Lauren Kemmer’s big brown eyes open wider as she gets a peek at the elegant black dresses with white trim — the bodices tightly fitted, the bell-shaped skirts ready to flounce.
Kemmer, 13, is one of six young local dancers who will be performing next week at the Kennedy Center in George Balanchine’s “Mozartiana” with the Suzanne Farrell Ballet. To be selected, the girls not only had to have dance chops, but they also had to stand between 4-foot-10 and 5-foot-1.
When companies need children for certain ballets, they often put out a call to local ballet schools. The girls chosen by Farrell auditioned at the Kennedy Center several weeks ago.
On a recent afternoon, Lauren and the other girls wait expectantly backstage to try on the sweet black dresses. In a room filled with racks of tulle, tutus and chiffon dresses, wardrobe mistress Dottie Cummings supervises the fittings of the Holly Hynes-designed costumes. Hynes based her costumes on those of her longtime mentor, Rouben Ter-Arutunian, who designed the original “Mozartiana” costumes with the double rows of old-fashioned buttons and hooks up the backs.
Balanchine is said to have loved working with children, never using them as mere ornaments in his ballets. He gave them choreography that challenged them and underscored that they, too, could master some of his complex footwork and arm gestures.
“Mozartiana” is imbued with an aura of mystery: Who is the central ballerina, and why is she offering such a heartfelt prayer? And who are the young girls?
“When we perform we’re supposed to be like younger versions of the ballerina,” Lauren says.
“Watching the older professional dancers makes me want to become a professional,” adds the seventh-grader from Severna Park, who says the Kennedy Center experience has inspired her. “I see that it’s really more about performing and not just focusing on technique.”
The young dancers train hard, practicing up to 17 hours a week at their home studios, and have the skills to pick up sequences. But they had to show something more when they auditioned. Children’s ballet mistress Bonnie Pickard Schofield, who began dancing with Farrell in 1999 and has been rehearsing the girls, calls it “something special that draws your eye” when they dance.
Eighth-grader Elizabeth Hines says she has discovered that how she holds her head and shoulders — “epaulement” in ballet terms — is the most important element of the ballet.
“That use of the head and shoulders is what makes it interesting to look at, and it takes it out of the academic,” Pickard says. “We’re creating a world onstage, and the use of epaulement can draw the eye and help define who you are as a dancer.”
That subtle distinction, she says, proves key when transforming well-trained students into stage-ready ballet dancers.
After the girls have been fitted and the costumes labeled and tagged for the performance, they follow Pickard upstairs into a studio to rehearse with Farrell and the company. Farrell says little to the young dancers, providing her corrections and notes to Pickard, who then huddles with her charges.
Farrell, who was one of Balanchine’s favorite muses, runs her rehearsal like a high priestess, with the dancers hanging on her every soft-spoken word. The girls follow suit: No one giggles or wiggles or even talks above a whisper under her intense gaze.
But the ballet legend shared a few secrets, according to 13-year-old Isabella Estes of Potomac. To achieve that perfect head tilt, Bella says, “she told us to think about someone kissing your cheek.”
Traiger is a freelance writer.
Wednesday through Nov. 10 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. www.kennedy-center.org. $29-$84.