Serious training leads to big steps on stages Beginning: Students of the Ballet Royale Academy in Columbia have moved on to important dance companies and schools.

May 28, 1998|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Outside a nondescript building in the Oakland Ridge Industrial Center in Columbia, the minivans are clustered like a herd of manatees at feeding time.

Almost the entire enrollment of the Ballet Royale Academy is here for rehearsal: tiny children dressed as ladybugs in red tutus with black polka dots and serious teen-agers in pointe shoes, their hair smoothed back into chignons. Because few of the dancers are old enough to drive, their parents are here, too.

Ballet Royale's spring production, which will have two performances Saturday, is "Alice in Wonderland." It closely follows Lewis Carroll's fantasy, so it is crammed with characters.

The large cast includes the White Rabbit, a duck and a dodo, the guests at the Mad Hatter's tea party, the Cheshire cat, a garden full of red and white roses, a flamingo-and-hedgehog croquet set, and a pack of hearts and spades.

There's even a caterpillar in five segments, played by five little girls in bright green puffy sacks, holding onto each other's waists and trying to step in unison.

All this has sprung from the fertile imagination of Donna Harrington Payne, who directs the school and its ballet company of senior students. She has been assisted by an inspired costumer, Kemberly Morgan, and a bevy of parent volunteers, but every army needs a leader and Payne is it for Ballet Royale.

Known as one of the best dance teachers in the Baltimore area, Payne was born in Barry, Wales, and trained at the Royal Academy of Dance in London. After 16 years in Maryland, she speaks with the gentle vestiges of a British accent.

She had been teaching in Belgium and came here on a vacation to visit her brother, a horse trainer in Clarksville. To learn something about American dance training, she stopped by the Baltimore Ballet and was invited to teach a company class. Before her vacation was up, the ballet had asked her to consider a permanent job.

Payne went on to teach at the Baltimore School for the Arts and the Washington Ballet's brief experiment with a Baltimore school. When it closed, she took some of her students and moved to a space above Bertha's Mussels in Fells Point.

"It didn't smell fishy," she said. "But the patrons complained a lot, because when we did pointe work, plaster would fall off the ceiling into their food."

In 1986, she moved to Howard County, where she occupies the space between the Coliseum Gym and Oak Tree Furniture.

The school has about 300 students taking ballet at all levels, modern dance, jazz and tap. They come from all over the area to study at Ballet Royale, which has a faculty of 13.

"I was lucky enough to be given a marvelous education in dance," said Payne, who graduated from the Royal Academy's White Lodge program for dance teachers. "There was a void in this area, and moving here has been very fulfilling: not just teaching but producing dancers."

Her students have included Alicia Graf, the coltish 18-year-old who went straight from ballet school into the Dance Theater of Harlem in 1997. Cyra Miller, 16, of Elkridge will follow Graf into the DTH this summer.

Other advanced dancers of Ballet Royale have been accepted for summer study in some of the best dance academies in the country. Amanda Fitzgerald, 18, of Ellicott City, who is dancing Alice, will go to the American Ballet Theater's school in New York, and the ABT is considering her for its apprentice company.

Jennifer Bland, 15, of Highland and Charity Maurer, 12, of Glenwood are going to the ABT's Midwestern school in Detroit. And Ashlei Yancich, 12, of Ellicott City is heading for the School of American Ballet, the training academy of the New York City Ballet.

Ballet Royale's combination of sound dance training and the fun of performance seems to strike just the right balance for its fTC students -- and their parents. In the hall outside the studio, mothers get dozens of little dancers into their bat wings and oyster shells (white parasols) and caterpillar sacks. The children enter on cue, maintain their stage demeanor and execute an orderly retreat.

Sure, they've had plenty of time to learn their parts -- they've been rehearsing since January.

"Anybody can perform," Payne said. "But I don't really like the audition process. I just ask who'd like to be in the spring show and put up a sign-up sheet."

The King family of Catonsville is a portrait of the Ballet Royale experience. Shelley, the mother, is the school administrator, which makes her the queen bee of the parent volunteers.

"Shelley is my right arm," Payne said.

King's husband, Philip, an administrator for the Maryland Department of Human Resources, walks regally through the walk-on part of the King of Hearts. Though he has no formal dance training, he plans to take a class in partnering this summer at the academy to be a better Drosselmeier in "The Nutcracker," a role he has played for two years.

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