By Steven J. Smith
Raising the barre
Sarasota Ballet has “raised the barre” over the last year in its educational efforts by bringing in former dancer Christopher Hird, who trained at the Royal Ballet School in England and toured Europe with internationally acclaimed ballerina, Sylvie Guillem.
Hird now serves as Sarasota Ballet’s director of education, overseeing all of its programs. Among them are the Margaret Barbieri Conservatory — a full-time, pre-professional program designed to prepare 11- to -18-year-old students for a performing career in classical ballet and the Sarasota Ballet School, which provides professional instruction to students between the ages of 3 and 18.
“Our ballet school now includes adults as well,” Hird said. “I’ve added some extra classes for our adult students to get them engaged with the organization.”
Those classes, he added, include Intro to Ballet, a five-week course designed for beginners or those who are returning to ballet after a break; Adult Open Classes, offering those with some previous ballet experience several levels of technique to choose from and the flexibility to drop in whenever they like; and Weekend Workshops, providing special opportunities for adult students to dance over a long weekend and including a ticket to see the Sarasota Ballet perform. educational
“We also have our Dance — The Next Generation program, which is set up for those who are most at risk of dropping out of school to participate in a 10-year, full-scholarship program in dance,” Hird said. “I also oversee all outreach work, which entails going into schools to perform or having school groups come to us for matinees.”
Hird added the main purpose of Sarasota Ballet’s educational programs is to train future dancers for its company as well as to give anyone the opportunity to experience the joy of dance. This includes mastering not only the range of skills needed to perform ballet, building a work ethic that serves students in life outside the classroom. “Our classes help students in their academic work as well, because it gets them to develop time management skills,” Hird said.
He added another aspect of the ballet’s education expansion lies in recruiting new talent at dance competitions.
“We need to continue to build on the quality of the work that we have already,” he said. “I want to increase the quality and accessibility of what we offer. When a school is attached to a professional company, it can often be intimidating to a potential student. For our school, you don’t have to have any experience or dance training. Our expert faculty will develop you into whatever kind of dancer you want to be, whether it’s aspiring to be a professional or someone who just wants to enjoy dance for the rest of their life.”
To that end, Hird has also brought in guest artists — a member of the Paul Taylor company, former principal dancers with the Martha Graham company and the New York City Ballet and a teacher from the Boston Ballet School, for example — to give students opportunities they might never have had before to listen to and work with some of the best dancers and teachers in the business.
“We have about 350-400 students studying with us now,” he said. “Tuition fees can range up to about $5,000 a year, but if you compare that with schools like the IMG Academy in Bradenton, for example, which charges $30,000-$40,000, it’s not very much. We also offer scholarships and financial aid to those with merit who are struggling financially. We don’t want a lack of money to be a reason for not coming to us, so we’re always trying to find a way to support anyone who needs our help.”
Unprecedented Educational Collaboration
The Sarasota Ballet will offer two children’s programs this summer — Step Into Ballet, a one-week camp for kids 4-6 years of age from 9 a.m. to noon, June 12-16 and the Children’s Summer Workshop for 7-10-year-olds from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., June 12-23. The Ballet’s International Intensive will run from June 25 to July 29, during which students will have an opportunity to study with guest teachers from Birmingham Royal Ballet, Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures, Elmhurst Ballet School and The Sarasota Ballet. This collaboration of four major dance organizations is the first of its kind in America and offers an unprecedented opportunity for talented young dancers.
“If anybody wants to try ballet with us for the first time, a summer course is the best way of trying that.” – Christopher Hird