Ballet West Academy: Return to form

Published August 12, 2007 12:00 am
Dance school reconnects with past, takes holistic approach to working with pupils
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A roomful of young ballerinas points toes in unison as Jan Clark Fugit moves among them, adjusting foot positions, encouraging lovely posture and coaxing smiles.

Fugit, a teacher at Ballet West Academy, expects disciplined behavior in class as students run through step combinations designed to build grace. But Fugit believes ballet should be fun, too.

"I try to be mindful of children's anatomy and teach in a healthy way that is friendly to all bodies," Fugit said last month after a session of Ballet West's Summer Intensive. "And I feel really inspired by the kids. . . . They are hungry to learn."

Parents and children at Ballet West Academy say this is an exciting time for the dance school, which has endured numerous changes in structure, venue and vision over several decades.

That sense of optimism is felt at Ballet West, too, where dancers and administrators are buoyed by improved financial stability, the arrival of new artistic director Adam Sklute, bigger audiences at last year's ballet performances, and hopes for new studio facilities in the not-too-distant future.

All that, plus changes in Ballet West Academy's structure and faculty, is affecting the school in a good way. There's been an enrollment bump in the past two seasons, and students now fill its existing studio spaces nearly to capacity.

Welcome change

The sense that big things are about to happen is welcome after a series of lean years marked by dwindling audiences and financial troubles at Ballet West, low enrollment at the academy and last summer's controversial dismissal of artistic director Jonas Kåge.

"The ball is perched on the top of the hill, and it is being pushed," said Peter Christie, director of Ballet West Academy and Ballet West's education director. "We are having to hold the momentum at bay."

Changes at the school include the return of Fugit, a revered ballet instructor who taught at a previous incarnation of the academy during the 1980s. Fugit started her own school in 1991, when Ballet West was not providing instruction for elementary ballet students. She wanted to train children from their earliest instruction, she said.

Last summer, Christie approached Fugit with a new vision for Ballet West Academy, and she returned on a trial basis.

"I liked what Peter was thinking about for the school - a cohesive curriculum and whole-child philosophy," Fugit said. "It's a great time to come back to my Ballet West family and be part of this."

After teaching at the academy for the past year, Fugit accepted a full-time contract as a member of the Ballet West staff. It's the first time in recent memory that the academy has had a full-time principal teacher.

Fugit returned with baggage. She brought her students, about 30 well-trained intermediate and advanced dancers, some of whom had left Ballet West Academy to study with her.

"I had concerns about blending students from two ballet schools," Fugit said. "The other kids could look on it as an invasion. But it has been amazing; the kids were so responsive. They train together, they are friends, they have sleepovers, they are so connected. You could never tell they haven't been together their whole lives. It says a lot about the atmosphere here."

Dream team

Christie has worked to assemble a teaching team for the academy that reconnects with Ballet West's past. University of Utah dance professor Maureen Laird will continue teaching at the school, and another U. professor, Shari Lane, has returned to the academy's staff. Laird and Lane are former Ballet West dancers with deep ties to the company's teaching arm.

"Shari has reunited with us and is teaching the upper division in the academy," Fugit said. "She's a great connection with the university, and it's great for the kids to get to know her. It feels like we are back with the old group."

Another popular addition to the faculty is Jeffrey Rogers, who retired in 2002 after 20 years as a Ballet West principal dancer.

"I like that we've got consistency from the past," Christie said. "I know how Jeff works, how he approaches things, his philosophy. He takes teaching very seriously."

Rachel Colledge, whose 11-year-old daughter, Madison, has studied ballet at the academy for three years, likes what she is seeing.

"Peter Christie, as director, is just energetic and fantastic," Colledge said. "I can tell there has been a lot of growth [in enrollment]. I think the school's technique has always been top-notch, but with the changes in teachers, students are learning more about different styles."

Colledge likes the instruction Madison gets from Laird and the performance preparation that comes from Fugit. In the past, young students demonstrated mastery of dance-step combinations at their annual performances. But under Fugit, they learn to show their skills as miniature artists in a real dance production, she said.

Upward trend

Staff members are guarded in discussing why academy numbers remained low during the past decade. The school's location during some of those years on downtown Salt Lake City's State Street, which some parents considered unsafe, was probably a factor. And disagreements with then-staff members might have caused some students to jump ship to Fugit's studio, Christie said.

"Students should have a very good relationship with their teachers," Christie said. "Jan was providing a very viable alternative."

Enrollment numbers tell part of the story.

When Christie took over as academy director in fall 2004, only 77 students studied at the school. Enrollment grew to 99 by 2006, the time of Kåge's departure from Ballet West. At season's end last spring, the academy was serving 156 students - nearly as many as current studio space can accommodate. Christie expects to have a waiting list for some levels after Saturday's fall-semester auditions.

Fugit imagines a day when the academy develops professionally trained dancers for Ballet West and other companies and offers a separate "track" of classes for dance hobbyists. She wants to offer classes in other dance styles to ballet students, and more community options for adults.

Christie is equally enthusiastic. With the popularity of dance-based television reality shows, dance is hot like it hasn't been since the 1970s-era heyday of Mikhail Baryshnikov, he said.

"There is so much dance in this community," he said. "We won't tap out our student capacity, and we won't encroach on what other dance companies do. If anything, our growth should boost interest in what others are doing."

But accommodating more students and programs will have to wait until construction goes forward on a renovation of Capitol Theatre and refurbishment of a nearby building designated as the future home of Ballet West and Ballet West Academy, Christie said.

"Having the building is crucial," he said. "This surge in interest in the academy and demand to be part of it makes this an exciting time. The academy has the potential to enhance financial stability, to foster future dancers to feed into the company and to provide inspiration to company members that comes from working with young dancers."

More dance studio space is a critical need, Christie said, because what happens inside is so valuable.

"The discipline that dance training instills is highly desired. It teaches commitment and artistry and builds self-esteem," he said. "Even if you are not in professional training, all those years in the studio inspire self-examination and create a highly developed member of society."

Know the rules

* Regular attendance is necessary to good training.

* Technical development occurs at different rates for different students; teachers know best when a child is ready to move to a new level of instruction.

* Students with a positive attitude toward instructors and other students make better progress.

* Parents should be supportive of their children, and avoid gossip and negative comments around other students.

* Parental encouragement helps students enjoy dance training and have fun.

* Dance training can build strong, healthy bodies, increase musicality and provide social opportunities.

Auditions call

Auditions for the fall semester of Ballet West Academy are Saturday at Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City. Students should arrive 30 minutes before audition to register.

The schedule:

1:30 to 2 p.m., ages 6 to 8

2 to 3 p.m., ages 9 to 12

3 to 5 p.m., ages 13 to 18

For more information, call 801-323-6912 or visit http://www.balletwest.org/Academy/academy.html.



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