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American Ballet Theatre trains young talent with ABT II

Wes Chapman is artistic director of ABT II, the professional training company of American Ballet Theatre. It has a dozen dancers (ages 16 to 20) who spend two years preparing to join ABT's main company. They're performing a program this week at Ruth Eckerd Hall that ranges from scenes from classic ballets like Swan Lake and Le Corsaire to Jerome Robbins' Interplay to contemporary works by Aszure Barton (Barbara) and Roger Van Fleteren (Pavlovsk).

Chapman is a former principal dancer with ABT who performed all the leading roles. One of his charges in ABT II is Calvin Royal III, who attended the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School and danced for eight years in Tampa Bay area productions of The Chocolate Nutcracker. He left PCCA to study with ABT and received his high school diploma from the Professional Performing Arts High School in New York. When I reached Chapman by phone recently at ABT's offices, he had just come from a rehearsal with Royal.

How long have you known Calvin?

He came through our school, the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School for ABT. I took him into ABT II about two years ago. He started a little late. I think he was 14 when he started. So we got him caught up, and he's just done so well. He's a very impressive young man in so many ways. His personality, his talent, his physique. He's a very good-looking kid. He's got it all.

What roles is he doing?

He is in all of the new ballets. All the choreographers choose Calvin. He's a great contemporary dancer. He is making his first Black Swan Pas de Deux in Florida. He's in Interplay and also in Barbara. So he'll have a big night in Clearwater.

Why is there a need for a company like ABT II? The Paul Taylor and Alvin Ailey modern dance companies also have second companies.

There's a lag time from being in school to being in a big professional company. It takes a couple of years to get your feet on the ground. That's what ABT II does. I get them out there, they perform a ton, they learn new choreography, classical works, American masterpieces like Interplay. We've been doing Balanchine's works. I throw as much at them as I possibly can, because when they get into the big company, that's the deep end. I encourage them to go for it every single time: Life is short, go for it, guys.

What do you look for in a young dancer?

Dance aesthetics. A good, strong body. Flexibility, good proportions, attractiveness. Since we are such a tight-knit group, it's nice for them to have a good personality.

You're artistic director and talent spotter. Do you have to be a mentor as well?

Well, I call myself ballet dad. There are times when I mentor them on things beyond ballet, like handshaking and being polite. Most of them come from a good background in terms of manners, so it's usually not much effort, but they are young and need reminding sometimes that they are representing ABT.

What's your most important advice for them?

Besides the dancing part, it's to build good relationships with your board members, with your audience members at receptions, those sorts of things. Because these are the people who are supporting your career.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.

. If you go

Ballet beginnings

ABT II performs a program of classical dance pieces and contemporary works at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater. $30, $45. (727) 791-7400; rutheckerdhall.com.

American Ballet Theatre trains young talent with ABT II 03/20/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 16, 2010 6:48pm]

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