12 local youths dancing with N.Y.'s ballet elite

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While many budding ballerinas aspire to share the stage with the dance world's elite artists, a group of local dancers is living the dream.

Twelve Pittsburgh Youth Ballet Company students ranging from 7 to 12 years old were hand-picked to perform in a New York City Ballet production at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga, N.Y. The program opened this week and runs through Saturday.

The dancers are: Brooke Marynak of Peters; Tia Watts of Upper St. Clair; Lucy Merz of Squirrel Hill; Rachael Nash of Friendship; Sydney Borandi and Madison Miller, both of Bethel Park; Aliyah Busselberg, Marin Busselberg, Autumn Graham, Erin Leach, Grace Millet and Cami McKeever, all of Mt. Lebanon

"Saratoga is a wonderful place with lots of opportunities for dancers," said Aliyah, 11, who will be performing with NYCB for the second time. Her sister Marin, 7, also is part of the cast.

PYBC staged in Pittsburgh last spring "Circus Polka," a piece set to Igor Stravinsky music first choreographed by George Balanchine that Jerome Robbins recreated in the early 1970s. A repeteur who visited PYBC studio in McMurray to set the piece auditioned students for the NYCB show, which also includes a rendition of "Circus Polka."

Dancers need to be quick learners, have strong technique and be the proper height and size for staging and costuming, said Katrina Killian, a faculty member at the School of American Ballet, the official school of New York City Ballet. Children from across the country -- generally between the ages of 8 and 12 -- are eligible to audition.

"I think it was a good experience for me to just try out because each time I try out for something I get less nervous and more confident in myself," Aliyah said.

The cast has been rehearsing in New York since late June. It is not unusual for student dancers to train up to six hours a day, plus breaks. "The children are rehearsed as if they're adults," Ms. Killian said. "The level of dancing has to be that good."

At the performance, students will dance alongside company professionals, and at one point, 48 children will fill the stage. A handful of understudies will be on standby.

"It's very exciting to be dancing in front of a lot of people, but it's sort of nerve-wracking because what if you mess up or something," said 11-year-old Sydney.

These high-caliber performances not only make students better dancers but also open their eyes to what it takes to sustain a dance career, Ms. Killian said.

"You have to rest a lot, go to bed at a decent hour and get up at a certain time and you need to make sure that you're eating healthy, too," are what Sydney said she's learned so far.

PYBC artistic director Jean Gedeon, a former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre soloist who has taught at Point Park University, encourages students to take advantage of as many real-world performance opportunities as possible, especially since she felt she lacked them growing up. "I'm not real demanding, but I just expect them to be as good as they can be," she said. "I feel like a cheerleader."

Time in New York also gives students the chance to network with NYCB staff and with other rising dancers from across the country. (Some PYBC alums have even gone on to dance professionally with NYCB.)

Although the hours are long and the dancing is intense, the young dancers still manage to find some time to be kids. Families from Pittsburgh are sharing a few houses together, which means living room sleepovers, shopping and playing in the backyard.

"You do get to know all of your friends a little bit better," Sydney said.

"We'd certainly do it again if we had the chance," said Aliyah and Marin's mom, Kristin Busselberg.

Sara Bauknecht: sbauknecht@post-gazette.com .


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