By Emily J Weitz
At Hampton Ballet Theatre School (HBTS), Sara Jo Strickland works to ensure that students are not repeating recycled routines. This year, she has embarked on the massive undertaking of choreographing not one, but two new shows that will be performed together this weekend on the stage of the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall in East Hampton.
The first act will be “Graduation Ball,” followed by an intermission, and the second act will be the “Carnival of the Animals.” Strickland explains that the productions are full scale with elaborate costumes by designer Yuka Silvera.
“HBTS is a school,” Strickland emphasizes. “These students train in ballet, and they are responsible for showing up for rehearsals and being part of the group. I don’t dumb down anything. These kids are challenged, doing real dance. I push them.”
At a recent dress rehearsal, Strickland’s role resembled that of a herder, as she attempted to corral three-year-olds dressed as exotic birds and nine-year-olds in turtle suits. The eldest students, on the verge of adulthood, walked on their tiptoes with tutus that encircled their hips like low-slung halos. An excitement buzzed through the air. The dancers knew how great they looked and are poised and ready to show off their skills.
“As a director, I give them things and they rise to the occasion,” says Strickland. “They’re so well-tuned that I can teach them anything right now. Mentally and physically, they are unbelievable sponges. They take in a lot, and they can adjust.”
She notes that the strength and flexibility of mind and body which comes from a background in ballet can impact children in every aspect of their lives.
“They are good students,” says Strickland. “They are poised. They have manners. There’s a lot that goes on in the studio that transfers right into life.”
But it ‘s not just dancing. Strickland sees her ballet students excelling in other activities, too, like sports.
“Coaches love my ballerinas,” she says, “because they are well-trained physically. They can jump and leap and stretch. But they are also mentally astute. They take direction so well that coaches and teachers love it.”
Becoming educated in the ways of ballet has still other benefits continues Strickland.
“They get quite an education,” says Strickland. “Through the ballets they learn about composers, classical music, the history of the ballet and the choreographers.”
As they grow up, Strickland explains that the dancing groups get smaller and more focused. In this group, there are four young women en-pointe — dancing on toe shoes. One, Rose Kelly of Bridgehampton, is dressed as a swan, another — Maggie Ryan of Montauk — portrays an elephant, and then there are the twins, Abigail and Caitlin Hubbell of Southampton.
“Rose, the swan, I’ve been teaching since she was two years old,” says Strickland. “I’ve watched her grow up. She’s really becoming comfortable with herself onstage. This is her second ballet on point, and she’s blossoming in front of my eyes as a dancer and a person.”
Watching these kids grow up and bloom is one of the greatest joys Strickland finds in her work.
“It’s a great reward as a teacher,” she says. “Rose started out like one of those little birds, and she’s been dedicated to dance ever since. All of them — Rose and Maggie and the twins are serious dancers. And they are also incredible examples to the younger ones. They’re sweet and nice and helpful.”
Giving the dancers challenging and interesting material is an important part of Strickland’s job and the two ballets that will be performed this weekend were carefully selected for this group.
“I had to look at my school, who I have, what levels and create from there,” says Strickland explaining that “Graduation Ball” was originally choreographed by an English choreographer named David Lichine. The storyline is one of the most compelling reasons that Strickland chose it for her school.
“It’s about a cadet school and a girls’ school,” says Strickland, “and the girls’ school is hosting a graduation ball. It’s a comedy about the awkwardness of boys and girls trying to dance together.”
The music is by Johann Strauss, Jr., and the young dancers in the piece enjoy many waltzes.
The second show, “Carnival of the Animals,” was written by French composer Camille Saint-Saens.
“It’s the perfect ballet for children,” Strickland says. “He was making fun of the animals and the musical instruments. For example, he took the turtles and set them to can-can music, but he slowed it down so much that it’s kind of funny. The can-can is usually quick, and it’s just so slow, it’s a turtle dance.”
There’s also a spectrum of music in “Carnival of the Animals” that has allowed Strickland to stray from strict ballet and bring in jazz and modern influences as well.
“These two choices of ballets are perfect,” she says. “The audience will come to the ballet, like you’d see in the New York City Ballet. You’ll get two different shorter ballets. You will get a good taste of what our school is about.”
The ballet comes to the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall (158 Main Street, East Hampton ) this Friday, April 26 and Saturday, April 27 at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25 for adults and $20 for children under 12. Go to www.hamptonballettheatreschool.com or call 888-933-4287 to reserve.