June 14, 2017

Princeton Ballet School Restructuring Allows Students Some More Choices

BACK TO THE BARRE: Princeton Ballet School Director Pamela Levy, shown here teaching at the school (above) and during her days as a student appearing as a soldier in “The Nutcracker,” (below) has instituted some changes in the curriculum.

There are changes afoot at the Princeton Ballet School.

The 63-year-old dance academy headquartered in Princeton Shopping Center now offers free tuition for boys. There is a new Conservatory Program for serious students interested in more focused training. Another, the FLEX Program, offers similarly rigorous classes, but without the same intensity or time commitment. Class names have been simplified to more clearly reflect their progression.

But while the school is clearly being restructured, much will stay the same. “We are still following the syllabus that [co-founder] Audree Estey and [former school director] Mary Pat Robertson had created, because it is an excellent training tool,” said Pamela Levy, the school’s director since last August. “I really want people to understand that this change exists to truly honor Audrey’s vision and the philosophy for training people, and providing access for everybody at the level at which they want to train.”

Though she signed on as director only 10 months ago, Ms. Levy has been involved with Princeton Ballet School (PBS) since childhood. She studied there for years and is a veteran of many performances of The Nutcracker with American Repertory Ballet, the professional company affiliated with the school.

Ms. Levy studied dance at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts and became a professional dancer after graduation, performing with Murray Louis and Nikolais Dance and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. She segued into teaching and eventually retired from performing. For a decade, Ms. Levy directed the Washington Rock Youth Ballet in Warren before enrolling in graduate school at Columbia University. But she opted out when she became pregnant with twin boys (who are now 16), eventually earning a master’s degree at New York University just after the school launched a new ballet pedagogy program in conjunction with American Ballet Theatre (ABT).

Teaching posts followed at ABT’s JKO School (named for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis), back at Mason Gross, and at Rider University. Ms. Levy became a certified examiner for ABT and continues in that role. But when she learned that Ms. Robertson had retired and there was an opening at Princeton Ballet School, she was inspired to apply. “It was not just because it was time for me to transition into a more administrative position,” she recalled. “It was also because I felt very connected to the school. And I really believe in the mission that Audree Estey had. I had studied with her as a child, so I knew that mission. And fortunately, it turned out to be the path for me to take.”

The restructuring, which is aimed at school-aged students, addresses a central element. “Previously, students were chosen for the ‘Plus’ program as young children,” Ms. Levy explained. “Otherwise, they were just in our regular program. My restructuring enables anyone really interested in being on that track to participate up to a certain point, which gives them more opportunity to grow as dancers.”

It is after the first year of pointe classes that students can not opt into the Conservatory Program, Ms. Levy said. “They can be considered for it, but at that point in training, it’s really a matter of whether they are strong enough and have the foundational elements to continue. They can always try again the following year.”

The Douglas Martin Scholarship for Male Dancers, named after American Repertory Ballet’s artistic director, allows boys to study tuition-free — an initiative in place at the New York City Ballet’s affiliated School of American Ballet, and at other prominent dance schools. “I am very excited about this opportunity,” said Ms. Levy. “We’re following suit in what has become the standard for training boys. It is there to celebrate males in dance and encourage more boys to study at our school. We’re working to get the word out.”

For Ms. Levy, being at Princeton Ballet School is like coming home. “I grew up here. Sherry Alban was my teacher, and then she was my teacher at Rutgers,” she said. “Then, she and I taught there, side by side. It’s so wonderful to come back and see her still here, running the children’s rehearsals for Nutcracker. It’s so nice to see.”