ballet bug watching older girls at dance school and wanted to become a ballerina. Brandon has won awards at the Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP) and American Dance Competition (ADC). In addition to the Carreño program, he’s won scholarships to other prestigious programs at the Bolshoi Ballet, Boston Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, and has studied at America’s Ballet School for the last five years.
Student dancers Allie Burman & Francisco Serrano at the Carreño Dance Festival. Photo by Shirley Blair.
Lifting the next generation
The fundraiser also includes a dinner, auction and a conversation, hosted by Joel D. Fedder, a festival Board of Trustee, with Carreño and Kent, who will presumably share stories and observations to encourage the young dancers. Kent, after all, was given her big break as a new ABT dancer by Mikhail Baryshnikov, while Carreño, as a National Ballet of Cuba Principal was allowed by Alicia Alonso to pursue his career abroad.
“They’ll talk about how they helped the children have a complete professional approach to the dancing, “ de Warren says. “It’s going to be a way of showing how one generation teaches the next generation who will hopefully will reach that level one day.”
The festival seeks to raise $50,000 for its scholarship program for advanced students to attend the annual summer intensive, de Warren says. Its distinguished faculty include Suarez, Loipa Arauja, associate director of the English National Ballet and former coach at the Royal Ballet, Yuri Fateev, director of the renown Mariinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia and Afro-Brazilian choreographer Carlos dos Santos, Jr.
Choreographing something new
The Carreño festival began as a three-week summer intensive but has now blossomed into a one-of-a-kind mentoring program that is unique for the ultra-competitive ballet world. The program’s mentoring arm – led by Dr. Suzanne Kesten, who recently became a Board of Director – follows the students throughout the year.
Many of the kids performing in the gala were hand picked for the mentorship program, named for Dr. Kesten, that provides financial aid and a lot more.
By staying in contact with the teens and their parents through email and phone calls, the faculty and mentors lend personal support and encouragement in many areas including helping them prepare for national and international competitions, auditioning for major dance schools and other aspects of their advancement. This direct contact, something Dr. Kesten feels is so important in effectively mentoring children, is what sets the program apart. “We are not a school and have no intension of being a school,” she says. “We’re identifying talent that we wish to work with to bring the kids to a level where they can achieve success.”
Arcadian Broad performing. Photo courtesy the Carreño Dance Festival.
Here’s more on the other dancers:
Arcadian Broad, at 16, is a trainee with the Orlando Ballet and a gold medal winner at YAGP and the ADC. He aspires to dance for a major company such as American Ballet Theater, San Francisco Ballet, Royal Ballet or Stuttgart Ballet and to be an international guest artist and choreographer. He says the summer intensive helped fine-tune his technique and taught him “to always keep pushing for that next level.”
Francisco Serrano, 15, is a second-generation dancer, as the son of Ariel Serrano and Wilmian Hernandez, who performed with the Sarasota Ballet under de Warren.
Francisco is also hoping for a career with the Royal Ballet. He trains with his parents at their Sarasota School of Cuban Ballet. At the summer intensive, Francisco enjoyed “taking amazing classes taught by ballet stars from all over the world, and performing in a pas de deuxin the Junior Stars of Tomorrow program.”
Allie Burman, 14, trains at the Sarasota School of Cuban Ballet, and partnered with Francisco Serrano in the pas de deux from Diana and Acteonin the Carreño festival’s junior performance, her second year at the program. Allie too hopes to dance with the Royal Ballet. For her, the most memorable part of the program was “having such a wonderful faculty to work with . . . and growing as a dancer and person.”
Matthew Griffin, 16, began dancing at Manatee School for the Arts, studying modern, jazz and ballroom dance, His interest in ballet was encouraged after a summer intensive at the Diane Parrington Studio of Classical Ballet. He has trained at the School of Russian Ballet in Sarasota under Sergiy Mikhaylov and Darya Fedotova, as well as studying modern dance with Elizabeth Bergmann. He aspires to dance in a versatile company, performing in classical and contemporary ballets. He says, “The Carreño Summer Intensive was such an incredible experience. It really gave me insight into how a professional company operates, and the all-star faculty was truly inspiring.”
(Top photo: Dancer Gabriella Stilo. Photo courtesy Carreño Dance Festival.)