By adding a dorm, Pittsburgh Ballet's school becomes more competitive


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Weekdays for 18-year-old Cameron Clark start out like those of most teens. He wakes up at about 6:30 a.m., grabs a shower and some breakfast and then heads to class at Schenley High School in Shadyside, where he is a senior in the school's final graduating class.

But before hitting the books, he hits the dance floor at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre headquarters at 2900 Liberty Ave. in the Strip District, where he is a full-time student in the PBT School's pre-professional program. After a technique class, it is off to high school until early afternoon. Then he races back to the PBT studio for a few more hours of modern, ballet or partnering classes and to start preparing for PBT's annual "Nutcracker."

"I'm getting more into the swing of things, establishing routines and knowing what I can and can't do to make sure I stay focused in [dance] class and school and learning to balance it," said Cameron, who is new to the PBT School -- and Pittsburgh.

Cameron's family lives in Dayton, Ohio, and he moved here in late August to study with PBT after training with Dayton Ballet and the Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts in Torrington, Conn. This fall also marked his return to public school after years of cyber schooling.

"I was nervous for my senior year being at a completely new school, but I got over it really fast after the first day," he said.

Since this isn't his first taste of independence, he's coping pretty well with living away from his parents, brother and two sisters. "I'm not homesick yet. Not at all."

But if he ever does need someone to turn to, he lives with 14 other teen dancers with similar goals and challenges at the Byham House, the new boarding house in Lawrenceville for out-of-town, high-school-age dancers attending the PBT School. It is housed in the former rectory of St. John the Baptist Church, six blocks away from the PBT studio.

"We're always supportive of each other's hopes and aspirations," said Leslie Green, 16, from Flathead Valley, Mont.

Like Cameron, Leslie's life is a juggling act of dance classes and academics. She is a sophomore and completes her schooling online. "We're all going through the same thing so we can all understand the emotional ups and downs."

Twelve female and three male dancers currently call the Byham House home. They range in age from 14 to 18 and come from across the United States.

One dancer, 18-year-old Asami Nakano, is from Hokkaido, Japan. Speaking with the aid of a bilingual dancer in the PBT School's graduate program, she said her move to Pittsburgh also was her first trip to America. The language barrier has prompted her to rely on body language to interact with others in the house, since no one there is fluent in Japanese. In the dance studio, they all share a common understanding of ballet's French terminology. She is excited about the opportunity to further her ballet education in Pittsburgh, she said.

PBT purchased the three-story brick house last October for about $290,000 with the hope of creating a space that was set up more like a home than a boarding facility.

"It was important to us not just to offer this house for students to crash after a hard day at the studio but also create a community where the young dancers learn, grow, socialize and live," said school operations director Aaron Rinsema.

PBT strived to give the Byham House this homey aura through such touches as a recreation room, a house chef and a porch and backyard area. It's also a house rule that residents share meals together in the dining area.

"It's nice that we have to eat dinner at the same table," Cameron said. "It just helps conversation with the whole group happen so there's good communication."

Watching TV shows such as "Family Guy" or "The Office" is another way the dancers bond, he said.

Marchaé Peters, Byham House's live-in director, tries to plan outings to the movies or to the mall as breaks for the dancers on weekends. She also wants to try to squeeze in at least one community service project a month, she said. A dancer from the PBT School's graduate program also lives in the house and assists Ms. Peters.

Just like at most homes, there are chores to be done. Among the many framed pictures of ballerinas that adorn the walls, a schedule hangs in the main entry hall reminding dancers whose turn it is to mop up the kitchen or take out the trash. The teens also have curfews and must check in with Ms. Peters before going out with friends.

"I like the fact that this dorm is more like a house setting. ... We're definitely a lot closer and a lot more intimate than I feel we would be if it were a typical dorm setting," Leslie said.

"Most of the other [dancers] are older than me so it's nice because I feel like I have 10 big sisters and three older brothers. It's really great," said Alice Wells, 14, of Morgantown, W.Va.

Before the PBT School acquired Byham House, out-of-town, high-school-age students were placed with host families.

"We found it year in and year out very challenging because [of] families' ebbs and flows and the changing dynamics within each household would put [some host families] in a position to call us up and say, 'Hey, we just can't take students in this year,' " Mr. Rinsema said. "It takes a lot of time and resources to continually manage the host home program."

A few dancers still are residing with host families this year because the Byham House did not have room to house them, he said. Not having a permanent dormitory facility was putting the PBT School at a competitive disadvantage as other ballet schools often offer housing.

"It is attractive for students and particularly parents," Mr. Rinsema said.

The idea of owning a housing facility has been a goal for PBT for close to a decade, and an active hunt for a location had been under way for about a year before buying Byham House. The Lawrenceville property was a good match for the PBT School because of its closeness to the studio and the fact that the house's layout didn't require too many drastic structural changes, Mr. Rinsema said.

About $690,000 was spent on updates and renovations, such as a sprinkler system, carpet and paint. The kitchen is fully equipped with commercial appliances. IKEA helped cover costs of purchasing and installing some furnishings. State and local contributors aided PBT in raising funds. Bill and Carolyn Byham, for whom the house is named, also were major contributors. PBT still invites members of the community to sponsor items in the house.

"We're still figuring it out what it means to be house mangers," Mr. Rinsema said. "This is a new line of business for us, but we're embracing it as much as we know how."

PBT has studied similar housing programs offered through the Boston Ballet School's Grace Performing Arts Academy, San Francisco Ballet School and Houston Ballet's Ben Stevenson Academy.

PBT spread the word of its new dorm facility during the school's national audition tour last winter. While the house is now at maximum occupancy, the school hopes to get clearance to house a few more students in the future.

"There's square footage in that house to enable us to take in additional residents," Mr. Rinsema said.

Moving forward, PBT regards Byham House as one of the first steps in expanding the PBT School, he said.

"The future of that house more or less goes hand in hand with the future of the pre-professional program."


Sara Bauknecht: sbauknecht@post-gazette.com . First Published October 31, 2010 4:00 AM


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