Chautauqua County has another entry in the long list of professional artists who began their careers right here, among us.
I recently was delighted to receive notice from the Chautauqua Region Youth Ballet that one of its former students, Jordan Leeper of Jamestown, has recently been signed to a full professional contract by the North Carolina Dance Theatre.
The young dancer is now in town to perform twice for us with his old company, before heading off to professional duties in the summer season, and we were lucky to have the opportunity to talk with him about how he ''got there from here.''
Jamestown native Jordan Leeper, now a professional dancer, prepares to perform tonight at the Reg Lenna Civic Center, with the Chautauqua Region Youth Ballet.
Let me first tell you about the performances he will be giving in our area, so that you can see him in action for yourself, and then I'll share with you what he had to say:
CRYB will present their Spring Gala Performance, this evening at 7 p.m., at the Reg Lenna Civic Center.
The performance will feature all the students of the company, from the very young, up through the pre-professional dancers in the company, and the new professional.
The evening will begin with ''Hansel & Gretel Suite,'' to the music of the same name by Engelbert Humperdinck. Hansel will be danced by Brennan Constantino. Gretel will be Megan Stefanik. The Dew Fairy will be Kati Baudo and the Witch by Shawn Sprankle.
Also in the first half you can see performances by the company's Intermediate and Advanced students and an excerpt from the balled ''La Bayadere,'' performed by Molly Vine, Isabel Bursch, and Kaitlin Healy.
The second half of the evening will be the performance in its entirety of the ballet ''Les Sylphides,'' based on original choreography by Michel Fokine. It is an abstract ballet, performed to the music of Frederic Chopin. The ballet will be performed to live piano accompaniment.
The concept of the ballet is that a young poet goes into the wilderness, in search of inspiration. There, he encounters three muses or sylphs, each of whom draws his thinking and emotions in a different direction. Young Leeper will dance the role of the poet. His inspirations will be danced by Kym Paterniti, Gina Smeragliuolo, and Molly Vine.
The ballet also includes a corps de ballet, which will be made up of the company's advanced dancers.
CRYB's artistic director Monika Alch has set the ballet for this performance. Among her adaptations has been to replace the long, formal, romantic length tutus traditionally worn by the sylphs and the corps, with lighter, wispier costumes, giving it a more youthful look.
Tickets to the evening of dance cost $12 for the general public, $10 for students and senior citizens, and $6 for those younger than age 10. Those who wish to sit in the loge, or the front rows of the balcony, which are usually considered the best seats in the house, may do so for $20 per ticket.
Purchase them from any CRYB student, or from the box office of the Civic Center.
Next Saturday, at 8 p.m., Leeper and the more advanced dancers from the company will perform in Warren, at the Struthers Library Theatre, at the intersection of West Third Ave. and Liberty St., in downtown Warren. The performing element of CRYB is called The Renaissance Ballet.
At the Warren performance, ''Les Sylphides'' will begin the performance, with the same artists as the Jamestown performance.
The second act will be made up of excerpts from ''Le Corsaire,'' staged by Ms. Alch, ''The Red Violin Ballet Suite,'' choreographed by Brittany Bush, and ''Soldato,'' choreographed by Dara Swisher. Leeper will also perform a solo of his choosing.
Tickets cost $14 for the general public, and $12 for senior citizens and students. Children age 5 and younger are admitted without charge. They may be purchased at the theater's box office, or at the door of the performance.
For additional information about the Warren performance, phone (814) 723-7231.
A DANCER NAMED LEEPER
CRYB currently studies and rehearses in the small brick building behind the Sheldon House, at the intersection of Lakeview Avenue and Falconer Street. I recently walked into the building, to see a startling sight:
Recorded music was playing, and a young man was making lightning-fast, dramatic leaps across the floor, with such force that his right hand, extended above his head, was rapping - hard - on the ceiling of the room, with each leap. When fate gave him the name ''Leeper,'' it was preparing him for a career performing leaps, and turns and lifts.
Readers who are unfamiliar with professional ballet often have the completely incorrect idea that the art form is pretty or delicate.
While both beauty and delicacy are elements of the dance, ballet dancers are among the finest athletes in the world. Experiments have demonstrated repeatedly that dance is as demanding or more demanding than professional sports, including football, soccer, and rugby.
The reason for my visit was to chat with the 20 year old dancer, the son of Debbie and Greg Leeper, of Jamestown, whom I had first interviewed when he was in grade school, and about to make his first performance with CRYB - dancing the role of Fritz, the bratty brother of the young heroine in the Christmas ballet, ''Nutcracker.''
In the years which followed that first performance, he moved through the male roles in the company's annual performance of the ballet, including the Nutcracker itself, the Arabian variation, the Spanish variation, and ultimately, the Cavalier, who performs the final pas de deux with the Sugar Plum Fairy.
Male dancers are relatively rare in our country, although they are far more frequently to be found in other cultures. In Russia, for example, classical dance is part of the physical education program in public schools, and almost without exception, young men dance ballet.
I remember asking the young dancer if other students teased him about dancing, and I still remember him looking me in the face as though I had said something ridiculous. ''Sometimes, but why would I care about something like that?'' he said at age 11.
He is now rehearsing ''Les Sylphides,'' and I get to watch him and his nymphs in action for a while. The irony of dance is that a good dancer makes his performance look effortless and pleasurable, while straining and making powerful demands on both his body and his spirit.
This particular ballet is especially deceptive, because it is slow and the music is sweet and romantic. When a man lifts a ballerina in a fast-tempoed performance, she leaps, and his sinews only need to give her some extra lift and keep her from twisting off balance.
In a slow ballet, when a woman is lifted, the full extent of the energy which raises her from the floor must come from her partner's arms, legs, and back, all the way up, and all the way back down. And, he has to appear in every way as though she weighs no more than a feather, and lifting her is a joy for him.
Leeper studied for seven years with CRYB, then was invited to spend his senior year in high school as a student of San Francisco Ballet's school, where he was awarded a full scholarship.
In 2010, he was invited to become an apprentice with the North Carolina Dance Theatre, about which I shall write more, below. He danced for a year with the company's second level troupe, and early in 2011, he was offered a full professional contract.
Ballet is a profession where a person must be ready to perform near the top of his professional game before he turns 21, and he has done just that.
Whenever I get the chance to interview young professional artists who have grown up in our area, I like to ask them in what ways our community was encouraging and supportive, and in what ways it was not helpful to them, so we can learn to be more encouraging in the future. Jordan Leeper had an interesting answer to that question:
He said, ''The community itself couldn't have been more supportive and helpful. The adults who spoke encouragement to me, who donated to provide facilities and costumes and scenery and talented guest teachers, as well as the excellent teachers I had here in town - if it hadn't been for them, I might have given in to the difficulties of making it to the professional level, the injuries, the uncertainty, and all the other negatives. I can't really say the same about most people my own age.''
Our country is constantly looking for a miracle fix for our education system, and demonizing the visionless governor or the untalented teachers or the kowtowing school board. Yet we never seem even to consider encouraging those who are talented and successful, instead of making them fight their way through discrimination, hatred and bullying by those who are less talented and successful. True, the struggle makes them stronger, but it often kills the progress of many who could otherwise succeed.
Dance is an extremely volatile career. Dancers must move very quickly, and wear little protective equipment to avoid a twisted ankle, a sprained wrist, a cracked bone or a torn ligament. Even the most promising career can be permanently ended in a matter of moments, by one tiny miscalculation.
''I hope to continue dancing for a long time, and then to move into a career of teaching what I've learned in the profession,'' he said. ''But, I have to be aware of the possibility of injury.''
One advantage of usually being the only male in his classes and rehearsals, as he was in Jamestown, was that he developed the habit of watching other dancers during the long waits for it to be his turn to perform, and learning all their steps and movements. He credits that habit as an important reason for the North Carolina company's awarding him his contract earlier this year.
''A couple of times, a dancer in the company suffered an injury, and the company would need to quickly find someone who knew the role and could step into it with only one or two rehearsals - if that. When they found that I usually knew the roles already, it made me a lot more attractive as a company member,'' he said.
Does the young dancer have any regrets? ''I wish I had tried harder when I was younger,'' he replied. ''I always appreciated the opportunities I was given, and I always tried to do a reasonable job with them, but I know now how much more I could have done, if I'd asked myself for more. I need to pay now, with extra time and work, for the things I didn't do then.''
What has been the biggest element of his recent change from student to professional? ''For as long as I've been dancing, I've had teachers who watched me and gave me good advice about how to do better. They told me to extend my foot further or to turn my shoulders a bit sooner, or whatever would make my performance better.
''Now, I still have teachers and choreographers giving me advice, but the vast majority of what I do needs to come from myself. I need to take apart my performances and decide what elements I need to most concentrate on. When I need help, I need to ask for it, not wait for someone to come to me. Sometimes I dance for six hours, with only one 10-minute break. This is my career, and I need to look out for it,'' he answered.
Dancers often say they have been inspired by another, more experienced dancer. Has there been such an inspiration in Leeper's career?
He replied that both in his dance studies at Chautauqua, and at CRYB, he especially enjoyed the teaching and the performing of Daniel Ulbricht, the New York City Ballet soloist who studied as a boy at Chautauqua, and who has returned to share his knowledge with others in our area.
He said that it wasn't until he moved on in his studies that he began to study in men's classes, where the focus was more fully on the skills which are needed by male dancers. The first all-male class in which he participated was taught at Chautauqua by Ulbricht.
During his brief stay in Jamestown, he had the great satisfaction to be invited to teach the men's class at CRYB, which now has a number of young men, studying there.
I asked Monika Alch about her former student's history, and she smiled radiantly. ''Jordan came to us at age 11. He had been doing some serious skating, and he participated in an after school program which we were offering at Washington School,'' she told me. ''He obviously had the strength and the talent to dance, but even more important, he had no attitude. In all the years I've known him, he has always been dedicated and eager to do a good job and to give us what we need.
''I didn't have a men's class to offer him, so I fitted him in wherever I could, and he never complained or tried to make himself the center of attention. He never said 'I can't.' He always said, 'Show me how to do that.' He is one of the great treasures of my career,'' she said.
You can see him for yourself, tonight at the Reg Lenna Civic Center, or next Saturday at the Struthers Library Theatre of Warren. He got there, from here.