Tears and tutus: The Joffrey Ballet comes to Dublin

More than 150 young Irish dancers turn up for Joffrey Ballet School auditions

 

When Aisling Wright-Goff packed up to leave her internship with New York’s Joffrey Ballet School last summer, she reflected on how the experience had changed her image of ballet. Like most dancers who train in Ireland under the Royal Academy of Dance syllabus, Wright-Goff had previously known the art form as one where classical stories, tutus and princesses prevail.

She spent a summer in New York around ballerinas who work on Broadway and who throw out the normal rule books for ballet class. It made such an impression that Wright-Goff became determined to share with others how wide-ranging ballet can be as a discipline. Less than six months after returning from New York and resuming her studies in French and sociology at Trinity, she had convinced members of the ballet school to hang its banner in Ireland for the first time.

“At the summer school I noticed they had all these students from Spain, Italy and South America, and I thought, how does this happen for these students?” she says, “On my last day I asked the staff at Joffrey if they’d ever gone to London to hold auditions, and they said if I could put together the numbers for them, they would hold auditions in Dublin.”

Booked to capacity

Addressing the first round of dancers, Matthew Prescott, audition director and director of the musical theatre programme at the Joffrey Ballet School’s summer intensive, says: “We’ve never been here and we’re very happy to be in Ireland. You’re all very welcome and what we’re looking for is you. That’s nothing to be nervous about.”

The solemn faces and nervous laughter suggest these dancers are all too aware of the cachet that comes with studying ballet in New York’s competitive environment. Most have attended auditions before, but never under an instructor who has performed with the Joffrey Ballet, Alonzo King Lines Ballet, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet and has also been the rehearsal director for Billy Elliott on Broadway.

The Joffrey Ballet built its reputation by hiring dancers beyond the stereotypical norm. In 1953 co-founders Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino chose dancers for their school and company who had varied body types: some were taller, others were of various ethnicities, but they all could push beyond the beauty of ballet and into areas like Broadway, contemporary, jazz and later hip-hop.

Rock ballet

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Joffrey died in 1988, after which Arpino took over, and upon Arpino’s death the Joffrey ballets, the school and use of the Joffrey name were bequeathed to various Joffrey dancers and heirs.

“Mr Joffrey and Mr Arpino thought that ballet was everything, but they pushed ballet beyond expectations,” Prescott says. “We are about preserving that legacy and taking it to the next generation.”

Although Prescott represents an exceptional tradition, he tries to put the Dublin dancers at ease with jokes and anecdotes about his own career, but some of them have barely set foot out of the room before becoming visibly pale or letting a surreptitious tear escape. Others race out of the studio to make prior dance engagements. On this particular day, many contenders are also performing in the Irish National Youth Ballet’s Nutcracker.

In the US, auditions for intensive summer ballet programs like this entice many secondary-school age students to attend multiple auditions in a short span of time, as this writer did during the 1980s and 1990s, auditioning for schools in Boston, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas.

We competed for the chance to study at the schools attached to the best-known ballet companies, which exposed us to new methods of teaching, and gave ballet directors a fresh look at new talent. Ultimately, we hoped that attending a school’s summer intensive and rising through the ranks year after year would give us a better chance at a full-time job dancing with that ballet company. Some were lucky. Many were not.

Regardless of whether these programmes ultimately lead to full-time jobs, the summer intensives such as Joffrey’s provide well-chaperoned experiences for dancers living away from home.

“They’re not only learning so much in the studio every day, but they are living on their own in New York, under our guidance of course, which is good for them,” said Monica Montaño, the international co-ordinator at Joffrey Ballet School. “It teaches them to be independent.”

The price for that kind of independence can total more than $3,000 for two weeks of nonstop classes in New York, including tuition, room and board, but the school offers a few full and partial tuition scholarships, based on merit.

“I told my daughter I hope she makes it, but even if she does, it’s going to be a big decision,” said Ciannait Ní Riain Broin, whose 17-year-old daughter Aoibh already studies full-time at the Central School of Ballet in London. As one of five children, Aoibh and her family know that attending programmes like this take a physical, emotional and financial toll on the dancer as well as the family, with milestones spent apart, intense responsibility at a young age, as well as the financial commitment of an expensive course of study for a profession not known for its high salaries.

“I know how happy she is, and I have always believed in following the child in the direction they wanted to go in,” Ciannait says, “but I never dreamed she’d end up living away at age 17.”

Dylan Stoeckhardt, age 12, understands how to handle audition pressure, having recently worked in the RTÉ television series Love/Hate as Nidge’s son Warren. In a scenario about as far as possible from those seedy dealings of Dublin’s fictional drug lord, Stoeckhardt looked equally comfortable standing at the barre in a room full of girls wearing pointe shoes.

Stoeckhardt’s father Frank says he’s not sure what will happen if Dylan is accepted to the Joffrey program. “I always ask him before any audition, ‘Do you want to do this, because if you don’t want to, you don’t have to,’ ” Frank says, “but he always says yes. His mother has already told me, ‘If he gets in, I’m going, too, and you have to stay here and work’.”

After a day full, under Prescott’s direction, of swivelling on their toes and elegantly stretching their upper bodies, the dancers look uncertain as to how they should interpret his parting words. “You’re a lovely group of dancers and I hope we see you again in New York,” he says.

Most dancers look wide-eyed and hopeful, shoving their shoes into their bags and negotiating with parents where to grab something to eat after a day’s hard work. Some parents glance around as if wondering how to set reasonable expectations while waiting for the audition results. Ciannait Ní Riain Broin, who has been down this road before, wraps her arm around Aoibh. “I’m just happy I have some time with her now,” Ciannait says. For one day, at least, her daughter is not dancing so far from home.

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