When Silicon Valley Ballet declared bankruptcy in 2016, the company’s school director, Dalia Rawson, was determined to deliver the training programs that families had paid for. “Over $250,000 had been paid by local and national students. All of that money was lost,” she says. “We just could not let that happen to these families.” Teachers, pianists, and staff banded together and volunteered their time to run programming and re-create the institution as The New Ballet School. Currently serving some 300 students, The New Ballet School delivers the American Ballet Theatre National Training Curriculum and is one of only five schools worldwide to have earned the designation of an ABT-Certified School. The New Ballet School is also the only program in the country to be able to boast of having former ABT Principal José Manuel Carreño on the teaching roster for its summer intensive. The José Manuel Carreño Male Dancer Scholarships offers male students support in benefitting from this rare opportunity. The World Dances spoke with Dalia Rawson, now Executive Director of The New Ballet School, about her inspiring fight to see the school reborn, The New Ballet School’s mission, the summer program, and more.
Why was your team so passionately motivated to keep the school’s programming running, to the point of working for free?
We’re really lucky! We have a wonderful team in San Jose who believes in our students and what we’re doing and were willing to take that risk with me. The principal of our school, Mads Eriksen, is a former dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet. He believes in our work, in the ABT National Training Curriculum, and in our students. He sees how good they’re getting and how much they’ve advanced since we implemented the ABT National Training Curriculum. He didn’t want to see those students lose out or see that work go to waste. He and Le Mai Linh, our master teacher and former dancer with Ballet San Jose, saw the goal and believed in what we could create from the start. It was inspiring every single day to walk in and have so many people say, “We can make this happen!” And we did! It’s wonderful.
How do you feel having spearheaded such a heroic—and successful—effort?
It’s hard because some of it is wrapped up with the end of this company I loved so much. I joined Silicon Valley Ballet as a dancer in 1991 and spent my entire performing career with that company. I danced principal roles my last few years there and retired as a dancer in 2005. After that I taught in the school and became the school director, and I was the director when the company went bankrupt. But looking beyond that, I am so relieved to wake up now and not have it feel like a life and death struggle every day. Just getting to do the work to move forward is really nice. And it’s gratifying in the same the way this work is always gratifying: you get to see these students reaching their potential. That’s where the joy really is. The fact that that’s happening and I get to be a part of it is deeply satisfying and fulfilling.
Besides the ABT National Training Curriculum, what distinguishes The New Ballet School?
We have a very inclusive vision. We believe that ballet is for everyone and that the highest level of ballet training should be available to everyone and is good for everyone. We don’t discriminate based on body composition; we base our selection criteria on strength and artistry. We do outreach classes to introduce people to ballet and scholarships (over $100,000 a year) to make sure they can continue training. We also believe that you will benefit from, and should have access to, the highest level of ballet training even if your career goals lie elsewhere.
What does it mean to have José Manuel Carreño teaching in the summer intensive?
José Manuel Carreño is now the Artistic Director of Ballet de Monterrey in Monterrey, Mexico. The only place he’s teaching in the United States this academic year is at The New Ballet School Summer Intensive. He’s incredible working with the students. He’s so motivated and inspiring in the studio. He partners the girls and does everything. It’s a great through-line as well. At the end of the program last summer, he hired one of the studio dancers into a full contract position, not an apprenticeship, with Ballet de Monterrey. To encourage male dancers, we’re offering José Manuel Carreño Male Dancer Scholarships, which can include partial or full scholarships and housing. The in-person auditions are all in California, but you can submit video auditions, which we try to make as simple a process as possible.
The New Ballet School offers a choreography workshop. Why do think this is an important component of ballet training?
I can’t think of a single company these days where you’re just going to perform Swan Lake and Giselle. Ballet training focuses so much on technique, which is obviously imperative. Often, however, young dancers aren’t prepared to participate in the choreographic process in the ways they’re asked to in today’s companies. Learning to improvise, choreograph, and express your individual voice is much more important for dancers today. We believe that giving young dancers the chance to choreograph helps them develop their own style and voice and helps them build skills that will empower them to be more active participants in the process of working with new choreographers.
On a more personal side, I’m excited to see some incredibly strong female choreographers coming forward in the ballet world. That’s something I want to help nourish. When I was young, I always that I wanted to become a choreographer. But when I became a professional ballet dancer, I felt that pursuing choreography might somehow compromise how people saw me—that it might detract from being perceived as a dedicated ballet dancer. I think female dancers are more likely to make that choice than male dancers because there are so many more girls than boys in ballet. We tend to think we have to give every ounce of our soul training to perform. So The New Ballet School makes a chance at choreographing mandatory for our boys and girls.
What are you looking for in dancers for the Studio Company?
We’re looking for dancers who are ready to dance all day, every day. It’s a big commitment. You should be able to step on stage with the corps de ballet of a recognized company and be able to dance solidly at that level to be considered. We also look for the ability to push beyond that to a professional level of dancing.
How is The New Ballet School situated in the San Jose community?
There’s been a lot of research on how people relate to the arts and what they value in the arts. What I’ve seen here is that people want to come to see a show with the people to whom they’re closest, have a great time, and make an event of coming to see a performance. Of course, San Francisco Ballet is close to us. People can go 45 minutes farther and pay top dollar to see some of the best ballet in the world. What we can provide for families in San Jose is a fun, fast-paced, family-friendly ballet performance experience. That’s something our community values and that we do really well.
What are you goals for the school over the next five to ten years?
I would love to see us get to a point where all of our studio company dancers can receive a stipend so we can attract top dancers from around the world. I’d love to see our school grow to fully reach its enrollment potential. And I’d like to see our students continue to succeed, be that by being placed in great professional companies or in excellent academic programs.
Pictured: José Manuel Carreño coaching partnering at the summer intensive, photo by Bari Lee