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By Kathryn Holmes
When you walk in the door at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, it seems like everyone—from the students stretching in the hallway to the parents chatting near the front desk—is smiling. The studio gives off an instantly warm and inviting vibe.
That doesn’t change when you peek into a classroom, where it’s just as warm, only more focused. Inside, François Perron, the managing artistic director of Manhattan Youth Ballet, the preprofessional ballet program at MMAC, is leading students through the last of their barre exercises. As the dancers perform an adagio, Perron circles the room, gently bringing bodies into correct alignment.
When he sees students struggling with the passage from à la seconde to arabesque in grande rond de jambe en l’air, he doesn’t hesitate to stop the exercise. “That was terrible!” he exclaims. The students laugh but watch Perron closely. “The leg must be turned out as long as possible,” he says, demonstrating on a dancer in the center of the room. “The hip cannot be up. It cannot. Start again.” And they do—correctly this time.
For many years, Manhattan Youth Ballet was one of the best-kept secrets on the New York City dance scene. But now, thanks to its stellar training, successful alumni, and a stunning new 18,000-square-foot facility (MMAC), people are starting to take notice.
Building a School
MYB was born in 1995 as Studio Maestro, around the corner from Lincoln Center. At the time of its founding, the school’s mission was to “provide elite classical ballet training to students in the city, while also nurturing their individuality, imagination, and artistry,” says Rose Caiola, MYB’s executive artistic director. “I wanted to create a community where students would feel really supported.”
While the mission hasn’t changed, the scope of the program has. Over the past 15 years, the number of class levels has expanded from two to eight. A few years ago, Caiola began searching for a larger facility than Studio Maestro’s 4,000 square feet. The result: Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, which she calls her “dream space.” Located a few blocks west of the old space, MMAC boasts five studios with high ceilings and lots of light, a café, and a 180-seat state-of-the-art theater. With the move in 2008, Caiola left the name “Studio Maestro” behind, and the preprofessional program officially became Manhattan Youth Ballet.
Training for Success Though MMAC offers a variety of open classes for all ages, its crown jewel is MYB, which trains serious dancers ages 8 to 22. Perron, a Paris Opéra Ballet–trained dancer who performed with New York City Ballet among other companies, modeled MYB’s structure after the French school. Each level has technical benchmarks that students must reach before progressing onward. At the end of each school year, students participate in a choreographed performance to demonstrate what they have learned.
Caiola hopes to turn out dancers with a strong classical base who are also versatile. “We’re sticking to a universal technique that can translate anywhere,” she says. Upper-level students are exposed to contemporary dance, as well as their teachers’ different stylistic backgrounds. Longtime faculty member Deborah Wingert, for instance, is influenced by her many years dancing at NYCB. “I have the Balanchine things that I do; Nadege Hottier worked with Maurice Béjart; Marina Stavitskaya studied and performed with the Kirov; and of course François is very French,” Wingert quips. “We bring different elements to the table.”
For students who hope to dance professionally, trying out different styles can be invaluable. Nicole Graniero studied at MYB throughout high school before moving on to ABT II in 2004 and joining ABT as an apprentice in 2006 (see “On the Rise,” June 2009). “In ABT we switch repertory often—even within one program in an evening—and people can struggle if they’re only used to one style,” she says. Her fellow MYB alumni have gone on to NYCB, Nederlands Dans Theater, Complexions, San Francisco Ballet, and other companies.
Nurturing the Individual
“MYB feels like a family,” Graniero says. “The competition is never cutthroat, and the teachers get to know you and give great feedback.”
This vibe trickles down from the top: Caiola and Perron have made it a priority to run a school that, while intense, is also affirming. For instance, in MYB’s year-round performances—including its annual spring concert and, new in 2009, The Knickerbocker Suite (a New York City–themed Nutcracker)—the repertory is tailored to the current dancers. “I try to cast students so that they will look good and be fulfilled,” Perron says. “They don’t feel rejected or leave feeling negative. They have been shown in the best light.”
This boosting of confidence has helped bring success to students who might not have seemed, as children, destined for a ballet career. Perron thrives on the challenge of shaping dancers who come to him with passion, talent, and artistry but perhaps without the “ideal ballet body”—long limbs, sky-high extensions, amazingly arched feet. “I actually love working with dancers who are not so perfect, because they have much more to offer,” he says. “They are more open-minded and work so hard. It makes me proud to say I formed one of these dancers.”
The move to MMAC spawned several new ventures for Caiola and her staff: a diverse open class schedule, an early-childhood curriculum, and the Manhattan Youth Ballet Company, which allows level-eight dancers to taste professional life. This year’s 12 MYBC members take morning company class, rehearse repertory throughout the day, and participate in shows and festivals, including a company performance at MMAC last fall, a lecture-demonstration for New York City schools in December, and an upcoming spring concert.
“My biggest goal would be to pay the MYBC dancers like true professionals,” Caiola says. She also hopes to expand on the school’s scholarship and community outreach initiatives. Meanwhile, Perron’s dream is to create dancers who will be instantly recognizable in an audition as having come from MYB. He wants the training to speak for itself. “Our dancers are chic, unaffected, clean, elegant,” he says. “When they do a simple port de bras, I want the audience to say, ‘Oh my God!’ Do I want the legs to be up here?” He points directly at the ceiling. “Of course! But I want them here the proper way. We are creating artists. That’s what I want the school to be known for.”
Kathryn Holmes is a dancer and writer in NYC.
Pictured: Francois Perron teaches Level 7 students at Manhattan Youth Ballet. Photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy MMAC.