Auditioning at the Kennedy Center was "scary," admitted 13-year-old Alexandra Ehrlich as she thoughtfully laced a pink-ribboned ballet slipper around her ankle. "But I tried not to think of being scared and to do the steps right."
A Northwest Washington youngster who has been dancing since she was 3 years old, Ehrlich is one of 38 local dancers chosen to perform with Mikhail Baryshnikov and the New York City Ballet in the Kennedy Center premiere of George Balanchine's "Harlequinade."
The young ballerinas were selected from nearly 300 hopefuls, ranging in age from 7 to 13, at an open audition held 10 days before last Friday's opening. About half of them also danced Sunday in a special White House performance, which was taped by the Public Broadcasting Service and will be nationally telecast April 15.
With just a week to learn the steps, the girls must be able to pick up dances quickly and should have at least two years of formal training before they audition, said David Richardson, the company ballet master for children. It is Richardson's job to select and train children when needed in each city on the tour.
"I always look for coordination and a pleasing figure," said Richardson, who turned little girls into polished professionals practically overnight. "All I have to do is see one or two steps to see what I want. I must make snap decisions."
Richardson said he treats his charges as dancers, not as children. "I try to give them a sense of professionalism and responsibility," he said. "And I try to convey a sense of movement that uses their entire bodies and is more electric than just plain steps."
Last week's snow canceled several rehearsals, so the dancers had to work extra hard to learn their parts, Richardson said. The youngsters chosen to perform at the White House rehearsed about six hours a day, with the other girls rehearsing about three hours each day. They receive $3 per rehearsal and $7 per performance.
On the day before opening night, the morning rehearsal started a few minutes late so the dancers could shed their parkas, mittens and snow boots. The last stragglers put on wooly leg warmers and and pulled fly-away hair into neat, gleaming buns just as Richardson called the group into the backstage rehearsal hall.
Richardson began the morning rehearsal with a brisk, no-nonsense smile. Throughout the intense, 90-minute session he encouraged the dancers with praise and chided them when they repeated mistakes.
"Your balances are sloppy, do your feet hurt?" he asked one small ballerina. "That's no excuse," he smiled, as the dancers relaxed with girlish giggles. "It takes as much energy to do it sloppy as it does to do it right."
As Richardson was winding up the rehearsal, a spark of electricity ran through the group. "Baryshnikov's here," whispered one girl. She pointed to a far corner where the celebrated dancer lounged against the mirror, sipping a carton of milk and watching the young dancers.
Smiles brightened, toes pointed, backs straightened and chins raised as the girls put a burst of extra energy into their movement. After a few moments Baryshnikov walked into the center of the room to chat with Richardson.
"Misha's correction is very good," Richardson said. "You must spread out more and not dance on top of each other." Baryshnikov bowed farewell to the young ladies, who emitted a collective sigh before they went back to rehearsing.
"He's adorable," said seventh-grader Elizabeth Truelove, of Southeast Washington who takes five dance classes each week. A veteran at age 12, Truelove had danced with the New York City Ballet two years ago in "Midsummer Night's Dream."
"Right now ballet is the most important thing to me," said Truelove, who has been dancing since she was 5. "You can express yourself without a whole dictionary full of words."
The other District youngsters chosen to dance with the New York City Ballet were Cathy Batcheller, Tatiana Blackington, Kathleen Conner, Kellye Gordon, Audrey Keesing and Gina Paolillo.