Saturday, February 17, 2018
Stage

Patel Conservatory ballet dancer shines at global competition

TAMPA

Tanner Bleck takes a series of steps across the wood floor. Instructors with the Patel Conservatory bark at his ballet classmates, but he darts from one corner of the room to the other, jerking a stop for rapid tendus, stretching his left foot away from his right.

Tanner, 15, spent years of his childhood on wood floors, practicing balanced movements and leaps in front of mirrors. His feet have carried him from acting classes to small stages to the glowing lights of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.

For the Lexington, Ky., dancer, it's a series of ballet steps that whisked him from his hometown to prestigious summer ballet intensives to the recently completed Prix de Lausanne, a prestigious international competition for ballet students between the ages of 15 and 19.

Tanner's day typically involves seven or more hours of ballet study, from class to intensive individual study under the watchful eye of instructors. By 8 p.m., he is bent over textbooks, wrapping up his virtual high school courses.

He recalled being inspired by Steve from Blue's Clues, who would bound back and forth, singing and dancing on his television screen. He found that dancing was where his heart was, as he learned from after-school classes, as his instructors pointed at his feet and his posture.

He had multiple offers for ballet study at age 13: Houston Ballet Company, Ballet West Coast, the National Ballet of Canada, and the Patel Conservatory at the Straz Center.

Tanner wanted to work with the conservatory's Peter Stark, known for pushing his dancers to the next level — international. It was an instant connection.

"It takes a combination of innate physical ability and hard work and training," Stark said. "(Students) have incredible strength and flexibility in their feet, but they have also worked hard to get where they are today."

• • •

To realize his dream in dance, Tanner traveled alone to Tampa at 13. He spent a year with instructor Susan Downey and her family. It was different, being away from his parents that long, but the Downey family felt warm and comfortable.

"I've been having to mature a lot faster than most people are because I had to move down here by myself," Tanner said. "I was mostly focused on dance, schooling. If I was sick or injured, I didn't really have anyone there."

Lori Bleck recalled crying in the absence of her youngest son. It would be a strain on the family's tight budget, but she would fly to Tampa every month. Her relatives lived in Land O'Lakes and provided her a place to stay while she visited Tanner. In time, she found work in the Tampa Bay area as a purchaser for a company.

"We're a very close-knit family," she said. "Everything we do is for the future of our children. Our whole life is for our children. If we can produce functioning, wonderful human beings that are good role models to others, that's what it's all about."

Her husband, Russell, stayed behind in Lexington and maintained his job as a painting contractor. He traveled with Tanner to the Prix de Lausanne for support.

"I just kind of marvel at him," Russell Bleck said. "It makes it easier knowing that he loves what he's doing."

• • •

Only 69 students in the world are selected for the Prix de Lausanne, 10 from the United States. Tanner was one of only three American boys offered the chance to study with the most talented instructors across the globe.

He placed in the top 20 dancers worldwide.

The anxiety he built up on a flight to Lausanne, Switzerland, faded as he entered classrooms and shook hands with talent scouts and instructors from the world's most coveted ballet companies. The classes were different from the ballet instruction in the United States. In Europe, ballet focuses on classical technique.

"Some people couldn't do as many turns or jump as high," he said. "But technique-wise, everything was just so clean. They would just focus on every tiny detail."

The Prix de Lausanne felt different from other competitions to him. His classmates at Patel were like family, but with a consistent competitive edge. In eight days, he bonded with teens his age, clapping and cheering for each contestant with sincerity.

"They were so good that you were happy for everyone," Tanner said. "I was really expecting something so different. All we could think was that there was not one kid here who doesn't deserve it."

Before the Prix, Tanner was offered a full scholarship from the Zurich Ballet for four years, which included college courses. By the end of the eight-day trip, he had scholarship offers from the San Francisco Ballet, the Stuttgart Ballet and the Hamburg Ballet.

His selection won't be easy, but for now he's just focusing on his passion.

"I just love to be able to perform on stage," he said. "The second I went on stage, I saw lights and thought, 'This is fun. This is where I am.' "

Amanda Starling can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8862. Follow @starlingaj on Twitter.

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