There are no “Black Swans” at the Academy of Ballet and Jazz

15 Apr

The music starts, and young girls in light blue leotards waltz and do their pas de bourées. The teacher, Nadia Veselova-Tencer counts, “Five, six, seven, go!” And the dancers run out of the circle. Tencer gets off her stool and walks over to the large, old-fashioned stereo, turns off the music and shows them how to move their arms. Tencer lifts her right arm up in a graceful arch, as her feet delicately step off the ground. “You are very slow,” she says, sticking out her tongue.  Some students giggle, others look away. “One more time and you go home,” Tencer adds. This time, their arms move in sync with their footwork. As the girls file out of the room, they curtsy and bow.

Nadia Veselova-Tencer. Courtesy of the Academy of Ballet and Jazz

The discipline taught at ballet schools benefits more than slouchy posture. Ballet has a strict regimen and lifestyle, and there is fierce competition. Jealousy and insecurity can lead a young ballerina to do nasty things to further her career, like cutting the ribbons off another girl’s ballet shoes. But when that event occurred over 20 years ago at the Academy of Ballet and Jazz, Tencer, the artistic director and teacher, asked the dancer to leave the school. Tencer’s attitude and approach in teaching ballet has created a nurturing environment where dancers can learn the art of ballet without being tainted by envy.

The Academy of Ballet and Jazz, located in Thornhill, has been teaching girls (and boys) a variety of dance styles, even hip hop, for 22 years. However, ballet is still the focus of the school. Recently, ballet has been under the spotlight because of the film, Black Swan.  The students are rehearsing for their annual year end performance, this year it’s Thumbelina and Coppelia. Dancers in advanced classes perform the Nutcracker every year with the Canadian Ballet Theatre. This company is based at the school, and receives no governmental funding. The benefit to the students is that they can perform alongside professionals from around the world, exposing them to opportunity and experience.

Students are exposed to the Russian method of ballet called the Vaganova syllabus, known for its discipline and beauty. The classic style is named after Agrippina Vaganova, a ballerina who was a teacher at the Vaganova Ballet School in the early 1900s.

At six years old, Tencer went to the Kirov ballet with her mother to see a performance of the Stone Flower, which sparked her passion for dance. Her mother let her audition and was accepted at the age of 10 into the Vaganova Ballet School.  There, she was taught by Alla Osipenko, coincidentally the same ballerina dancing the Stone Flower.

Tencer with Alla Osipenko. Courtesy of the Academy of Ballet and Jazz.

Tencer’s ballet studio is like any other, with pink walls and ballet barres, sprung floors to avoid impact and injuries and long, mirrored walls that line the south wall of the classroom. The majority of students come from Toronto, but some dancers move from the United States to attend classes. Tencer’s classes are limited, so she can focus on the quality of instruction instead of the quantity of students.  Tencer says, “It’s not a bagel shop where I get more bagels and I sell them.”

Take a look at the video above by clicking the link to YouTube to see Tencer teach ballet classes.

Tencer believes that to become a good dancer, it takes a combination of goodwill, potential and hard work. While a dancer might not have the ballet body with long limbs, arched feet and slim hips, training is important. Helen Luzius’ daughter Tatiana Davies, 16, is enrolled in classes at the school.  Luzius says, “The crazy Russian method is almost abusive. Are they more driven? It might be too much for the recreational dancer.” Luzius enrolled her daughter in ballet classes to improve flexibility for skating but Davies fell in love with ballet, and eventually quit skating to pursue dance and train with Tencer, and Canadian prima ballerina, Evelyn Hart.

Evelyn Hart as Giselle. Courtesy of Evelyn Hart.

Hart says she has a hands-on approach to teaching ballet.  She helps aspiring dancers find their balletic vocabulary within their physical abilities. However, Tencer doesn’t single out or favour anyone. But some dancers have critiqued the school for not giving corrections to improve their dancing.

One of those dancers, Crystal Clackett, has been at the school for only a few months. She toured last summer with the Balleto di Lombardia in Italy and graduated from the Quinte Ballet School in Belleville, Ont. Clackett sat down in the waiting room, leaning her head against the yellow painted walls that are plastered with pictures of Tencer and other dancers, awards, and selected newspaper clippings showing off the calibre of the school. Out of breath from two hours of class, Clackett fixes stray hairs into her sleek chignon and complains in a soft-spoken voice that she wishes there were more classes to attend and receive individual attention.

But getting too much attention from a teacher can be a bad thing. It can lead to jealousy between girls who are favoured, and others who are left to dance in the background. Tencer says that it’s normal for there to be jealousy in a ballet company, but she admits that she’s very fortunate her students are respectful, instead of pushing each other with intimidation tactics. And since the incident over 20 years ago, ribbons on ballet slippers have stayed intact.

Later, the dancers saunter into the change room and sit down on blue mats. They help each other stretch while gossiping excitedly about the upcoming performance. Tencer puts on a fresh coat of red lipstick from her Hermès Birkin bag, as an older group of dancers in black leotards and colourful sweats enters the studio.  The music starts.

A slideshow featuring the talent of the Academy of Ballet and Jazz.

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