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Miami City Ballet’s summer program has an international flair

BY RODOLFO R. ROMAN
Special to The Miami Herald
Twice a year, ballet instructor Alice Arja visits the favelas, or shanty towns, of Rio de Janiero with a mission: To recruit young boys and girls and enroll them in her Brazilian dance school in hopes of inspiring and educating the poorest children of her country.

And for the past two years, she has helped some of those students take the stage far from the poverty of the favelas — learning classical ballet and other forms of dance at the Miami City Ballet summer camp.

More than 1,000 young dancers audition each year for the program, competing for about 200 spots.

‘I visit the favelas and ask the children, `Who wants to practice ballet?’ ” said Arja, director of Escola de Danca, which has three locations in Brazil.

She first heard of the Miami City Ballet five-week program in 2007 and sent audition DVDs for four of her students, including her daughter, to the studios at 2200 Liberty Ave. in Miami Beach.

All four were accepted. This year, 23 of her students won coveted spots — including several she recruited from the favelas.

”One of the greatest things about this school is seeing kids from all over the world and you learn about other places and their training,” said Alexander Fereirra, 18, who met Arja during one of her trips to the favelas and was accepted into the Miami City Ballet program in 2007.

He obtained a visa, allowing him to study dance in the United States, and now attends Miami Beach High. He soon will become a student apprentice with the ballet company.

The summer program is rigorous, and students are hand-picked by the teachers.

”We look for their passion, how their body develops and dedication,” said Linda Villella, the school’s director, noting that more than 1,000 aspiring dancers seek spots in the summer program. The program is open to dancers age 12-19.

The program, which ends Friday, costs $1,500; although, many of Arja’s students rely on sponsorships, such as one she obtained from the head Brazilian executive at Coca-Cola.

This year’s class is made up of 215 dancers from across the United States and as far away as Bazil, Mexico and Spain.

Learning from the school’s staff of professional dancers is a major draw, said artistic director Edward Villella.

”The premise of this program is that we have a certain knowledge and sophistication here that can attract people from other places in training,” he said.

Classes are taught by 13 professional instructors, including Villella.

”People come here because they think we know enough to provide them with information that is going to [help] them,” said Villella, who has performed for four U.S. presidents.

For New York native Sarah Hochman, 20, the school helped her obtain a job with the Pennsylvania Ballet, which she will start in August.

She’s a veteran, currently enrolled in her seventh year in the program.

”The training here is well-rounded, which makes you strong and versatile,” said Hochman, who wore her black tights and ballet shoes as she stood outside one of eight studios in the building.

Throughout the day, students take four 90-minute classes with an emphasis on ballet — such as classical technique and pointe work — as well as jazz.

At a recent session, students spent about 40 minutes at the barre, focusing on their posture, alignment and flexibility.

Soon after, the students are leaping and twirling through the air, learning the ballet style of the legendary George Balanchine.

”There is a sensible and practical evolution to these classes that ends up in flying around,” Villella said.

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