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Fierce competition among San Diego ballet aspirants

Those who would dance

George Balanchine, the essence of the New York City Ballet, used to conduct the auditions in New York himself. - Image by David Covey
George Balanchine, the essence of the New York City Ballet, used to conduct the auditions in New York himself.

Waiting: sitting, standing, stretching, eating an orange, talking quietly or with animation, trying not to be nervous. At least some of them had not been able to sleep the night before. It’s a familiar locker-room scene but the teen-agers in it are not athletes, though they train for strength, endurance, and speed; nor are they waiting to compete in a game. They are potential, hopeful ballet dancers at an audition where they’ll be competing against other young dancers they won’t even see. Their chance for success will be one in a hundred.

Susan Hendl, Mary Porter. Hendl has conducted the bulk of the regional auditions for the past two years.

The audition is for the five-week summer session of the School of American Ballet (SAB), the official dance academy of one of the finest ballet companies in the United States — many say the finest — and in the world: the New York City Ballet. Of the 110 dancers currently in the company, ninety-eight were trained in the School of American Ballet.

Allison Hinton: "If I can’t be a dancer it will be hard to think what else to do."

Because training in the school is so clearly a prerequisite for entry into the company, and because both the school and the company are so highly selective, admission into the school is one of several dreams-of-a-lifetime for many aspiring ballet dancers. The school has a winter session that corresponds to the academic year, auditions for which are held only in New York.

Dana Stackpole: "I went to the San Francisco Ballet summer school and last year I went to Houston."

Auditions for the summer session are held in New York three times a week and once each in twenty-two other cities, from Winston-Salem to Seattle, during February and March; and there are plans to begin holding auditions in Europe next year. While acceptance to the summer session does not imply admission to the winter session, it is virtually the only hope for a young dancer who lives outside New York to come to the attention of the company. It is, in fact, something like an extended audition, for the best summer students are invited to stay on.

Toria Hiscock: "This is the one thing I’m really devoted to."

George Balanchine, seventy-seven-year-old chairman of the faculty of the school, ballet master and choreographer of the company, and the man who is universally acknowledged as the essence of the New York City Ballet, used to conduct the auditions in New York himself, and some of those outside New York.

Phuong Bui (far left) has the hairstyle, the high, wide cheekbones, and the physique of Rudolf Nureyev.

In recent years he has relied on others — other ballet masters in the company, teachers at the school, and dancers — to “be his eyes" and find the future dancers among the growing ranks of would-be dancers.

Before the audition, I said to Susan Hendl, “I wish I were here to audition, myself’ and she said to me, with a short laugh, “Oh, no you don’t. I know I don’t."

Susan Hendl, a City Ballet dancer who is recovering from knee surgery, has conducted the bulk of the regional auditions for the past two years. Last year she saw 1300 of the 3500 young dancers who auditioned for the 320 places in the summer program. This year, during a three-week span in which she will hold thirteen regional auditions, she will see about 1500 potential dancers. Los Angeles in the recent past has been the nearest audition site for dance students from San Diego, but after 250 students from all over Southern California showed up in a drenching rain last year and it took nine hours to complete the audition, the school decided to schedule an audition in San Diego. It was held on a sunny Saturday afternoon in February at Ballet Society on Washington Street in Hillcrest, and thirty-five young dancers came.

A few days before the audition the director of Ballet Society, Jackie Hepner, had no idea how many would come. “There are probably a hundred young dancers in San Diego who could — should — be here,” she said. “So far I’ve received six phone calls asking about the audition.” By an unfortunate coincidence, the audition for SAB was scheduled for the same time when Edward Villella, former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet and presently on the board of directors of SAB, was giving an advanced master class at Stage Seven in downtown San Diego. Estelle Mahy, director of Stage Seven, told me on the telephone. “It is not a coincidence.” She referred to a master class that had been taught at Ballet Society by Patricia Wilde, another former City Ballet dancer who is currently ballet mistress at American Ballet Theatre, the week before the audition. “That was advertised as an audition but the dancers who went to audition were charged ten dollars and given a class.” Mahy implied that the “audition” with Susan Hendl would be a class and not a real audition.

None of this background bickering is in evidence as the first group of girls leave the crowded waiting room and walk into the large, empty studio at Ballet Society. The room is washed with sunlight that comes in through a bank of five plate-glass windows. The light reflects off the white walls and ceiling, making the hardwood floor look soft and warm. There’s a piano, an oscillating wave of small potted ivy plants along one wall, a double railing — the ballet barre — that runs under the ivy and around a comer along the next wall, a narrow wooden bench against the wall opposite the plants, and a wall of mirror behind the bench. In their turquoise and aquamarine and magenta leotards, their pink tights and soft, pink ballet shoes, the girls look like exotic flowers who could be blown over in a breeze.

As they line up along the barre their steps are light and the sounds of their voices, if they speak, are inaudible, but the room is filled with their energy and tension. They seem oblivious to the eager eyes and noses appearing around the sheets of paper that have been put up to cover the window into the adjacent waiting room, and to the heads peering in through the plate-glass windows. They don’t hear the streams of cars driving past on Washington Street, or see the RVs parked at the curb and the tall red letters that spell Food Basket in a parking lot across the street — distant and incongruous signs of the world that is outside the world of ballet.

Pinned to their chests are squares of paper with handwritten numbers from one to eleven. Susan Hendl, a pale brunette who looks both fragile and sturdy in a black leotard and diaphanous black dance skirt, pink tights and maroon leg warmers, and battered pink toe shoes, introduces herself and asks them to relax, to warm themselves up. As the girls stretch, bend, and practice their extensions, she reads the cards detailing their height, weight, and training. Meanwhile, Mary Porter, a tall, blond woman who is director of development for the school and who acts as assistant during the audition, leaves the room saying with exasperation, “No one is supposed to be watching the audition. Usually they’re held in a totally closed studio. But” — waving at the plate glass — “this is California.” The sharp tap-tap of her high-heeled shoes reverberates as she walks across the floor. A few minutes later he heads of anxious parents and waiting lancers disappear from view and Porter returns. Then Hendl approaches the girls at he barre and tells them she will be looking it the feet and extensions of each one. She begins with number one, sixteen-year-old Allison Hinton.

Allison is “almost five feet three and three-quarters inches” tall and weighs ninety-eight pounds. Her long blond hair is braided and coiled in a tight bun for dancing and tied with a pink ribbon. She has a baby face and a small, high voice but a poised, confident manner and well-developed thighs. When she smiles her big, sunny smile or laughs, she looks like the kid next door. She has been dancing since she was seven. “I loved it from the beginning,” she says of ballet. “My mother took me to ballet class the way lots of mothers do. I used to look at toe shoes and think about being a dancer. It really is my whole life right now. If I can’t be a dancer it will be hard to think what else to do. Sometimes I get tired. I worry about having a broken leg. I have no social life. If I knew I was going to make it, it would be much easier. But I love to perform, and when I’m dancing it all seems worth it.” Standing with her feet in first position, back to the barre, Allison tendus to the side, right and left, demonstrating the shape and flexibility of her feet in arched position. Then she raises first one leg and then the other, allowing Susan Hendl to lift them to front and side and then, while Allison faces the barre, to the back, testing the amount of extension from the hip socket and the elevation that each leg is capable of. Soundlessly, Hendl whispers comments about Allison’s feet and extensions to Mary Porter, who records those observations. Then it is on to number two, fourteen-year-old Dana Stackpole.

Dana is five-foot-three, weighs ninety pounds, and wears braces on her teeth. She has dark hair and strong dark eyebrows, a narrow, long-limbed body, and a delicate exoticism that may come from her Austrian and Chinese grandmother, who toured in China as a prima ballerina. “When I was little,” says tiny Dana, “my mom used to teach me and my sister ballet steps in our family room every day. I started classes when I was in third grade, when I was nine. I always wanted to go on toe, but I never thought about ballet seriously. I just went to class and had fun. When we moved to San Diego about two and a half years ago and I started classes at Ballet Society, because it’s more professional here, I really thought about being a dancer. My family has always supported me but it was my decision. I’d only been here a few months when I went to the San Francisco Ballet [summer] school and last year I went to Houston. New York isn’t the only place but, yes, I would most like to go to SAB and if I’m accepted I’ll go.” After the individual tendus and extensions, the audition proceeds en masse, beginning with exercises at the barre just as a class would. The body has to be warmed up slowly and thoroughly before it can jump and leap or pirouette without damage. These exercises are explained more quickly than they would be in a class, however, with Hendl demonstrating them even more quickly, in shorthand fashion. This is part of the audition process: testing how fast and how well a dancer can absorb information and respond to it. Two demi-plies in first position, grand plie, change to second position, repeat everything in second, then fourth position, repeat everything, and fifth position repeat everything. The pianist plays Chopin and the girls bend their knees, deep bend, change their feet, open their arms. Demi-plie, grand plie, releve, tendu battement jete, rond de jambe, passe attitude to the back, frappe, adagio developpe, soussus, developpe arabesque, ecarte. There are a few corrections: “The knees should be higher than the foot in attitude.” The grands battements are a sea of legs lifting and lowering at different times, in different directions. Then everyone is summoned into the center, to do combinations unsupported by the barre. Tendu croise, efface, pas de bourree, single pirouette, arabesque (“In arabesque your hand should be in front of your nose”), promenade, waltz, balance, pique, plie, double pirouette, echappe (“Stretch your feet each time”). Again the combinations are given quickly, faster than I can write them down. Divided into two groups, the girls do each variation to one side and then the other, for classical ballet is always symmetrical, right and left, front and back.

Sometimes the girls do everything together and it looks very nice, though some legs are higher than others, and some ankles tremble while others are firm. But sometimes there is difficulty remembering or executing the steps in time (“You have to finish in time to the music — unless you’re lucky enough to have a conductor who will wait for you, which is rare in America. . . . You have to anticipate”). A few are chronically ahead or behind the music. Those who are lost, at a standstill, have expressions that vary from the blank to the concentrated, from embarrassed grins to mild dismay. The combination that proves to be the great leveler throughout the audition involves a jete, brise, assemble, brise back, and entrechat. Scarcely anyone is able to do it correctly and during those moments the dance floor resembles a battlefield, littered with helpless, stranded bodies.

Once again everyone lines up in their original places at the barre. Hendl and Porter sit on the bench while their eyes travel along the line, Hendl whispering and Porter writing. Finally Susan Hendl, who as a New York City Ballet dancer represents what most of these girls long to be, says simply, “Thank you, that’s all. You will be notified by mail at the end of March or beginning of April. Thank you for being patient.” The girls clap as they file out of the room, just as they would at the end of a class. Their audition, after half an hour, is over. If they fail this time, and most, perhaps all, of them will, they can try again next year.

In a few minutes the second group, numbers twelve through twenty-three, will come in for their audition. The girls in the first group go into the narrow dressing room, leaving behind the solemn poise they brought into the audition. They discuss their experience (“It was so fast." “The combinations were so long.” “We didn’t get to dance"), reassure and commiserate (“1 know you’ll be chosen.” “You looked fine, I could tell she liked you”), or just sit there subdued or dazed, perhaps tearful. Allison tells me, “They took one look at me and didn’t look again. You can tell, I’m not what they’re looking for.” And to Dana, “They corrected you, I know they’re going to take you.” Dana demurs, but they both agree that a third girl certainly will be chosen. I remember an observation Allison made earlier. “Last year ABT [American Ballet Theatre] took all blue-eyed blonds. After the audition we peeked and saw all these white-blonds.” Both Allison and Dana stopped attending high school at the beginning of the school year last fall and are continuing their education with a tutor. This enables them to take ballet class with Jackie Hepner and other teachers at Ballet Society six to eight hours a day, six or seven days a week. When she was a child, Hepner attended the School of American Ballet for several summers, and as a dancer she performed with Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo; the New York City Ballet and its precursor, Ballet Society (“That’s why I named my studio Ballet Society. I’m hoping some of the luck will rub off”); and the Washington Ballet. As a teacher, she says, “It’s difficult to predict whether someone will be selected. I’ve seen dancers selected at auditions who I wouldn’t have given a second look to. And I’ve seen dancers 1 thought were exceptional not be selected. It depends on what they’re looking for. I have suggested to promising twelve-year-olds at the lower levels that they audition because it is a necessary part of their education. I always tell them beforehand not to go with the idea that if they are rejected that means they should give up the hope of a career. They should look at what the others, the ones who were selected, did that they did not, and see what they need to work on. An audition is an opportunity,” she adds, “whether they are aspiring to a professional career or not.”

A mob scene. Cattle-call auditions.

That’s how some dancers refer to the large, impersonal auditions, the ones where people are asked to leave immediately, just on the basis of how they look. The elimination process continues throughout the audition. Numbers are called out: thank you very much, please leave; other numbers are called out: thank you very much, please stay. You wait without breathing to know if having your number called is bad or good. “Auditions can be ego-shattering,” according to Lynda Yourth, a former New York City Ballet dancer who started the Academy of Dance Arts on Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest a few years ago. “One of my students auditioned for the San Francisco Ballet summer program when she was thirteen. I thought she would be accepted. She wasn’t and she was crushed for about six months. She wanted to give it up. I told her she had to learn, that rejection is part of it, and that you never know if you’ll make it or not, whether you’ll be what they are looking for.” Yourth attended the School of American Ballet from the age of twelve, completing her high school education in between ballet classes, at the Professional Children’s School in New York City. She was apprenticed to the company and became a soloist, but her performing career was cut short — twice. “Balanchine’s style is very angular, neoclassical. It’s not the kind of dancing I feel most suited for. 1 would look at tapes of me dancing and I would say, ‘I look terrible,’ and he would agree. I would look at other dancers in those roles and I could see they looked good, they looked better than me. Yet he kept putting me in those roles and I didn’t get much chance to dance the roles I wanted. After four years I felt I wasn’t progressing in the direction I wanted to, and I quit the company. At that time [American] Ballet Theatre was nothing, New York City Ballet was it and so I didn’t think of joining any other company. Two years later I decided I wanted to go back and I took classes again. When I was ready, I called Balanchine and at first he said he wouldn’t take me back but later he asked me to go to his second company [the Ballet du Grand Theatre de Geneve in Switzerland]. That was unheard of, to take back a dancer who had quit. So I went, starting in the corps again, while Pat Neary, who had been at my level in the company originally but who had been a good girl, went as a ballerina. Four years later Balanchine offered me a position as a principal dancer with the company in New York, which was doubly unheard of, so I went even though I loved it in Geneva and didn’t miss New York at all. I still didn’t get the roles I wanted, hardly got any roles at all in fact, and after another four years I quit again.” Her experience colors her attitude about steering her students toward that goal. “I would tell them that SAB and City Ballet are unique; they’re the top for a certain kind of dancer. Tall girls are better for the angular movements of Balanchine’s choreography, and there really aren’t any good roles for short girls, although for sheer speed, small is good. Male dancers do get to dance more in City Ballet than in Ballet Theatre, because of the repertory. But unless you have what it takes to be a Balanchine dancer, I don’t think going to the school is necessarily a good thing.”

A Balanchine dancer. Nearly everyone concurs in their assessment of what a Balanchine dancer is, and that SAB is looking for that dancer, whose existence George Balanchine himself denies. Balanchine dancers have been called pinheads, for the obvious reason, and bees, for their big thighs, nipped-in waists, and pinheads. Tall, lean, long-legged, and loose-limbed, with a small, neat head, long neck, no hips. Young enough to be molded in the Balanchine style and not to have learned bad or unsuitable habits. Willing and able to make dance be their entire life, preferably not marry, and best not have children.

Ask Susan Hendl what she is looking for in an audition and she will say: talent — not a stereotype. “I’m looking for a potential, for a technique, a level of vocabulary in terms of dance, for someone who’s musical, for someone who’s attractive, for someone who has a nice body, a facility . . . everything, absolutely everything.” She and the others who conduct auditions for SAB use a numerical system of evaluation, rating from one to ten. Below seven, one is not even considered. “There’s never been a ten and I at least have never given a nine. So far this year, out of 800, I’ve given two eights.” She has definitely selected twenty-five students, and perhaps more: the final decisions are made when all the evaluations are in, by the faculty and administration of the school. “I have the places where we find the most talent,” she says, “California, Texas, North Carolina School of the Arts.”

“The Sun Belt,” Mary Porter adds, “produces the very best dancers. They’ve done everything outside until they’re eight and then they come inside for ballet. There are dancers from all over the world in the company, but a lot of them come from California, Texas, and Florida.”

An unusually large number of the 320 summer students at SAB last year were invited to stay and receive scholarships for the winter term: eleven. Others stayed on a trial basis, as paying students; and others are auditioning again for another summer. Of the 450 full-time students, thirty are employed each year “when they finish — we never say graduate,” says Porter. They join such companies as American Ballet Theatre, the Joffrey, Pennsylvania, Houston. An average of seven to ten are taken into the New York City Ballet.

Obviously, as Porter points out, in the summer session “the competition is fierce. To be kept, or to be noticed ... it is much more tense than in the winter.” She believes the competition is a primary asset of the school. “Most of these students have been big fish in a small pond and they come here and see the best. It’s important at that age to realize that you have talent and to see how professional it is. The school is absolutely professional from the lowest levels. It may give you the impetus to go home and work so much harder. If so, we see that the next summer and you may be invited to stay after that. Or it can kill you and you may never want to come back.”

Cecilie Stuart at fifteen was one of five young dancers from San Diego who went to the SAB summer session in 1979. The summer before she had been at the San Francisco Ballet school. Today she remembers how surprised she was to be accepted by SAB, how excited when she went to New York, and that she was “fairly depressed” when she came home — and she hasn’t gone back. She’s decided that she’s “not that dedicated” and, while she still intends to be a dancer, no longer is interested in ballet only. She found the competition at SAB hard to take. “It’s incredible,” she says. “The best dancers from the best schools from all over are there. It was a great experience because ballet was a whole way of life there; you lived the whole thing every day. But only the top few dancers were singled out in class, everyone else was just there and it felt impersonal. I took classes outside and had more individual attention. I felt I had learned more in San Francisco. 1 don’t regret going but I’m not the New York City Ballet type of dancer. I’m not tall enough and not emaciated enough.” Cecilie is five-foot-two and weighs ninety-six to ninety-eight pounds. She admits that “weight becomes an obsession, it’s almost the most important thing in my life because it makes such a difference. I was more conscious of that in New York, which was hard, with all that food around.”

Weight is a constant concern of dancers, for the stage adds eight to ten pounds or more to the appearance of any body; and anorexia, the pathological loss of appetite that is increasingly common among pubescent girls, is not unknown among ballet dancers. Dieting is “a lifelong habit,” according to Lynda Yourth, who ignores the Reuben sandwiches and BLTs on a menu and orders cottage cheese and tomatoes. Allison Hinton says, “I sometimes go through phases where I look at myself and think I’m really fat and then I go on a diet. I used to weigh 104 and then I went through one of those phases and went down to ninety-one and looked really sick. I know it’s in your mind. You see yourself every day, you analyze every part, and you think you’re really fat.” And Jackie Hepner says, “When some students don’t come to class, I know it’s because they’ve looked in the mirror and think they’re so fat, they can’t stand to see themselves or be seen.” Chronic malnourishment in combination with the immense energy and endurance that are required in ballet affects the hormonal processes of some young dancers and arrests their sexual development: they don’t menstruate, their breasts and hips don’t develop. In a way those are the fortunate ones, for breasts and hips are unfashionable in American ballet companies; other promising dancers become victims of their genes, growing up too big and too bulky to continue dancing.

Whether thin or superthin, a great dancer must be able to express sexuality, from the subliminal to the suggestive, the romantic to the explicit. New York City Ballet dancers tend to the cool, but there are always exceptions. Jillana was one. She auditioned for the SAB summer course when she was eleven, and at fifteen and a half became the youngest principal dancer the company, then still Ballet Society, ever had. Years after she left the company, Arlene Croce, dance reviewer for The New Yorker, called Jillana the greatest sexpot the company ever had — and in the same sentence referred to her elegant classical style. Jillana danced with the New York City Ballet for twenty years, and with American Ballet Theatre and San Diego Ballet after that. Now she lives in San Diego and teaches dance at UC Irvine, from where she brought two of her male dance students to the SAB audition. For about ten years, in the Sixties, she conducted auditions for SAB, some of them in San Diego. “I had lived in New Jersey and New York,” she said while trying to look past the curtain into the audition, “so naturally I volunteered to come out to the West Coast. I loved coming out to the sunshine. We did it differently in those days. I went to four or five different ballet schools all in San Diego.” In an echo of Jackie Hepner she says, “Students should take every chance to audition. It’s easier to learn the lesson of rejection when you’re young.”

Easier or not, it’s almost imperative, for the career expectancy of a professional dancer is clearly limited, both at the beginning and at the end. While physiologically a girl may start to train as late as in her teens, and often boys are in their middle or late teens when they begin, it’s a better idea to start at eight or nine, simply because it takes so long to develop the technique, the stamina, and the style. On the other hand, it is generally foolhardy and dangerous for girls to go on pointe before they are about ten, and after a few years of training and strengthening the feet. And turnout, the ability to turn the legs outward from the hip sockets that is vital in ballet, is natural and can only be trained to a certain extent, although it is often pushed from an early age. SAB’s winter term admits eight-year-olds, but the summer program, for practical considerations, starts at twelve. “We look at eleven-year-olds,” Hendl explains, “but usually they don’t come because the parents say they’re too young.” There is no official upper age limit for admission to SAB and, remarks Hendl, “We’ve had twenty-five-year-olds who want to come to the school. That’s ridiculous. I assume the limit is about seventeen, unless you find someone who’s nineteen and absolutely incredible, especially a boy because lots of boys don’t have much training before then.”

Jackie Hepner is rueful when she mentions a boy she taught who was exceptional but already twenty-one, a student at Grossmont College, when he began his ballet training. After nine months he auditioned for SAB’s summer program, telling them he was seventeen. He was accepted and at the end of the summer was asked again how old he was. He looked fourteen and told the school once again that he was seventeen but, Hepner thinks, that was still too old for them. He wasn’t asked to stay. After another year in San Diego, he auditioned and was accepted by ABT, Harkness, and Joffrey, and is at ABT now, where they think he is younger than he really is.

In ballet, male dancers are always boys, not men, just as female dancers remain girls forever. Larry Kramer is a San Diego dancer who was eighteen when he auditioned for SAB in San Francisco. He is certain when he says, “I was not accepted because my ballet teacher at the time, in San Jose, was somebody that they don’t like. I saw them take one look at the name of the teacher and throw the card in the trash.” He emphasizes that SAB is looking for raw material, not a finished, trained dancer, but someone who will go through the school and become their kind of dancer. Kramer is twenty-five now, and has danced with the Boston Ballet, the Maryland Ballet, and the Eglevsky Ballet in New York, where he lived for two years.

Kramer’s ultimate goal is to choreograph, but first, he says, he wants to dance. He is back in San Diego, where he grew up and where he started his ballet training, and performing with the California Ballet. He may miss the daily classes with excellent teachers in New York, many of them with dancers from City Ballet and Ballet Theatre. “You never go beyond being a student in dance,” he explains. But “being a dancer in New York is twenty-four hours a day. There are many frustrations because there are so many dancers and so much competition. In some companies dance has become more of a product than an art form, more Pepsi-Cola than ballet.” Still, he adds, referring to the hazards and hassles of living in New York City, “If it were anywhere else but New York, I would probably still be there.” “Physicality catches up with you and you have to be realistic,” says Edward Villella in between his classes at Stage Seven the day after the SAB audition. He is speaking of the end of a dance career, any career. His own career was spectacular, though plagued by injury: he was the best-known male dancer in America at a time when dance was not yet popular; in 1969 he was featured in Life magazine with this headline: “Is this man the country’s best athlete?” Now forty-five and only very occasionally dancing a mostly acting role such as Pulcinella, he is the official spokesman for the New York City Ballet and one of ballet’s most articulate members. He was unaware that Susan Hendl had been in San Diego for the SAB audition, and when I tell him, he is bemused. “I'll tell you how interesting this is: Susie and I used to live together, about five or six years.” Of the selection process of auditions, he says, “I hate it. It’s awful.” He elaborates, “All you’re trying to be is realistic. You hope that your eye is trained enough that you can pick out an ability and a talent, but it’s more than that. If you audition for the School of American Ballet there’s a particular series of things that one is looking for: length of line, muscle tone, musicality, sensitivity, intelligence, prior training, taste — all of these things go into it. You look for certain lines and a quality of movement, an attack. It’s really movement in relation to everything else.”

Of SAB he says, “There are other schools who will take anybody, and there aren’t many schools as finely selective as SAB. We don’t wish to encourage someone unless the potential and the possibilities are there.” He pauses and summarizes, ‘‘You should train for what you want to dance — and be prepared to dance it all.”

And of dance: ‘‘Dancers are far better these days, twenty times better than when I started. Every ten years there seems to be another level, the standard raises and that is the beginning for the next generation of dancers. That’s what’s exciting about American dance.” In 1966, when Villella was appointed to the President’s National Council on the Arts, there were about eighty professional dance companies in the U.S.; today there are more than 300. About the futurev he says, ‘‘I foresee a weeding out. The key word of the charter of the National Endowment for the Arts was quality, but right away a lot of political strings got attached. We began to fund a lot of things for regional, political reasons, not for quality in the art form. In the early days most of the dance companies came out of New York, so the government said, ‘This is a governmental, federally funded program, how can we deny Utah, Iowa, Illinois, monies?’ I said, ‘They are denying themselves because they’re not good enough.’ You can’t fund welfare out of an arts program. We have social and welfare programs for that. The money shouldn’t be taken away from quality organizations just because it’s a democratic idea.”

If dance were democratic, perhaps anyone could become a dancer. In San Diego there are more than a hundred schools that teach ballet to thousands of dance students. Not all of these students want to become dancers, but only a small fraction of those who do will actually make it. Ultimately, for most of them, that means leaving San Diego. Lynn Hodgkinson, an Englishwoman who teaches the Royal Academy of Dancing syllabus and who is a former director of the San Diego Ballet school, says, ‘‘It’s frustrating in San Diego. If you have talented pupils, what do you do with them? They’ve got to be sent away. The parents don’t like to hear that. But the environment here is so wrong, they’re not in contact with other people who are doing what they’re doing, who feel about dance the way they do. Their peers here don’t understand why they can’t go to the slumber party on Friday night or why they don’t play softball and soccer. A child has to be willing to give up almost everything else. And even then you can’t be sure. All you can do is offer therii hope. You just feel it’s a good possibility and if it’s not taken advantage of, if they stay here, there’s no hope.”

Lynda Yourth describes San Diego in dance terms as “very backward,” adding that “it’s because there’s no paying company here, so good dancers don’t stay. It’s also the mentality. I hear my students say, ‘I’d rather go to the beach or go sailing. . . .’And the mothers want to know if there are recitals, that’s their first question. When I see students come in from other schools with ill-fitting shoes and I tell the mothers, even offer to go with them to buy properly fitting shoes, they get upset.” Jackie Hepner speaks disparagingly of the audience for ballet in San Diego: “We brought [Natalia] Makarova here and couldn’t fill the Civic Theatre. With Alicia Alonso it was the same.” Several years ago American Ballet Theatre stopped coming here after their annual Los Angeles tour because they never sold enough tickets in San Diego.

Furthermore, talk to any ballet teacher in San Diego and you’ll eventually hear something like this: “I could name names . . . other ballet schools in this town . . . irresponsible . . . unqualified . . . there’s nothing you can do about it.” It’s not only in San Diego that young dancers may be afraid of letting one teacher know that they also take classes from another teacher, but it just might be worse here because of the overall insecurity of the local dance scene. Lynda Yourth is probably right when she says of some of the other dance schools, “When they get notices like Jackie’s for the audition, most schools won’t even put them up because of the rivalry and jealousy.”

It’s not surprising that those in the world of dance should have some of the bitter feelings of competition in a measure at least the equal to that of their esprit de corps. No one wants to be in the corps, after all; everyone wants to be a demi-soloist, a soloist, a principal dancer. “Every dancer has an ego problem,” says Lynda Yourth. “When you’re sixteen it’s hard to make the right choices and react well to the competition and the pressures.” But that’s when — if you’re lucky — you have to start making hard choices for ballet, or else feel that it’s beginning to pass you by.

Before the audition, I said to Susan Hendl, “I wish I were here to audition, myself’ and she said to me, with a short laugh, “Oh, no you don’t. I know I don’t." At the audition I saw young dancers, never mind how good or bad their technique, who just didn’t have ballet bodies; and I saw bodies, not yet fully formed, who might turn out all right, who might have a chance. Their ages ranged from twelve to twenty-two, although, according to Jackie Hepner, one she remembers teaching twenty years ago is “pushing thirty.’’ I also thought I saw a dancer, the kind you can’t take your eyes off even if you try to look at someone else, one with the right line, the right technique, everything. 1 wondered if Susan Hendl saw that dancer, too.

At the very end of March, the letters were mailed and received. Dana Stack-pole’s letter began, “We are pleased to announce that you’ve been accepted. . . .’’ She has been accepted also by San Francisco, Boston,.and Pennsylvania, and rejected by American Ballet Theatre for a fall apprentice program for which they took only ten nationwide. Now, two weeks later, she says, “I was just thrilled to be accepted by the School of American Ballet. I’m honored. I never even thought of making it. I auditioned two years in a row and wasn’t accepted and was beginning to think they just wouldn’t want me. I’m almost positive that’s where I’m going, although I haven’t auditioned for Houston yet. I don’t even know if I’ll be accepted by Houston again this year, but when I was there last summer they told me, and a few others, that they hoped I would come back each summer until I finished high school and then join the company, so that’s almost a guarantee. I thought maybe I could go to two summer programs but the times aren’t right. It’s a choice, but ever since I came here all I hear is New York . . . you have to try it . . . everyone wants to try that. Competition is good for me, that’s what I want, it makes you work harder and I improve more when there’s competition. I’ve been really lucky to go away every summer. I don’t want to think about anything that might not happen ’cause I’m sure there are a lot of girls who are much more talented than I am, but if I go to SAB and if I’m asked to stay, it depends on how I like it — I may not like it — and it depends on what my parents say. I’d want to finish school first and be able to drive. I’ll graduate in December. I turned fifteen just after the audition. I’m getting old now.’’

Another girl at the audition, the one that Dana and that Allison Hinton thought would be accepted, was Toria Nicole Hiscock. Blond, with wide-set blue eyes and a tawny complexion, Toria is twelve — almost thirteen — years old, four-foot-ten, eighty pounds. She started dancing when she was five, and “eventually” — when she was six or seven — “got really interested.” The SAB audition this year was her very first major audition; previously she had auditioned for a few local schools and for roles in productions such as the Nutcracker. Looking back on the audition, she says, “I didn’t think I’d done too well, because she said, ‘Could you do this again for me,’ and corrected me. I didn’t know that wasn’t that bad, so I was sort of depressed.” She was accepted, and now she is looking ahead, to New York. ‘‘I’ve thought what if [I’m asked to stay]. . .I’d be there in a flash, I’d stay there somehow. I really want to be a professional dancer. Sometimes I think, Do I really want to do it? I’ve thought about the competition and it’s sort of scary. You just feel you want to withdraw from it all, but then you figure, if you want to do something you have to go out there and prove that you can. This is the one thing I’m really devoted to. School and here, school and here, that’s all I do.” There were only four boys at the SAB audition. Phuong Bui, a Vietnamese who is one of the two male dancers who came with Jiilana from UC Irvine, was the only one accepted. Phuong has the hairstyle, the high, wide cheekbones, and the physique of Rudolf Nureyev. He is five-foot-seven and three-quarters inches tall, weighs 135 pounds, and is twenty-one years old. Twenty-one years old? “I was advised to lie about my age,” he tells me. “But I couldn’t get myself to do that.” He has been in the United States about five years, and started dancing for recreation at Irvine two and a half years ago as a physics major. Now a dance major, he says, “I want to train myself, to improve my technique. I’m not really interested in performing yet. I was more interested in modem ballet and modem dance, but I think I’ll try ballet since I have this chance. I’ve been accepted also by Boston, but not by Pennsylvania. I’m going to SAB and if they ask me to stay in the fall, I will.” Allison Hinton’s letter, and all of the others, said, “We are sorry. . . .” ‘‘I was very disappointed,” she reflects, “but I think I knew that I didn’t make it. Once they see what your body looks like, if it’s not right, they won’t even see if you can dance. It was sort of a kick when Dana and Toria were accepted. We thought this year that Dana would make it because she does have the perfect body and she does have a lot of talent. But then when Toria made it . . . She’s younger than us — but she’s got the body. She never stopped mentioning it, and that got on my nerves. Dana was really great about it. We heard about it once from her, when she found out, but she keeps it really quiet, and that makes you feel good, because it is hard to take. You go home and think. It’s not fair. It gets to you. A lot of people treat her differently than me because she’s got the body and I don’t. It’s like she’s a better person. Right now I’m on a diet again; I’ve already lost six or seven pounds. My legs are starting to slim up, they’re going to get longer and thinner. I never can get rid of my hips — they’re just there. After the SAB audition, I sprained my back and I wasn’t supposed to dance for two weeks but I had to go to another audition, for the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle . . . and I made it! I was ready to give up. After all, if I can’t do this, 1 want to be best at something else. I’m really glad to be going to Seattle. If I’m invited to stay in the fall, it will be tough, at sixteen, to have to leave my parents, but I think I would stay. I’ve got to do it — if it’s my chance, I have to do it.”

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George Balanchine, the essence of the New York City Ballet, used to conduct the auditions in New York himself. - Image by David Covey
George Balanchine, the essence of the New York City Ballet, used to conduct the auditions in New York himself.

Waiting: sitting, standing, stretching, eating an orange, talking quietly or with animation, trying not to be nervous. At least some of them had not been able to sleep the night before. It’s a familiar locker-room scene but the teen-agers in it are not athletes, though they train for strength, endurance, and speed; nor are they waiting to compete in a game. They are potential, hopeful ballet dancers at an audition where they’ll be competing against other young dancers they won’t even see. Their chance for success will be one in a hundred.

Susan Hendl, Mary Porter. Hendl has conducted the bulk of the regional auditions for the past two years.

The audition is for the five-week summer session of the School of American Ballet (SAB), the official dance academy of one of the finest ballet companies in the United States — many say the finest — and in the world: the New York City Ballet. Of the 110 dancers currently in the company, ninety-eight were trained in the School of American Ballet.

Allison Hinton: "If I can’t be a dancer it will be hard to think what else to do."

Because training in the school is so clearly a prerequisite for entry into the company, and because both the school and the company are so highly selective, admission into the school is one of several dreams-of-a-lifetime for many aspiring ballet dancers. The school has a winter session that corresponds to the academic year, auditions for which are held only in New York.

Dana Stackpole: "I went to the San Francisco Ballet summer school and last year I went to Houston."

Auditions for the summer session are held in New York three times a week and once each in twenty-two other cities, from Winston-Salem to Seattle, during February and March; and there are plans to begin holding auditions in Europe next year. While acceptance to the summer session does not imply admission to the winter session, it is virtually the only hope for a young dancer who lives outside New York to come to the attention of the company. It is, in fact, something like an extended audition, for the best summer students are invited to stay on.

Toria Hiscock: "This is the one thing I’m really devoted to."

George Balanchine, seventy-seven-year-old chairman of the faculty of the school, ballet master and choreographer of the company, and the man who is universally acknowledged as the essence of the New York City Ballet, used to conduct the auditions in New York himself, and some of those outside New York.

Phuong Bui (far left) has the hairstyle, the high, wide cheekbones, and the physique of Rudolf Nureyev.

In recent years he has relied on others — other ballet masters in the company, teachers at the school, and dancers — to “be his eyes" and find the future dancers among the growing ranks of would-be dancers.

Before the audition, I said to Susan Hendl, “I wish I were here to audition, myself’ and she said to me, with a short laugh, “Oh, no you don’t. I know I don’t."

Susan Hendl, a City Ballet dancer who is recovering from knee surgery, has conducted the bulk of the regional auditions for the past two years. Last year she saw 1300 of the 3500 young dancers who auditioned for the 320 places in the summer program. This year, during a three-week span in which she will hold thirteen regional auditions, she will see about 1500 potential dancers. Los Angeles in the recent past has been the nearest audition site for dance students from San Diego, but after 250 students from all over Southern California showed up in a drenching rain last year and it took nine hours to complete the audition, the school decided to schedule an audition in San Diego. It was held on a sunny Saturday afternoon in February at Ballet Society on Washington Street in Hillcrest, and thirty-five young dancers came.

A few days before the audition the director of Ballet Society, Jackie Hepner, had no idea how many would come. “There are probably a hundred young dancers in San Diego who could — should — be here,” she said. “So far I’ve received six phone calls asking about the audition.” By an unfortunate coincidence, the audition for SAB was scheduled for the same time when Edward Villella, former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet and presently on the board of directors of SAB, was giving an advanced master class at Stage Seven in downtown San Diego. Estelle Mahy, director of Stage Seven, told me on the telephone. “It is not a coincidence.” She referred to a master class that had been taught at Ballet Society by Patricia Wilde, another former City Ballet dancer who is currently ballet mistress at American Ballet Theatre, the week before the audition. “That was advertised as an audition but the dancers who went to audition were charged ten dollars and given a class.” Mahy implied that the “audition” with Susan Hendl would be a class and not a real audition.

None of this background bickering is in evidence as the first group of girls leave the crowded waiting room and walk into the large, empty studio at Ballet Society. The room is washed with sunlight that comes in through a bank of five plate-glass windows. The light reflects off the white walls and ceiling, making the hardwood floor look soft and warm. There’s a piano, an oscillating wave of small potted ivy plants along one wall, a double railing — the ballet barre — that runs under the ivy and around a comer along the next wall, a narrow wooden bench against the wall opposite the plants, and a wall of mirror behind the bench. In their turquoise and aquamarine and magenta leotards, their pink tights and soft, pink ballet shoes, the girls look like exotic flowers who could be blown over in a breeze.

As they line up along the barre their steps are light and the sounds of their voices, if they speak, are inaudible, but the room is filled with their energy and tension. They seem oblivious to the eager eyes and noses appearing around the sheets of paper that have been put up to cover the window into the adjacent waiting room, and to the heads peering in through the plate-glass windows. They don’t hear the streams of cars driving past on Washington Street, or see the RVs parked at the curb and the tall red letters that spell Food Basket in a parking lot across the street — distant and incongruous signs of the world that is outside the world of ballet.

Pinned to their chests are squares of paper with handwritten numbers from one to eleven. Susan Hendl, a pale brunette who looks both fragile and sturdy in a black leotard and diaphanous black dance skirt, pink tights and maroon leg warmers, and battered pink toe shoes, introduces herself and asks them to relax, to warm themselves up. As the girls stretch, bend, and practice their extensions, she reads the cards detailing their height, weight, and training. Meanwhile, Mary Porter, a tall, blond woman who is director of development for the school and who acts as assistant during the audition, leaves the room saying with exasperation, “No one is supposed to be watching the audition. Usually they’re held in a totally closed studio. But” — waving at the plate glass — “this is California.” The sharp tap-tap of her high-heeled shoes reverberates as she walks across the floor. A few minutes later he heads of anxious parents and waiting lancers disappear from view and Porter returns. Then Hendl approaches the girls at he barre and tells them she will be looking it the feet and extensions of each one. She begins with number one, sixteen-year-old Allison Hinton.

Allison is “almost five feet three and three-quarters inches” tall and weighs ninety-eight pounds. Her long blond hair is braided and coiled in a tight bun for dancing and tied with a pink ribbon. She has a baby face and a small, high voice but a poised, confident manner and well-developed thighs. When she smiles her big, sunny smile or laughs, she looks like the kid next door. She has been dancing since she was seven. “I loved it from the beginning,” she says of ballet. “My mother took me to ballet class the way lots of mothers do. I used to look at toe shoes and think about being a dancer. It really is my whole life right now. If I can’t be a dancer it will be hard to think what else to do. Sometimes I get tired. I worry about having a broken leg. I have no social life. If I knew I was going to make it, it would be much easier. But I love to perform, and when I’m dancing it all seems worth it.” Standing with her feet in first position, back to the barre, Allison tendus to the side, right and left, demonstrating the shape and flexibility of her feet in arched position. Then she raises first one leg and then the other, allowing Susan Hendl to lift them to front and side and then, while Allison faces the barre, to the back, testing the amount of extension from the hip socket and the elevation that each leg is capable of. Soundlessly, Hendl whispers comments about Allison’s feet and extensions to Mary Porter, who records those observations. Then it is on to number two, fourteen-year-old Dana Stackpole.

Dana is five-foot-three, weighs ninety pounds, and wears braces on her teeth. She has dark hair and strong dark eyebrows, a narrow, long-limbed body, and a delicate exoticism that may come from her Austrian and Chinese grandmother, who toured in China as a prima ballerina. “When I was little,” says tiny Dana, “my mom used to teach me and my sister ballet steps in our family room every day. I started classes when I was in third grade, when I was nine. I always wanted to go on toe, but I never thought about ballet seriously. I just went to class and had fun. When we moved to San Diego about two and a half years ago and I started classes at Ballet Society, because it’s more professional here, I really thought about being a dancer. My family has always supported me but it was my decision. I’d only been here a few months when I went to the San Francisco Ballet [summer] school and last year I went to Houston. New York isn’t the only place but, yes, I would most like to go to SAB and if I’m accepted I’ll go.” After the individual tendus and extensions, the audition proceeds en masse, beginning with exercises at the barre just as a class would. The body has to be warmed up slowly and thoroughly before it can jump and leap or pirouette without damage. These exercises are explained more quickly than they would be in a class, however, with Hendl demonstrating them even more quickly, in shorthand fashion. This is part of the audition process: testing how fast and how well a dancer can absorb information and respond to it. Two demi-plies in first position, grand plie, change to second position, repeat everything in second, then fourth position, repeat everything, and fifth position repeat everything. The pianist plays Chopin and the girls bend their knees, deep bend, change their feet, open their arms. Demi-plie, grand plie, releve, tendu battement jete, rond de jambe, passe attitude to the back, frappe, adagio developpe, soussus, developpe arabesque, ecarte. There are a few corrections: “The knees should be higher than the foot in attitude.” The grands battements are a sea of legs lifting and lowering at different times, in different directions. Then everyone is summoned into the center, to do combinations unsupported by the barre. Tendu croise, efface, pas de bourree, single pirouette, arabesque (“In arabesque your hand should be in front of your nose”), promenade, waltz, balance, pique, plie, double pirouette, echappe (“Stretch your feet each time”). Again the combinations are given quickly, faster than I can write them down. Divided into two groups, the girls do each variation to one side and then the other, for classical ballet is always symmetrical, right and left, front and back.

Sometimes the girls do everything together and it looks very nice, though some legs are higher than others, and some ankles tremble while others are firm. But sometimes there is difficulty remembering or executing the steps in time (“You have to finish in time to the music — unless you’re lucky enough to have a conductor who will wait for you, which is rare in America. . . . You have to anticipate”). A few are chronically ahead or behind the music. Those who are lost, at a standstill, have expressions that vary from the blank to the concentrated, from embarrassed grins to mild dismay. The combination that proves to be the great leveler throughout the audition involves a jete, brise, assemble, brise back, and entrechat. Scarcely anyone is able to do it correctly and during those moments the dance floor resembles a battlefield, littered with helpless, stranded bodies.

Once again everyone lines up in their original places at the barre. Hendl and Porter sit on the bench while their eyes travel along the line, Hendl whispering and Porter writing. Finally Susan Hendl, who as a New York City Ballet dancer represents what most of these girls long to be, says simply, “Thank you, that’s all. You will be notified by mail at the end of March or beginning of April. Thank you for being patient.” The girls clap as they file out of the room, just as they would at the end of a class. Their audition, after half an hour, is over. If they fail this time, and most, perhaps all, of them will, they can try again next year.

In a few minutes the second group, numbers twelve through twenty-three, will come in for their audition. The girls in the first group go into the narrow dressing room, leaving behind the solemn poise they brought into the audition. They discuss their experience (“It was so fast." “The combinations were so long.” “We didn’t get to dance"), reassure and commiserate (“1 know you’ll be chosen.” “You looked fine, I could tell she liked you”), or just sit there subdued or dazed, perhaps tearful. Allison tells me, “They took one look at me and didn’t look again. You can tell, I’m not what they’re looking for.” And to Dana, “They corrected you, I know they’re going to take you.” Dana demurs, but they both agree that a third girl certainly will be chosen. I remember an observation Allison made earlier. “Last year ABT [American Ballet Theatre] took all blue-eyed blonds. After the audition we peeked and saw all these white-blonds.” Both Allison and Dana stopped attending high school at the beginning of the school year last fall and are continuing their education with a tutor. This enables them to take ballet class with Jackie Hepner and other teachers at Ballet Society six to eight hours a day, six or seven days a week. When she was a child, Hepner attended the School of American Ballet for several summers, and as a dancer she performed with Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo; the New York City Ballet and its precursor, Ballet Society (“That’s why I named my studio Ballet Society. I’m hoping some of the luck will rub off”); and the Washington Ballet. As a teacher, she says, “It’s difficult to predict whether someone will be selected. I’ve seen dancers selected at auditions who I wouldn’t have given a second look to. And I’ve seen dancers 1 thought were exceptional not be selected. It depends on what they’re looking for. I have suggested to promising twelve-year-olds at the lower levels that they audition because it is a necessary part of their education. I always tell them beforehand not to go with the idea that if they are rejected that means they should give up the hope of a career. They should look at what the others, the ones who were selected, did that they did not, and see what they need to work on. An audition is an opportunity,” she adds, “whether they are aspiring to a professional career or not.”

A mob scene. Cattle-call auditions.

That’s how some dancers refer to the large, impersonal auditions, the ones where people are asked to leave immediately, just on the basis of how they look. The elimination process continues throughout the audition. Numbers are called out: thank you very much, please leave; other numbers are called out: thank you very much, please stay. You wait without breathing to know if having your number called is bad or good. “Auditions can be ego-shattering,” according to Lynda Yourth, a former New York City Ballet dancer who started the Academy of Dance Arts on Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest a few years ago. “One of my students auditioned for the San Francisco Ballet summer program when she was thirteen. I thought she would be accepted. She wasn’t and she was crushed for about six months. She wanted to give it up. I told her she had to learn, that rejection is part of it, and that you never know if you’ll make it or not, whether you’ll be what they are looking for.” Yourth attended the School of American Ballet from the age of twelve, completing her high school education in between ballet classes, at the Professional Children’s School in New York City. She was apprenticed to the company and became a soloist, but her performing career was cut short — twice. “Balanchine’s style is very angular, neoclassical. It’s not the kind of dancing I feel most suited for. 1 would look at tapes of me dancing and I would say, ‘I look terrible,’ and he would agree. I would look at other dancers in those roles and I could see they looked good, they looked better than me. Yet he kept putting me in those roles and I didn’t get much chance to dance the roles I wanted. After four years I felt I wasn’t progressing in the direction I wanted to, and I quit the company. At that time [American] Ballet Theatre was nothing, New York City Ballet was it and so I didn’t think of joining any other company. Two years later I decided I wanted to go back and I took classes again. When I was ready, I called Balanchine and at first he said he wouldn’t take me back but later he asked me to go to his second company [the Ballet du Grand Theatre de Geneve in Switzerland]. That was unheard of, to take back a dancer who had quit. So I went, starting in the corps again, while Pat Neary, who had been at my level in the company originally but who had been a good girl, went as a ballerina. Four years later Balanchine offered me a position as a principal dancer with the company in New York, which was doubly unheard of, so I went even though I loved it in Geneva and didn’t miss New York at all. I still didn’t get the roles I wanted, hardly got any roles at all in fact, and after another four years I quit again.” Her experience colors her attitude about steering her students toward that goal. “I would tell them that SAB and City Ballet are unique; they’re the top for a certain kind of dancer. Tall girls are better for the angular movements of Balanchine’s choreography, and there really aren’t any good roles for short girls, although for sheer speed, small is good. Male dancers do get to dance more in City Ballet than in Ballet Theatre, because of the repertory. But unless you have what it takes to be a Balanchine dancer, I don’t think going to the school is necessarily a good thing.”

A Balanchine dancer. Nearly everyone concurs in their assessment of what a Balanchine dancer is, and that SAB is looking for that dancer, whose existence George Balanchine himself denies. Balanchine dancers have been called pinheads, for the obvious reason, and bees, for their big thighs, nipped-in waists, and pinheads. Tall, lean, long-legged, and loose-limbed, with a small, neat head, long neck, no hips. Young enough to be molded in the Balanchine style and not to have learned bad or unsuitable habits. Willing and able to make dance be their entire life, preferably not marry, and best not have children.

Ask Susan Hendl what she is looking for in an audition and she will say: talent — not a stereotype. “I’m looking for a potential, for a technique, a level of vocabulary in terms of dance, for someone who’s musical, for someone who’s attractive, for someone who has a nice body, a facility . . . everything, absolutely everything.” She and the others who conduct auditions for SAB use a numerical system of evaluation, rating from one to ten. Below seven, one is not even considered. “There’s never been a ten and I at least have never given a nine. So far this year, out of 800, I’ve given two eights.” She has definitely selected twenty-five students, and perhaps more: the final decisions are made when all the evaluations are in, by the faculty and administration of the school. “I have the places where we find the most talent,” she says, “California, Texas, North Carolina School of the Arts.”

“The Sun Belt,” Mary Porter adds, “produces the very best dancers. They’ve done everything outside until they’re eight and then they come inside for ballet. There are dancers from all over the world in the company, but a lot of them come from California, Texas, and Florida.”

An unusually large number of the 320 summer students at SAB last year were invited to stay and receive scholarships for the winter term: eleven. Others stayed on a trial basis, as paying students; and others are auditioning again for another summer. Of the 450 full-time students, thirty are employed each year “when they finish — we never say graduate,” says Porter. They join such companies as American Ballet Theatre, the Joffrey, Pennsylvania, Houston. An average of seven to ten are taken into the New York City Ballet.

Obviously, as Porter points out, in the summer session “the competition is fierce. To be kept, or to be noticed ... it is much more tense than in the winter.” She believes the competition is a primary asset of the school. “Most of these students have been big fish in a small pond and they come here and see the best. It’s important at that age to realize that you have talent and to see how professional it is. The school is absolutely professional from the lowest levels. It may give you the impetus to go home and work so much harder. If so, we see that the next summer and you may be invited to stay after that. Or it can kill you and you may never want to come back.”

Cecilie Stuart at fifteen was one of five young dancers from San Diego who went to the SAB summer session in 1979. The summer before she had been at the San Francisco Ballet school. Today she remembers how surprised she was to be accepted by SAB, how excited when she went to New York, and that she was “fairly depressed” when she came home — and she hasn’t gone back. She’s decided that she’s “not that dedicated” and, while she still intends to be a dancer, no longer is interested in ballet only. She found the competition at SAB hard to take. “It’s incredible,” she says. “The best dancers from the best schools from all over are there. It was a great experience because ballet was a whole way of life there; you lived the whole thing every day. But only the top few dancers were singled out in class, everyone else was just there and it felt impersonal. I took classes outside and had more individual attention. I felt I had learned more in San Francisco. 1 don’t regret going but I’m not the New York City Ballet type of dancer. I’m not tall enough and not emaciated enough.” Cecilie is five-foot-two and weighs ninety-six to ninety-eight pounds. She admits that “weight becomes an obsession, it’s almost the most important thing in my life because it makes such a difference. I was more conscious of that in New York, which was hard, with all that food around.”

Weight is a constant concern of dancers, for the stage adds eight to ten pounds or more to the appearance of any body; and anorexia, the pathological loss of appetite that is increasingly common among pubescent girls, is not unknown among ballet dancers. Dieting is “a lifelong habit,” according to Lynda Yourth, who ignores the Reuben sandwiches and BLTs on a menu and orders cottage cheese and tomatoes. Allison Hinton says, “I sometimes go through phases where I look at myself and think I’m really fat and then I go on a diet. I used to weigh 104 and then I went through one of those phases and went down to ninety-one and looked really sick. I know it’s in your mind. You see yourself every day, you analyze every part, and you think you’re really fat.” And Jackie Hepner says, “When some students don’t come to class, I know it’s because they’ve looked in the mirror and think they’re so fat, they can’t stand to see themselves or be seen.” Chronic malnourishment in combination with the immense energy and endurance that are required in ballet affects the hormonal processes of some young dancers and arrests their sexual development: they don’t menstruate, their breasts and hips don’t develop. In a way those are the fortunate ones, for breasts and hips are unfashionable in American ballet companies; other promising dancers become victims of their genes, growing up too big and too bulky to continue dancing.

Whether thin or superthin, a great dancer must be able to express sexuality, from the subliminal to the suggestive, the romantic to the explicit. New York City Ballet dancers tend to the cool, but there are always exceptions. Jillana was one. She auditioned for the SAB summer course when she was eleven, and at fifteen and a half became the youngest principal dancer the company, then still Ballet Society, ever had. Years after she left the company, Arlene Croce, dance reviewer for The New Yorker, called Jillana the greatest sexpot the company ever had — and in the same sentence referred to her elegant classical style. Jillana danced with the New York City Ballet for twenty years, and with American Ballet Theatre and San Diego Ballet after that. Now she lives in San Diego and teaches dance at UC Irvine, from where she brought two of her male dance students to the SAB audition. For about ten years, in the Sixties, she conducted auditions for SAB, some of them in San Diego. “I had lived in New Jersey and New York,” she said while trying to look past the curtain into the audition, “so naturally I volunteered to come out to the West Coast. I loved coming out to the sunshine. We did it differently in those days. I went to four or five different ballet schools all in San Diego.” In an echo of Jackie Hepner she says, “Students should take every chance to audition. It’s easier to learn the lesson of rejection when you’re young.”

Easier or not, it’s almost imperative, for the career expectancy of a professional dancer is clearly limited, both at the beginning and at the end. While physiologically a girl may start to train as late as in her teens, and often boys are in their middle or late teens when they begin, it’s a better idea to start at eight or nine, simply because it takes so long to develop the technique, the stamina, and the style. On the other hand, it is generally foolhardy and dangerous for girls to go on pointe before they are about ten, and after a few years of training and strengthening the feet. And turnout, the ability to turn the legs outward from the hip sockets that is vital in ballet, is natural and can only be trained to a certain extent, although it is often pushed from an early age. SAB’s winter term admits eight-year-olds, but the summer program, for practical considerations, starts at twelve. “We look at eleven-year-olds,” Hendl explains, “but usually they don’t come because the parents say they’re too young.” There is no official upper age limit for admission to SAB and, remarks Hendl, “We’ve had twenty-five-year-olds who want to come to the school. That’s ridiculous. I assume the limit is about seventeen, unless you find someone who’s nineteen and absolutely incredible, especially a boy because lots of boys don’t have much training before then.”

Jackie Hepner is rueful when she mentions a boy she taught who was exceptional but already twenty-one, a student at Grossmont College, when he began his ballet training. After nine months he auditioned for SAB’s summer program, telling them he was seventeen. He was accepted and at the end of the summer was asked again how old he was. He looked fourteen and told the school once again that he was seventeen but, Hepner thinks, that was still too old for them. He wasn’t asked to stay. After another year in San Diego, he auditioned and was accepted by ABT, Harkness, and Joffrey, and is at ABT now, where they think he is younger than he really is.

In ballet, male dancers are always boys, not men, just as female dancers remain girls forever. Larry Kramer is a San Diego dancer who was eighteen when he auditioned for SAB in San Francisco. He is certain when he says, “I was not accepted because my ballet teacher at the time, in San Jose, was somebody that they don’t like. I saw them take one look at the name of the teacher and throw the card in the trash.” He emphasizes that SAB is looking for raw material, not a finished, trained dancer, but someone who will go through the school and become their kind of dancer. Kramer is twenty-five now, and has danced with the Boston Ballet, the Maryland Ballet, and the Eglevsky Ballet in New York, where he lived for two years.

Kramer’s ultimate goal is to choreograph, but first, he says, he wants to dance. He is back in San Diego, where he grew up and where he started his ballet training, and performing with the California Ballet. He may miss the daily classes with excellent teachers in New York, many of them with dancers from City Ballet and Ballet Theatre. “You never go beyond being a student in dance,” he explains. But “being a dancer in New York is twenty-four hours a day. There are many frustrations because there are so many dancers and so much competition. In some companies dance has become more of a product than an art form, more Pepsi-Cola than ballet.” Still, he adds, referring to the hazards and hassles of living in New York City, “If it were anywhere else but New York, I would probably still be there.” “Physicality catches up with you and you have to be realistic,” says Edward Villella in between his classes at Stage Seven the day after the SAB audition. He is speaking of the end of a dance career, any career. His own career was spectacular, though plagued by injury: he was the best-known male dancer in America at a time when dance was not yet popular; in 1969 he was featured in Life magazine with this headline: “Is this man the country’s best athlete?” Now forty-five and only very occasionally dancing a mostly acting role such as Pulcinella, he is the official spokesman for the New York City Ballet and one of ballet’s most articulate members. He was unaware that Susan Hendl had been in San Diego for the SAB audition, and when I tell him, he is bemused. “I'll tell you how interesting this is: Susie and I used to live together, about five or six years.” Of the selection process of auditions, he says, “I hate it. It’s awful.” He elaborates, “All you’re trying to be is realistic. You hope that your eye is trained enough that you can pick out an ability and a talent, but it’s more than that. If you audition for the School of American Ballet there’s a particular series of things that one is looking for: length of line, muscle tone, musicality, sensitivity, intelligence, prior training, taste — all of these things go into it. You look for certain lines and a quality of movement, an attack. It’s really movement in relation to everything else.”

Of SAB he says, “There are other schools who will take anybody, and there aren’t many schools as finely selective as SAB. We don’t wish to encourage someone unless the potential and the possibilities are there.” He pauses and summarizes, ‘‘You should train for what you want to dance — and be prepared to dance it all.”

And of dance: ‘‘Dancers are far better these days, twenty times better than when I started. Every ten years there seems to be another level, the standard raises and that is the beginning for the next generation of dancers. That’s what’s exciting about American dance.” In 1966, when Villella was appointed to the President’s National Council on the Arts, there were about eighty professional dance companies in the U.S.; today there are more than 300. About the futurev he says, ‘‘I foresee a weeding out. The key word of the charter of the National Endowment for the Arts was quality, but right away a lot of political strings got attached. We began to fund a lot of things for regional, political reasons, not for quality in the art form. In the early days most of the dance companies came out of New York, so the government said, ‘This is a governmental, federally funded program, how can we deny Utah, Iowa, Illinois, monies?’ I said, ‘They are denying themselves because they’re not good enough.’ You can’t fund welfare out of an arts program. We have social and welfare programs for that. The money shouldn’t be taken away from quality organizations just because it’s a democratic idea.”

If dance were democratic, perhaps anyone could become a dancer. In San Diego there are more than a hundred schools that teach ballet to thousands of dance students. Not all of these students want to become dancers, but only a small fraction of those who do will actually make it. Ultimately, for most of them, that means leaving San Diego. Lynn Hodgkinson, an Englishwoman who teaches the Royal Academy of Dancing syllabus and who is a former director of the San Diego Ballet school, says, ‘‘It’s frustrating in San Diego. If you have talented pupils, what do you do with them? They’ve got to be sent away. The parents don’t like to hear that. But the environment here is so wrong, they’re not in contact with other people who are doing what they’re doing, who feel about dance the way they do. Their peers here don’t understand why they can’t go to the slumber party on Friday night or why they don’t play softball and soccer. A child has to be willing to give up almost everything else. And even then you can’t be sure. All you can do is offer therii hope. You just feel it’s a good possibility and if it’s not taken advantage of, if they stay here, there’s no hope.”

Lynda Yourth describes San Diego in dance terms as “very backward,” adding that “it’s because there’s no paying company here, so good dancers don’t stay. It’s also the mentality. I hear my students say, ‘I’d rather go to the beach or go sailing. . . .’And the mothers want to know if there are recitals, that’s their first question. When I see students come in from other schools with ill-fitting shoes and I tell the mothers, even offer to go with them to buy properly fitting shoes, they get upset.” Jackie Hepner speaks disparagingly of the audience for ballet in San Diego: “We brought [Natalia] Makarova here and couldn’t fill the Civic Theatre. With Alicia Alonso it was the same.” Several years ago American Ballet Theatre stopped coming here after their annual Los Angeles tour because they never sold enough tickets in San Diego.

Furthermore, talk to any ballet teacher in San Diego and you’ll eventually hear something like this: “I could name names . . . other ballet schools in this town . . . irresponsible . . . unqualified . . . there’s nothing you can do about it.” It’s not only in San Diego that young dancers may be afraid of letting one teacher know that they also take classes from another teacher, but it just might be worse here because of the overall insecurity of the local dance scene. Lynda Yourth is probably right when she says of some of the other dance schools, “When they get notices like Jackie’s for the audition, most schools won’t even put them up because of the rivalry and jealousy.”

It’s not surprising that those in the world of dance should have some of the bitter feelings of competition in a measure at least the equal to that of their esprit de corps. No one wants to be in the corps, after all; everyone wants to be a demi-soloist, a soloist, a principal dancer. “Every dancer has an ego problem,” says Lynda Yourth. “When you’re sixteen it’s hard to make the right choices and react well to the competition and the pressures.” But that’s when — if you’re lucky — you have to start making hard choices for ballet, or else feel that it’s beginning to pass you by.

Before the audition, I said to Susan Hendl, “I wish I were here to audition, myself’ and she said to me, with a short laugh, “Oh, no you don’t. I know I don’t." At the audition I saw young dancers, never mind how good or bad their technique, who just didn’t have ballet bodies; and I saw bodies, not yet fully formed, who might turn out all right, who might have a chance. Their ages ranged from twelve to twenty-two, although, according to Jackie Hepner, one she remembers teaching twenty years ago is “pushing thirty.’’ I also thought I saw a dancer, the kind you can’t take your eyes off even if you try to look at someone else, one with the right line, the right technique, everything. 1 wondered if Susan Hendl saw that dancer, too.

At the very end of March, the letters were mailed and received. Dana Stack-pole’s letter began, “We are pleased to announce that you’ve been accepted. . . .’’ She has been accepted also by San Francisco, Boston,.and Pennsylvania, and rejected by American Ballet Theatre for a fall apprentice program for which they took only ten nationwide. Now, two weeks later, she says, “I was just thrilled to be accepted by the School of American Ballet. I’m honored. I never even thought of making it. I auditioned two years in a row and wasn’t accepted and was beginning to think they just wouldn’t want me. I’m almost positive that’s where I’m going, although I haven’t auditioned for Houston yet. I don’t even know if I’ll be accepted by Houston again this year, but when I was there last summer they told me, and a few others, that they hoped I would come back each summer until I finished high school and then join the company, so that’s almost a guarantee. I thought maybe I could go to two summer programs but the times aren’t right. It’s a choice, but ever since I came here all I hear is New York . . . you have to try it . . . everyone wants to try that. Competition is good for me, that’s what I want, it makes you work harder and I improve more when there’s competition. I’ve been really lucky to go away every summer. I don’t want to think about anything that might not happen ’cause I’m sure there are a lot of girls who are much more talented than I am, but if I go to SAB and if I’m asked to stay, it depends on how I like it — I may not like it — and it depends on what my parents say. I’d want to finish school first and be able to drive. I’ll graduate in December. I turned fifteen just after the audition. I’m getting old now.’’

Another girl at the audition, the one that Dana and that Allison Hinton thought would be accepted, was Toria Nicole Hiscock. Blond, with wide-set blue eyes and a tawny complexion, Toria is twelve — almost thirteen — years old, four-foot-ten, eighty pounds. She started dancing when she was five, and “eventually” — when she was six or seven — “got really interested.” The SAB audition this year was her very first major audition; previously she had auditioned for a few local schools and for roles in productions such as the Nutcracker. Looking back on the audition, she says, “I didn’t think I’d done too well, because she said, ‘Could you do this again for me,’ and corrected me. I didn’t know that wasn’t that bad, so I was sort of depressed.” She was accepted, and now she is looking ahead, to New York. ‘‘I’ve thought what if [I’m asked to stay]. . .I’d be there in a flash, I’d stay there somehow. I really want to be a professional dancer. Sometimes I think, Do I really want to do it? I’ve thought about the competition and it’s sort of scary. You just feel you want to withdraw from it all, but then you figure, if you want to do something you have to go out there and prove that you can. This is the one thing I’m really devoted to. School and here, school and here, that’s all I do.” There were only four boys at the SAB audition. Phuong Bui, a Vietnamese who is one of the two male dancers who came with Jiilana from UC Irvine, was the only one accepted. Phuong has the hairstyle, the high, wide cheekbones, and the physique of Rudolf Nureyev. He is five-foot-seven and three-quarters inches tall, weighs 135 pounds, and is twenty-one years old. Twenty-one years old? “I was advised to lie about my age,” he tells me. “But I couldn’t get myself to do that.” He has been in the United States about five years, and started dancing for recreation at Irvine two and a half years ago as a physics major. Now a dance major, he says, “I want to train myself, to improve my technique. I’m not really interested in performing yet. I was more interested in modem ballet and modem dance, but I think I’ll try ballet since I have this chance. I’ve been accepted also by Boston, but not by Pennsylvania. I’m going to SAB and if they ask me to stay in the fall, I will.” Allison Hinton’s letter, and all of the others, said, “We are sorry. . . .” ‘‘I was very disappointed,” she reflects, “but I think I knew that I didn’t make it. Once they see what your body looks like, if it’s not right, they won’t even see if you can dance. It was sort of a kick when Dana and Toria were accepted. We thought this year that Dana would make it because she does have the perfect body and she does have a lot of talent. But then when Toria made it . . . She’s younger than us — but she’s got the body. She never stopped mentioning it, and that got on my nerves. Dana was really great about it. We heard about it once from her, when she found out, but she keeps it really quiet, and that makes you feel good, because it is hard to take. You go home and think. It’s not fair. It gets to you. A lot of people treat her differently than me because she’s got the body and I don’t. It’s like she’s a better person. Right now I’m on a diet again; I’ve already lost six or seven pounds. My legs are starting to slim up, they’re going to get longer and thinner. I never can get rid of my hips — they’re just there. After the SAB audition, I sprained my back and I wasn’t supposed to dance for two weeks but I had to go to another audition, for the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle . . . and I made it! I was ready to give up. After all, if I can’t do this, 1 want to be best at something else. I’m really glad to be going to Seattle. If I’m invited to stay in the fall, it will be tough, at sixteen, to have to leave my parents, but I think I would stay. I’ve got to do it — if it’s my chance, I have to do it.”

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