Is Eastern Virginia School for the Performing Arts right for my child? We had a great informative Q & A with Eastern Virginia School for the Performing Arts founders Ron Boucher and Sandra Balestracci to learn about the curriculum, divisions and nationwide broadcast performances of our local performing arts school. Below is the questions and answer interview about dance, performance and raising artists.
Is this performing arts school a career-oriented school? EVSPA’s principles are based on career development. This structure benefits all students; both those who wish to enrich their lives through the performing arts and those who are career oriented. The focus of the school is on providing the correct information at the correct time in each phase of a child’s development. The long term results have proven to provide better odds at transitioning into professional careers because the students are technically prepared. Those who do not pursue professional careers also benefit and transfer many skills they learned at EVSPA, including a strong work ethic, into their chosen careers.
What would you say to a parent who wants to start their child in dance but has no idea if the child would make a career in the arts or not, but would like their child to experience dance or theater? There really is no mystery on how to develop young artists. History has well documented the pedagogy of artistic development. However what most parents miss is that there are a series of fundamental steps that should be implemented at specific stages of development. In classical ballet, the crucial age is 7 because during the first two years, it is important to lay down the foundation of movement. Students age 7 and older, gain this foundation through classical ballet training which provides the vocabulary and body alignment used in most professional dance. This foundation also begins to develop the muscles properly as the bones are rapidly changing through growth. It is more important to develop the motor mechanics first and then provide theory later. The same applies to development in acting and voice. For children under 7 years old, we have an Early Childhood Division to allow young children to explore movement and expression using a clear recognized curriculum exercised in a safe environment that encourages a child’s passion and enthusiasm.
Do all students (even 7 and under) audition for your school? If so, what does a typical audition involve? We do not hold auditions for the school. Instead, when a new student inquires about attending EVSPA, we first meet with the parents and the student and simply talk. The next phase would be the evaluation. Ms. Balestracci and/or myself evaluate the student in their particular area of interest. If the student is interested in ballet, we check on body placement, knowledge of ballet vocabulary, technique and attitude. For Musical Theater, we check vocal range, tonality, knowledge of music, rhythm, reading skills, memorization, projection, and movement. Concluding theassessment we determined our recommendations for the appropriate classes and levels to ensure the best advantage to grow and develop. Our mission is to help children and youth bring their dreams to reality, at the same time communicating with the parents to see what their perceptions are about their child. There is always an ongoing communication with a student’s parents on which direction to take.
For parents with children 7 years and under who are thinking about enrolling in a dance program but have had little exposure to dance, theatre, and singing themselves, how do you explain your Early Childhood Division? Our Early Childhood Division was developed through collaboration between myself, Ms. Balestracci, and Garnett Nielsen, a specialist in early childhood development. The principles were based on an understanding of what is going on with children at each phase of development (specifically 3-4, 5-6 & 6-7). Traditional ballet training should not begin until the age of 7; however we do recognize that there exist beneficial syllabus-based programs such as Kindermusik and a few Creative Dance programs that provide learning benefits to young children. With this in mind, our Early Childhood Division, now under the capable wing of Amy Haley. Storybook Ballet for ages 3-4 and Pre Ballet I & II, ages 5 & 6, is based on age-appropriate movement combined with creative activities which are engaging at the same time preparatory for higher levels of study.
What is your recommended minimum age to start dance?
§ Traditional Classical Ballet Training begins at the age of 7.
§ Childhood Programs begin at 3.
§ Traditional Jazz Technique should begin after two years of classical ballet since that form of dance is an extension of classical ballet.
§ Musical Theater dance is choreography found in musical theater, all based on classical ballet, modern/contemporary dance and jazz technique.
§ Modern Dance (again, our philosophy believes that dance style should begin around age 9 or 10 and Contemporary Lyrical around age 11/12.)
§ Voice training traditionally begins after puberty (especially for boys). However, using the fundamentals of “speech level singing” I have found tremendous success in training beginning as early as age 9 or 10.
§ Although our curriculum begins with Level 1 at age 7 & 8, we found it beneficial to start this training at ages 9 & 10.
Your Classical Ballet Division starts at age 7 but what ability? Yes, Classical Ballet Division begins at age 7, but this can be a total beginner or someone who has gone through the pre-ballet program. Students are placed in the level class that best fits their skills.
Is this Classical Ballet Division good for active children who are not ready for too much structure? The arts tend to be a magnet for hyper-active children and youth. Depending on the individual some do better in the classical ballet program and some blossom in the musical theater program. Both have discipline but are structured differently. Because the classes are inclusive, students help each other and the energy level seems to always be balanced.
Does the Classical Division include Modern and Lyrical Dance? At EVSPA, the style of modern dance that we chose to include are the forms such as Limón and Horton which complement the technique and muscles utilized in classical ballet and are used by most professional dance companies. What most studios call Lyrical Dance we defined as Contemporary Dance. This dance form combines classical ballet technique with modern concepts and can be done in ballet slippers or on pointe.
Your Musical Theatre Division includes Acting, Voice, Jazz and Tap. It looks like the perfect training for someone who wants to be that “triple threat.” Yes, students will need all three elements in the world of Musical Theatre. Our curriculum encompasses the three areas to be developed at the same time (acting/voice and movement). The classes are combined in such a fashion to develop all the skills they will need to perform in the world of musical theatre.
How many hours weekly can a student in the Musical Theatre Division expect to be in class? Our classes are combined so that a musical theater student can participate with coming one or two days a week, depending on the level.
Do students in the Musical Theatre Division perform in EVSPA performances? Yes, every 10 weeks students from both Musical Theatre & Classical Ballet Divisions execute their newly acquired technical skill in applied performance. These performances are called “Spotlight”. These are public performances usually held at places such as Patriots Colony, Windsor Meade, the Williamsburg Public Library or the Kimball Theater. This has been a very successful element in developing the singer/dancer. Older student and adults use this also as a testing ground for new performance pieces or audition material.
Can a student be involved in both the Classical Ballet and the Musical Theater Divisions? Many students are involved in both divisions when scheduling permits. The ballet students have found the acting to be very beneficial and the musical theater choreography with voice creates a much more rounded dancer with added benefits when pursing a professional career.
Outside of “Spotlight” are there other student performing opportunities? EVSPA is in the business of training kids how to perform, and less on performing. However, there is a separate organization called CAPA Fund (Community Alliance for the Performing Arts) which produces high level performing opportunities for all children in the community. Sandra Balestracci and I founded this not-for-profit theatrical production company for all Williamsburg area performers. We encourage our students to audition for these intensive productions.
What is CAPA Fund? CAPA Fund is the acronym for the Community Alliance for the Performing Arts Fund. It is a 501 c 3 not-for-profit organization whose mission is to showcase trained talented children and youth in high quality productions. CAPA Fund employs professional directors, choreographers, designers, and tech crews to create a professional atmosphere for students to experience. Open community wide auditions are held for each production. Auditions are equal opportunities for all who attend and a great opportunity to experience auditioning for dance and theatre. Roles are assigned based on technical skills and character aesthetics and requirements. Professional choreographers and directors cast and produce these shows. Rehearsals are held only on weekends, for only 10 -12 weeks and limited to 4 hours a day. Class time is never used for rehearsal. When showcasing dancers, they perform under the name “American Youth Ballet Company” and for musical theater productions, the group is identified by the name “American Youth Players.” To learn more about CAPA Fund visit www.capafund.org
What ballets and musicals has CAPA Fund produced? Since 2000, CAPA Fund has produced an annual Nutcracker. In 2004 the production was invited to be performed at the Ferguson Center and has been an annual tradition ever since. In 2013, the Nutcracker production was brought to schools throughout the State of Virginia through a pilot program called Global Arts Connection. This production has received the endorsement from the Virginia State Department of Education. In addition to the Nutcracker, CAPA Fund has produced ballets such as Emperor and the Nightingale, Littlest Angel, Peter and the Wolf. CAPA Fund’s Musical Theater productions have included: Alice in Wonderland, The King & I, The Music Man, The Wizard of Oz, Aladdin, Annie, The Sound of Music, and Roar of the Greasepaint. To see production photos visit http://www.capafund.org/performances
How are your students’ progress measured – do they have a recital or are they graded? Students are evaluated twice a year. The final evaluation is based on the students’ performance in the “Year in Revue” (a recital format) where students demonstrate their acquired skills. They are evaluated base based on technique and performance and compared to their peers. Class levels should see very small variances in technical ability.
Do your students compete in dance, theater, voice competitions? If so, which competitions do they compete in and is this mandatory as part of the school? For the most part, the answer is, “No”. However, there are some exceptions. Some of our students have been selected to participate at the Youth American Grand Prix International Ballet Competition. At this competition, Ms. Balestracci has earned the coveted “Best Teacher” award three times. This particular competition is known for showcasing professional students and professional companies use this event for scouting dancers for their company apprentice programs. EVSPA has had many students recruited even as young as fifteen. We have had students compete on the “Voice”, The Apollo in NYC, and others but it is not our focus as a school.
What are your thoughts on competitions? I believe competitions are great for sports. However, it is very easy to put too much stock in the outcomes of competitions, to invalidate one’s ability or even artistic worth based one judge’s decision, and it is easy to lose focus on one’s training and the long-term goal of being an artistic performer. I have witnessed only too many times professional careers being devastated because of how these competitions are handled, especially the reality TV shows. Students in the performing arts need to find who they are as artists, find their passions and express themselves in their own unique ways.
Arts schools can be expensive for families’ do you offer any need-based scholarships for talented students? There are scholarships for students. They are provided on an individual basis for students whose families can show hardship and when funding is available. Also, our tuition is structured so that the more classes you take the more of a discount that is provided.
To attract more males into the performing arts, CAPA Fund has a program designed to underwrite the development and performance activities of young area males. Males selected to the program will receive full scholarship to attend EVSPA in either classical ballet, and/or musical theater (voice, acting & dance). Boys will be incorporated into CAPA Fund productions as they acquire appropriate skills levels and artistry suited for the productions. The goal continues to be the recruitment of 20 boys between the ages of 12-16. Applications areavailable online at both www.evspa.org and www.capafund.org.
Do you offer classes for adults?
Definitely! Through our Enrichment Program we offer classes for beginners to advanced. We have adults and college students who just want to experience the dance form or want to learn vocal development. Others come to us who want more technical information and individual attention. This Division also attracts visiting professionals and retired artists, who want to keep up their technique to stay in shape. The Enrichment Program has a range of levels. We offer class cards for adults and discounts for college students.
Are there opportunities for your students to audition in the professional world of the arts? EVSPA students are always encouraged to audition for professional productions. We have many young working actors, singers and dancers.
Do you offer your students audition mentoring? That is one of our special benefits. As former professional artists, Ms. Balestracci and I have a clear understanding of the expectations of the profession. We know when it is time for a student to go out and audition and for what. We also help students in selecting a college or university when seeking to continue their training through higher education.
I noticed you have pictures of alumni performing in professional companies on your website. Do they come and do Master Classes? If so, are these open to the community? Yes, they do whenever possible. Melanie Hamrick who is with American Ballet Theater, has returned to perform as Sugar Plum with the partner Jose Manuel Carreño, the top principal dancer for the company. Not only did the dancers get to see them perform but they provided a master class for the students as well. All our master classes are open to the community provided they have the technical ability to take advantage of the expertise being shared with them. I should take a moment to clarify our definition of a master class. We define the “master class” as a special class in high level instruction given by a master instructor to students who have achieved extraordinary achievement in the art form. These are active classes so there is not an “audience” viewing the class; everyone at the master class is participating.
Both you and your wife had professional arts careers, how does that influence your teaching and the way you structure your school? We were blessed to have had professional careers and are excited to share what we have learned with our students and the community. We stay connected to our colleges in NYC and around the world in the Arts and when possible bring top directors, choreographers and dancers to Williamsburg to share their expertise and work with our local talented artists.
Performing at Lincoln Center and around the world does not make you a great teacher and neither does learning from a book. In the performing arts, it takes a combination of an individual’s accomplishments as a professional artist and an individual’s ability to disseminate that information at the proper time in each phase of a young person’s development to be a good teacher. For ballet, it was simple – my wife used both the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) syllabus and the Vaganova (Russian) syllabus to develop her students. As her teaching experience continued over the years, she has relied mostly on the Vaganova syllabus as she feels it best reflects the requirements of most professional ballet companies today. If you look at companies’ rosters, you can see what schooling their artists come from.
For voice, acting, it was a bit more complicated. Traditional formal training in voice begins after puberty. Most teachers approach voice from classical/operatic standards. However, that training often alters the natural placement of the voice. Using a well-recognized training method called “speech level singing,” I can safely work with children before puberty into adulthood. Those who are naturally disposed to classical placement have gone on to careers in opera and oratorio work. Those who have more of a Broadway, contemporary and pop sound do equally as well. Development in acting proved to be a bit more of a challenge. It is our philosophy that children/teens need to play themselves and not adult roles. As teens, they are on a self- discovery process, which it is why it is important to keep things “real.” The curriculum that we have developed seems to be working very well. Professionals who work with our students are very complimentary about their skills and work ethic. We have received letters from Colonial Williamsburg, Metro-productions, professional directors and choreographers complimenting our students.
Give us three words three words that would describe your students?
The three words I would use to describe our students are: Persistent, Determined, Courageous
Those sound like three characteristics that will serve them well in whatever path they choose in life.
Learn more about EVSPA, their students and faculty at www.evspa.org
About Ron Boucher & Sandra Balestracci Ron Boucher and Sandra Balestracci formed the Eastern Virginia School for the Performing Arts in September of 1996. EVSPA since has become a forerunner in performing arts education and vocational development.
Mr. Boucher serves as EVSPA’s overall administrative director, oversees the schools theater/voice divisions, and teaches voice. He is a member of the NATS (National Association of Teachers of Singing). He also is an active lecturer and an advocate for “What your child should know in the Performing Arts Ages 3-18.”
Ms. Balestracci is Co-founder/Artistic director of the Eastern Virginia School for the Performing Arts and the American Youth Ballet Company. Awarded Best Teacher at the 2001 and 2005 at the Youth America Grand Prix, supports why she is sought by universities, master classes and dance conventions. Her students have been accepted in major companies. She herself was trained at the School of American Ballet Theater. Ms. Balestracci went on to have an illustrious career both as a classical ballerina and contemporary dancer. She has performed throughout the world for over 30 years. Among the numerous awards and citations, the New York City Opera formally recognized the 25 years of Artistic Excellence she provided at Lincoln Center. Since the 80’s she has provided studio ballet music and is sold internationally. Mr. Boucher’s students have won major professional competitions, have placed in prestigious university and college vocal programs and have performed in Broadway and national touring shows. (see EVSPA Alumni page) In 2000, Mr. Boucher founded the Community Alliance for the Performing Arts, Fund and serves as its founding artistic and executive director. (visit www.capafund.org) Mr. Boucher made his New York City Opera debut in 1976 under the direction of Gian Carlo Menotti in the “Saint of Bleeker Street” and in 1979 with the Metropolitan Opera in an opening night international broadcast of Otello with Placido Domingo. He has performed with other companies including the Connecticut Grand Opera’s production of DON PASQUALE, directed by Christopher Renshaw from Covent Gardens.