Allynne Noelle and Thomas Brown opened WestMet Classical Training in Long Lake in September last year after a virtual run that, several months prior, had started with semi-private lessons in their home loft space and a gradually building client base.
A further expansion has been underway this summer.
Noelle and Brown brought their first classical performances to the Westonka Performing Arts Center early last month in a repertoire series that introduced their students to what both Noelle and Brown know very well: what it’s like to dance on the stage uninhibited by the pressures of competition.
That separation of the art from the score—of the performance from the judgement, of the dancer from the competitor—is what has set WestMet apart since Day One.
WHERE IT ALL STARTED
“You either have to join college dance team or that’s it—you pack your shoes, stick them away and you’re retired essentially at 18.” The somewhat artificial cutoff to a beloved sport didn’t seem right, Noelle says, but it’s what often defines the competition dance circuit—and a lot of dancers don’t even know that programs exist for pursuing the art professionally.
Noelle, originally from southern California, had first stepped into her dance shoes in Kindergarten during an open house day at her friend’s dance studio, training first in what she describes as the “pure, unaffected” style of Italian ceccetti and later specializing in the “more Americana style” of Balanchine. She signed her first professional contract at age 15 and, far from retiring three years later, made a career performing with the Los Angeles Classical, Miami City and Suzanne Farrell ballet companies.
Brown, from Jacksonville, Fla., had a ballet instructor for a mother and a baseball coach for a father and says he fell into ballet when he noticed his sisters warming up with similar stretches for their steps as he used on the mound. He weathered friends’ ribbing—and goaded them to test their strength with ballet—and eventually signed with the Richmond Ballet Company, performing on the stages of London’s Royal Opera House, Beijing’s Egg and the Grand Shanghai Theatre.
It might seem a dreamer’s ambition, professional ballet, but that’s why Noelle and Brown have built their studio into what it is, they say.
The pre-professional program aims to fill what Noelle says is a “huge gap in training” created by a hyper focus on technique that leaves little room for understanding the off-stage facets of a career in concert ballet.
“You’re trained so extensively as a kid muscularly to get this technique and get this mastery of your body, and then you get your job and you become a professional, and when you’re a professional you’re expected to know all these things that you haven’t yet been exposed to because the focus has so much been on your instrument [body].”
She and Brown train their students in a base technique, malleable to different companies’ preferred styles. But they reach beyond technique to also instruct their dancers in those ancillaries that aid in transforming art into career: how to work in a corps with other dancers, how to add to a repertoire, how to maintain the body in a health sense and stave off injury…Noelle counts it off before adding that there’s a lot of autonomy in professional ballet and it can feel like “you’re up a creek without a paddle” if that guidance isn’t there.
Despite their dismantling of the dreamer’s ambition into a down to earth game plan for attaining it, Noelle and Brown also are frank about the realities of concert ballet as a profession.
“There’s definitely a shelf life to it,” says Noelle. Adds Brown, injury isn’t a matter of “if” but of “when.”
Ballet “works against your natural skeletal structure,” says Noelle. “Everything’s externally rotated, [and] you’re essentially deforming your muscles to wrap around your skeletal structure in a different way.”
It’s also make or break. “You either have the discipline for it or you don’t,” Brown says. “It’s so precise. It’s black and white. It’s either right or it’s wrong.”
Still, the industry has evolved and in a way that recognizes those risks.
“That 1970s starving artist ballet mentality is kind of going by the wayside now,” says Noelle, looking through the glass at the studio to where a variations class is ending. With dancers peaking in their late teens and twenties, the bigger companies are now realizing that it’s a more “humane and realistic” approach to allow their trainees to get some college in and so have a fallback come retirement or injury, she says.
Noelle and Brown will often work through Youth America Grand Prix, an international scholarship program and major feeder to professional ballet programs. WestMet students, putting in 17 hours of class each week plus rehearsals and private lessons, have already secured placements at such sought-after places as the John Cranko School in Stuttgart and Monaco’s Princess Grace Academy.
“They meet us halfway with their ethic and their drive,” says Noelle, now standing up again after fastening on a pair of low-heeled character shoes: she’s leading the next class in 5 minutes. “Because we’re not easy on them, that’s for sure,”
Noelle and Brown will next be bringing their students to the Westonka Performing Arts Center at the end of October for a collaboration with the PAC’s choral group. Also scheduled is a “Nutcracker” performance in December and a return next June of the repertoire series. Watch the PAC website for exact dates.