Protege Megan Johnson on dancing at the Kennedy Center

"Concerto Barocco" rehearsal. Photo courtesy of SAB

“Concerto Barocco” rehearsal. Photo courtesy of SAB

In early June, 12 advanced students from the School of American Ballet traveled to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC to take part in Protégés II, an international festival featuring students from four of the world’s top ballet schools. For three performances, each school presented a ballet that reflected its unique national style and choreographic tradition—SAB performed George Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco.

Behind the scenes, students came together each morning for a joint ballet class, which were led by different teachers every day. The American dancers were chaperoned by Kay Mazzo, SAB’s co-chairman of faculty, and Suki Schorer, SAB faculty member. Leading the cast of Concerto Barocco were SAB students Megan Johnson and Mark Wax, with Lydia Wellington as the “second violin” soloist. Eight female dancers appear onstage as the ballet’s corp.

Megan, 18, kept a diary throughout the festival. This past spring, she graduated from Manhattan’s Professional Children’s School as the class valedictorian and received SAB’s 2008 Mae L. Wien Award for Outstanding Promise. In June, she performed the principal female role in Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco at SAB’s Workshop Performances. Two days after performing in DC at Protégés II, Megan became an
apprentice with New York City Ballet! —Amy Bordy

Thursday, June 5
Right now I’m sitting in my dressing room marked “School of American Ballet Female Principals” at the Kennedy Center. This is just too amazing!

This morning at 9 am we went to the theater for class with all the festival participants. Walking into the studio was intimidating because the Bolshoi dancers had staked their spots at the front of the room, and The Royal Ballet and Paris Opéra Ballet dancers were already spread out. We SABers filled a clump of barres in the center.

The dean of the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, Marina Leonova, taught class today. The style was much different than at SAB, so I really had to concentrate. It was also challenging because the Bolshoi do a lot of straight-legged relevés (rising up to pointe without pliéing). Since we SAB girls were wearing pointe shoes instead of flat shoes, which is standard for us, this was quite precarious. (The female students from the other schools took most of the class in ballet slippers.) Kay Mazzo and Suki Schorer, who were watching, kept catching our eyes and warning us to be careful—don’t get injured!

It was very exciting to have our first onstage rehearsal. The view from the stage is breathtaking—sparkling crystals line the balconies and ceiling.

The program was backward for the dress, so we were the second ballet and had to be ready to perform at 6:10 pm. We watched the Bolshoi from the wings. Their upper bodies and balances are so controlled—really exquisite. But I felt bad because they were so hard on themselves! Many came offstage crying.

When it was our turn, I could feel butterflies flutter in my stomach. Unfortunately, my ribbon came undone in First Movement, and the Second Movement pas de deux was fast, so the difficult sequence when Mark slides me along the floor and propels me into an arabesque three times in a row didn’t go well. Also, the two solo violins played at different speeds during the climax of the Third Movement. But somehow, all of us girls managed to stay together.

Suki gave us a few corrections afterward, and then we had to get ready to go to the home of an SAB patron who was hosting a dinner in our honor!

The dinner was at a historic home in a gorgeous Washington, DC, neighborhood. Right when we walked in, a photographer snapped our picture! There were waiters walking around with appetizers, and an incredible buffet was laid out. I had second helpings of everything. People were very interested in our lives as ballet dancers, so we talked a lot.

Friday, June 6
This morning for class we had Elisabeth Platel, the director of the Paris Opéra Ballet School. She’s really nice. She spoke in French to her own students and in English to us. One of my corrections was to relax my shoulders and arms at the barre and not to accent tendus in the first few combinations. Ms. Platel also made class fun by acknowledging the tournament-like atmosphere—at one point she called her students “The French Team” and had them come up front to demonstrate.

After class, I went to my dressing room, hoping that my left foot would feel better before the show tonight. (I jammed it when I landed from a jump this morning.) I was also hoping that Second Movement would be slower today and that my ribbon wouldn’t fall out!

Later, as we Barocco girls headed up to the stage for our first performance, the British boys, who had just finished their piece, were packing up for the night. They wished us good luck and to “be sexy.” I guess they find our hippy-Balanchine moves to be scandalous!

About a half hour before we went on, I sewed in my ribbons, which I’ve never done before (hairspray’s always done the trick except for that one dress rehearsal). But five minutes before Barocco I freaked out and borrowed scissors from a Bolshoi girl, who was warming up in the wings. I quickly snipped my stitches, untied my pointe shoes, took my feet out so they could cool down, and then I retied my ribbons so my feet felt tighter and more secure. I can’t stand the feeling that my feet are trapped and unreachable. I need to be able to put my pointe shoes on right before I dance, otherwise they feel mushy and I can’t point my feet as well. This gave me the adrenaline boost I needed.

Mark, Lydia and I all agreed our first performance was a little shaky (my toe got stuck in the swivel-backbends in Second Movement), but when Barocco ended, the crowd roared! Someone said that halfway through Second Movement, the ballet was transported to a whole new level. Mark, Lydia and I were a little confused, as we hadn’t felt our best, but we were pleased!  And we made a promise that Saturday’s performance would be even better.

There was a pizza party back at the hotel for us, but my body was exhausted, so I took a shower and went to bed. But even though my body wanted to sleep, my mind wouldn’t let me! I couldn’t stop thinking, so I didn’t fall asleep until 1:30 am.

Saturday, June 7
We SAB dancers were psyched for Saturday morning class because it was “our” day—Suki was teaching! She gave a really hard class, even harder than usual. The French and British seemed to enjoy it, but for some reason the Bolshoi stopped and sat down after barre, just like they had for the French class. I spoke to a British boy and he said they enjoyed Suki’s quick challenges. And it was neat because they were willing to experiment and pirouette from lunges instead of small fourths!

After class, Mark and I practiced a few steps from the pas de deux. I was excited for the matinee show because I was energized and I didn’t have as much time to get nervous.

I was done with lunch by 12:30 pm. I redid my bun and finished my makeup by 1:30 pm, just as the performance began. Then, Suki stopped by our dressing room and informed us that Peter Martins, artistic director of NYCB, and Darci Kistler, his wife and principal with the company, were there! The news made my heart race. I really wanted to do well!

Once the performance started, I had my energy snack of a peanut butter and banana sandwich. That left me with 40 minutes to warmup, stretch and do my exercises. I also had time to heat my back and left foot, which were a little sore. We did our last-minute practicing during the 20-minute intermission.

This show turned out to be my best!  First Movement felt secure, Second was the best pas de deux we ever did (Mark and I both felt transported), and by the time Third Movement came, I was so happy with the other two that I pushed through and felt stronger and more confident. During the bows, some people even gave us a standing ovation!

Sunday, June 8
Sunday morning I woke up with a kind of bittersweet feeling, since I knew it was my last day of doing Barocco. We had Gailene Stock, the director of The Royal Ballet School, for class, and so I tried to remember my Royal Academy of Dance roots, which I’d been trained in for 10 years before coming to SAB. We started class with a slow tendu exercise facing the barre to warm up our feet and toes. Pliés came second. Ms. Stock took it pretty easy on us because we were all exhausted. But I really got a kick out of the last combination—entrechat quatres and royales turning in the air.

Back in our dressing room, Lydia and I tried to muster up our energy. I wanted my last show to be my best, especially since I had 16 family members and friends watching!

Even though it turned out to be a technically fine show, I didn’t feel as emotionally connected as I had on Saturday. Mark and I both realized, however, that those special shows can’t happen every time.

On the bus headed back to NYC, I just couldn’t believe my once-in-a-lifetime experience was over. I had taken class with the Bolshoi Ballet, The Royal Ballet and the Paris Opéra Ballet schools, along with my fellow SAB friends. And it was a dream come true to perform Concerto Barocco at the Kennedy Center Opera House. I’ll never forget it.

Photo: Carol Pratt. Concerto Barocco choreography by George Balanchine © The Balanchine Trust

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