Taking the next step

Sarita Christensen, a gifted 18-year-old dancer, is postponing college so she can pursue her lifelong passion as an apprentice with the Ballet Theatre of Maryland. `I want to see,' she says, `how far I can go.'

July 17, 2005|By Joni Guhne | Joni Guhne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Maria Christensen, 2005 graduate of Annapolis Area Christian School, is preparing to begin her graphic design studies at Villa Julie College next month, but her twin sister, Sarita, will not be joining her.

Instead of going off to school this fall, Sarita Christensen, 18, will be starting a job she has dreamed of since she was 4 years old, when she first heard the music from the ballet Swan Lake and, said her mother, Caroline, was "transfixed."

Sarita will follow her dream -- she just won't go to college to do it. She discussed applying to the University of Utah's dance program with her mother, who holds a master's degree in dance from Smith College in Massachusetts. But when the Ballet Theatre of Maryland offered Sarita a Level III apprenticeship, the idea of college moved to the back of her mind.

If life had followed a more ordinary course, and Caroline and John Christensen, who were exploring their options for adoption in the late 1980s, had not taken a class at Anne Arundel Community College sponsored by FACE -- Families Adopting Children Everywhere -- the lives of two babies born in Santiago, Chile, 18 years ago might have taken a very different turn. But the couple did take the class and were so impressed by the stories of successful international adoptions that they applied for a baby through the Baker Adoption Agency in Washington and hit the lottery: 3-month-old twin sisters whom they named Maria and Sarita. Their younger brother, Carlos, also from Chile, joined the family four years later.

"I kind of like" being adopted, said Sarita. "It sets me apart."

The petite brunette told her mother that if she hadn't been adopted, she might never have tried ballet.

Along with her sister, Sarita took a college preparatory course at the Annapolis Area Christian School.

"While I was in school, I danced five days a week, three hours four of those days, and sometimes 12 to 6 on Saturday," she said. "Finding time to study, it was difficult. Getting through on a C average made me very happy."

But Sarita was born to dance. An athletic child, she was the first toddler enrolled at the Montessori School in Annapolis to climb the big tree in the schoolyard, her mother said. At one point, Sarita had to decide between dancing and soccer, and she chose her "passion."

"Friday nights for 12 years between Nutcracker rehearsals and classes, I never had to push her; all I had to do was drive," said Caroline Christensen. "She wanted to learn to drive so she could drive to ballet."

At 5 feet 2 inches tall and 105 pounds, Sarita said she doesn't find her small stature a disadvantage.

"It helps me move a lot faster," she said.

Said Dianna Cuatto, artistic director of the Ballet Theatre of Maryland and director of its school: "In the old days of ballet, we would have called her a soubrette -- a dancer who is extremely good at fast jumps, very crystal in her movements, a quick learner and strong, an excellent partner with a good center."

BTM tries to include all ages in its classical and contemporary dance classes -- from Tiny Toes, an introduction to dance for 2-year-olds and their mothers, to lessons for adult hobbyists. Serious ballet students are assigned to one of six divisions according to their ability. Qualified dancers of high school age and four levels of company apprentices make up Division VI. Dancers in apprentice Level II and up receive a small stipend for each performance, ranging from $25 to $100, said the director.

Sarita, who is one of five dancers at Apprentice Level III, is the first dancer to move from student to apprentice level during Cuatto's first two seasons as company director.

BTM divides rehearsal and class time between studios in Maryland Hall and the Conte Lubrano building near Annapolis Mall. Unlike some companies, BTM treats its apprentices like true company members, said Cuatto. They work at least a 40-hour week and receive "lots of coaching and train with the company," she said.

The extended training that apprentices receive gives them the opportunity "to partner," an important step to becoming a professional dancer. Her mother said that when she saw Sarita teamed up with a male dancer in a recent performance, she whispered to a friend that her daughter had become a "real dancer."

Sometimes the company auditions for parts, said Cuatto, and an apprentice can be cast as an understudy or win a starring role. The apprentices have a two-hour class each day. Dancers at apprentice levels III and IV need only a little more polishing before being ready to join the company, said Cuatto.

"More is demanded as they move up the ladder to be ready for the pressure of being in the company," she said.

Said Sarita: "I really love it."

When she was little, she said, she told her mother ballet was her passion. "I still feel that way. I want to see how far I can go," Sarita said.

"I think she will be a dancer," said Cuatto, "and I hope it's with us."

BTM will perform a lecture demonstration at Art Works in Baltimore on Saturday. Sarita will likely be one of the performers, Cuatto said.

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