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On a Friday afternoon, in the sweltering second-floor dance studio at Beverly Hills High School, twenty members of the Advanced Dance Theater Group gathered for a two hour class given by Ben Wright, 28, a featured dancer (sharing the role of The Prince) in Matthew Bourne's controversial "Swan Lake," which has completed an unprecedented six-week run at the Ahmanson Theater. The soft-spoken Englishman's shattered preconception of a tony Beverly Hills' school was apparent from his first words: "It's not air-conditioned!?"
When Janet Roston, director of Beverly High's acclaimed dance company, saw this extraordinary production, she immediately tried to set up a master class with one of the cast members. Armed with a modest honorarium, she went through several "official" channels, but was thwarted in her attempts. However, two of her male dancers, Matthew Wong and Darrin Wright (no relation), attended "Swan Lake" for a second time and recognized the "Prince" on his night off. Matt approached him and, as they chatted, mentioned that his teacher had been trying to arrange a class. A flurry of phone calls ensued, leading up to this day. (Ironically, Matt Wong, erroneously diagnosed with appendicitis the morning of the class, was unable to attend.)
During her 14 year tenure, Ms Roston has strongly encouraged boys to participate. This year there were five boys in the group, including eleventh-grader Wright who recently completed four months as a member of the celebrated Lewitzky Dance Company which was on its farewell tour.
The students, recognizing a rare opportunity, stay focused as Wright, in sweat pants and striped t-shirt, leads a modern warm-up to cranked-up pop music. Adopting a gentle, but, no-nonsense demeanor, he encourages the class often, asking for questions and feedback. He shows the class several series of movements across the floor and watches as they attempt the challenging combinations. The students are intense and enthusiastic, if not always able to master the intricate moves. His motivational style has a distinct British charm: "Yes! That's marginally better."
Towards the end of the class, the guest teacher changes the CD and the dramatic, haunting strains of "Swan Lake" fill the mirrored room. He begins to demonstrate the powerful movements from one of The Prince's solos. The young performers are torn between trying to learn the choreography and just watching in awe as the graceful dancer carves elegant shapes in space. Several times, as he finishes a phrase, there's a spontaneous eruption of applause. In groups of threes and fours, they try the difficult combinations. Though understandably ragged given the brief time to assimilate the choreography, there are still many moments of strength and beauty in their efforts.
When the session ends, the exhilarated sweat-drenched dancers sit in a circle clutching their water bottles. This was the opportunity to ask their guest questions. Wright, articulate and humorous, answers their queries with candor. He's "gratified" at the enthusiastic reception "Swan Lake" has received from Los Angeles' audiences. Contractually, he's required to attend every performance; in case the performing Prince "falls out."
"Any funny moments on stage?" He tells about being in awe of legendary prima ballerina Lynn Seymour, who plays The Queen. In the first act, while in the Royal Box at a ballet, the Prince's boisterous Fergie-like girlfriend gives the stoic Queen an exuberant nudge. In one of their first performances, Seymour went sailing clear off the back of the set. They had to help her up, unhurt, but tiara askew. The cast was "corpsing," laughing so hard they could die.
"What's next?" Wright will return with Bourne's London-based company, Adventures in Motion Pictures, and begin rehearsals for its version of "Cinderella," set in that city during the blitz of World War II.
In September, the Advanced Dance Theater Group, Company '98 will begin creating its always entertaining January concert, featuring a variety of styles including modern, jazz, hip-hop, ballroom and ballet. Next March, in Florida, they will attend the National High School Dance Festival.
© 1997 by B. L. Weiss
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