Commentary: How Special Will the New ABT Gillespie School Be?

By Rosalie O'Connor

The Segerstrom Center for the Arts recently announced that it was getting into the ballet-school business with American Ballet Theatre in a splashy, high-profile way, by launching the ABT William J. Gillespie School at the center.

This unprecedented partnership between a performing arts complex and a major classical dance company naturally caused great excitement, especially among youngsters and parents who have ballet in the blood. The ABT name carries enormous prestige and cache. The school is named for the Laguna Beach philanthropist who made an undoubtedly large, but undisclosed underwriting gift.

Some details: In January, intensive once-a-month classes will start for 10- to 18- year-old students. Regular classes begin in September for 3- to 14-year-olds. Former ABT dancer Alaine Haubert, the new principal and an internationally known teacher and coach, is a familiar local face because she was based in Orange County for many years. Some scholarships will be available, and the school also will offer free community classes. Details on the latter will be made later.

So what special bonuses does Orange County get because of this association with ABT (which already works with the center and UC Irvine on its summer program here)? Gillespie School students will have “priority opportunities” to audition for supernumerary roles in ABT performances at the center (including Alexei Ratmansky’s world premiere “Sleeping Beauty” in March, and his “Nutcracker” next December); they will attend master classes; meet with members of other visiting dance companies; and get special ticket offers for other shows. A spring recital on the Segerstrom stage is promised. Those are all wonderful perks, befitting a collaboration between a world-class presenter and major dance company.

Now, let’s look at the Gillespie School in a larger context. The county does already have some outstanding local ballet schools and teachers, including men and women who were with top companies, such as the Mariinsky ballet. Some of these schools also bring in top pros to teach. Haubert, who trained at the School of American Ballet, and was a member of the Joffrey Ballet in addition to ABT, taught for many years at Orange County School of the Arts and Ballet Pacifica. As far as local children performing with visiting dance companies—that’s not new. Finally, if it’s ABT’s national training curriculum you’re after, you can get that in Irvine, at the Maple Conservatory of Dance. Charles Maple, a former soloist with ABT, says he’s certified at all levels of the method. (I also should mention that when I contacted him to confirm this, he expressed great excitement about ABT increasing its presence in Orange County, and said it will be a boon for all the existing schools because it will offer them, too, opportunities for collaboration.)

So will dance students get something truly unique at the ABT Gillespie school?

We won’t really know until the session begins in September and we find out who the teachers will be. Will ABT’s top dancers come here to teach after they retire from the stage, the way New York City Ballet’s Jenifer Ringer and James Fayette did at the Colburn School Dance Academy in Los Angeles? We’ll have to wait to see.

In the meantime, it may turn out—and I hope it does—that the school’s most important asset is as a cultivator of dance audiences. Childhood experiences, such as ballet lessons, don’t often create future professionals. Only a miniscule fraction of those tykes will grow up to be ballerinas or danseurs. But we can hope that this kinetic taste of a centuries-old dance technique will help them form a lasting attachment as a viewer of dance. Just as sports fanatics are born at Little League and Pop Warner, dance fans sometimes fall in love with the art form while they are practicing at the barre.

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