Ballet hopefuls strut stuff for coveted school spots 

It was an otherwise bleary Monday afternoon, but in a mirrored room on the fourth floor of a Civic Center building, 51 girls and five boys pirouetted their hearts out in a cacophonous scene of nerves and grace.

The children, ages 12 through 14, were attempting to leap their way into an elusive slot in the elite School of American Ballet’s summer class in New York. The audition is one of 20 nationwide the school holds each year, and the children were among about 2,000 who vie for about 200 coveted positions.

Of the group, just one walked away knowing for sure she had succeeded. At the end of the audition, the school’s co-chairman of faculty, Kay Mazzo, picked 12-year-old Marlena Jackson-Retondo of Oakland out of the swarm of leotard-wearing sprites. Quietly but with a wide smile, Mazzo told the wide-eyed girl she would receive a merit scholarship, meaning her room, board, flight and tuition would be paid for in full because two judges had seen in her the potential for greatness.

The scene is one that plays out several times a year at the San Francisco Ballet, where auditions are held for the nation’s best ballet schools, including the one in The City. New York’s School of American Ballet, founded by ballet master George Balanchine, is considered by some to be especially exclusive and prestigious, and the annual audition in San Francisco attracts aspiring ballerinas from all over. This year, one child flew to San Francisco from Hawaii to audition; others drove from hours away.

Monday was the 15th birthday of Erika Driscole of Los Gatos, who has studied ballet for 10 years and spent last summer dancing at a school in Boston. She said this year would be her second attempt to audition for the New York school.

“Last year, I wore a colored leotard and most of the other girls were in black, so I felt like I stood out, which was scary but exciting all at once,” she said. “I’m wearing a colored leotard again this year.”

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Katie Worth

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