With days to go before Youth America Grand Prix, an international ballet competition held at Lincoln Center, ballet teacher Edward Ellison looked on as two of his young students rehearsed their pas de deux in preparation for the show.
Juliette Bosco, 12, wore a royal blue tutu, pointe shoes and an attentive gaze. Her partner, 15-year-old Theo Pilette, matched in a blue velvet jacket. As the pair moved, Ellison interjected softly and often, calling Bosco “sweetie pie” as he corrected her posture.
“One day, he’ll be frustrated because I’m not listening to corrections and the next day he’ll be super happy,” Bosco said after rehearsal, free of her tutu and relaxed in a black sweatshirt, black athletic pants and Uggs. “I understand him completely.”
Through his company, Ellison Ballet, Ellison prepares serious classical dance students for a professional ballet career. A onetime soloist with the San Francisco Ballet, Ellison spent years as a freelance teacher and coach working with young dancers throughout the United States and Europe, a traveling gig that grew frustrating.
“I would start to build something with who I was working with and as soon as I started to see the fruits of the labor, if you will, then I would leave,” Ellison said. “I started feeling that I wanted to do something more long term.”
He formed Ellison Ballet in 2005, after a friend casually suggested that he start a school where his occasional students could seek consistent instruction. He will celebrate the company’s 10-year anniversary with a student and alumni showcase at Symphony Space May 15 and 16.
“Just that idea, start a school and start small, I couldn’t shake it,” he said. “I was just almost obsessed with that idea. And I thought, ‘Yes. I’m going to do this.’”
Ten students enrolled in the first year of the program, and over the past decade the school, open to dancers ages 12-19, has swelled only slightly to include one class of boys and two classes of girls, broken up by age group. Though capped at 15 students, each class typically has only about 10 dancers who gain admission solely through audition. By its second year, the school earned a reputation as one of the more selective programs because Ellison turned students away, even if that meant leaving spots unfilled, he said.
“It gave people the idea that this school is no joke,” Ellison said.
Young dancers from across the country and the globe audition for the full-year program and take part in summer intensives at the school, based at Manhattan Movement and Arts Center on West 60th Street, not far from the New York City Ballet’s Lincoln Center home.
“The amount of knowledge he has about classical technique is incredible,” said Rebecca Reeves, a 20-year-old dancer from Melbourne, Australia, who came to Ellison Ballet two years ago on the recommendation of her instructor. “He understands what it means to be an artist. He pushes you to dive so deep into the character that you become the character on stage.”
Sara Ezzell, 19, started training with Ellison in 2012 after taking one of his classes.
“He has so much passion and gives so much that I immediately knew this was the place,” she said.
In rehearsals, Ellison’s energy matches the moment. Rehearsing a scene from “Carmen” with 20 dancers, Ellison rarely sat down, and demonstrated movements and expressions while telling the girls to “put a little more jalapeno in it” when their performances registered as sweet. With Bosco and Pilette, he was more subdued and measured, but no less in command.
Students attend ballet classes every day from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., so dancers seek alternatives to traditional academics. Ezzell earned her high school diploma through an online program with the Harvey School, a private academy based in Katonah, New York. Bosco is home-schooled and devotes each weekend to studying. Some students who are far from home live in dormitory housing on West 88th Street.
Ellison believes in establishing a strong technical foundation, and students receive daily instruction from the same teacher for years, a common practice in Russian schools but less frequently employed in the United States, said Ellison, who trained mostly with Russian teachers. In addition to Ellison, the school employs two other instructors, each responsible for one class.
Dancers in the program have caught the attention of European and Russian artistic directors, including Mikhail Messerer, ballet master with the Mikhailovsky Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia, who cast Ellison Ballet students in his company’s fall program at Lincoln Center. Bosco danced a solo in the performance, filling in for a company soloist who had struggled with the choreography.
“I can’t imagine how that professional dancer felt being replaced by a 12-year-old,” said Ellison. “She just nailed it.”
In the last five years, every graduate from the program landed contracts with ballet companies, including with Eifman Ballet in St. Petersburg and Paris Opera Ballet. Reeves hopes to continue her career in her native Melbourne.
Ezzell, who performs as Giselle at the Ballet Theater of St. Petersburg Conservatory later this spring, will soon exit the program and is likely to accept an offer from a ballet company shortly, though she’s short on details.
“Until the papers have been signed, nothing is for shizzle,” she said.
After their performances with the Mikhailovsky Ballet, Messerer invited both Pilette and Bosco to train with the Vaganova Academy, a premier ballet school in St. Petersburg that originated some of the training techniques Ellison adopted. Juliette’s mother, Christina, who moved from Fairfield, Conn. to Weehawken, New Jersey, to ease the daily commute to the west side of Manhattan for dance classes, hopes her daughter will spend at least another year with Ellison Ballet.
“It’s going to be very difficult in the future to let go,” she said.
For Bosco, the youngest dancer at the school, letting go may prove difficult as well, though she dreams of following her idol, Russian dancer Natalia Osipova, into ballet stardom with the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow or the Royal Ballet in London.
“He’s basically the best teacher in the world,” Bosco said of Ellison. “I don’t think you can find anyone better than him, even in Russia.”