In the course of its 13-year history, dancers from more than 130 countries have trained with the Ajkun Ballet Theatre which returns to Albany this weekend for its annual residency program.
This year, dancers from Albania, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, Spain, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States will participate in the program.
A trademark of AjkunBT is its extremely diverse multicultural aspect. Co-founders Leonard and Chiara Ajkun, an international team themselves, have laid the foundation for this.
Leonard grew up in the Albanian capital of Tirana and began his professional career with the National Ballet Company of the Tirana Opera House at 16.
Chiara hails from Mantova in northern Italy and as principal dancer, performed in more than 200 ballets in Italy, France, Belgium, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Germany, Austria and the U.S.
Ajkun Ballet Theatre
WHERE: The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany
WHEN: “Les Misérables” at 7:30 p.m. Sunday; “La Bayadère” at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 10
HOW MUCH: $29 for adults, $19 for children 11 and under
MORE INFO: 473-1845, www.theegg.org
To ensure that dancers from all over the world have an opportunity to train with its company and to attract the best talent from around the world, AjkunBT partners with over 100 dance organizations globally. This year, the company will hold auditions in Australia, Greece, Argentina, Brazil, Japan, Spain, United Kingdom and Italy.
Talent over nationality
In addition to giving dancers from abroad an opportunity to dance with this New York City-based company, AjkunBT brings a culturally diverse experience to local communities. “Part of our mission is to promote diversity as an enrichment to our community and to bring on stage talent as a common denominator for our roster rather than citizenship,” said Chiara Ajkun.
The residency starts off on Sunday with “Les Misérables,” a contemporary ballet choreographed by Leonard that debuted earlier this year. On Aug. 10, it culminates in a performance of the classical ballet, “La Bayadère,” staged by Chiara, who serves as the company’s co-artistic director.
In between the two performances, young dancers will have the opportunity for intensive training in the Ajkuns’ methodology. Company members will serve as adjunct professors at the community-based dance company ArtPartners/Tsehaya & Company in Albany, working with youth ages 6 to 16, exposing them not only to dance, but to cultures from all over the world.
Ellen Sinopoli of the Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company of Albany, who serves as an artistic adviser for AjkunBT’s board, will also be part of the residency program, teaching classes in contemporary dance technique as well as refining existing work and creating new pieces for ESDC.
2,000 apply for 20 spots
The Ajkuns believe that early exposure to life in a professional dance company is critical to a successful career, and they offer this exposure through the residency program. Roughly 2,000 applicants compete for 20 spots each year.
Three years ago, Marcello Bernard from Susa, Italy, was one of the dancers in the summer program. Subsequently, AjkunBT offered him a position as a trainee with the company. He was 19 at the time.
“It was a big deal,” Bernard said, noting that he comes from a very small town in Italy. “All the way to New York City — it was crazy,” he said. “Thinking that her son is in a big metropolis” is still something that his mother is working on, Bernard said.
Bernard, who AjkunBT promoted to senior artist in 2011, loves the opportunity to be on his own as a professional dancer in New York City. However, the company’s schedule, 48 weeks a year, doesn’t offer him much opportunity to go home. He usually visits once a year around Christmastime.
Another senior artist, Momoko Sasada of Japan, had lived in the United States before joining AjkunBT. She had been studying on a full scholarship at the Joffrey Ballet School from 2004 to 2007, after which she returned to dance in Japan.
AjkunBT piqued Sasada’s interest became she went to school at Joffrey with Brittany Larrimer of Texas, who joined AjkunBT in 2007. “I was interested because this company had so many foreigners,” Sasada said.
Last year, she auditioned and AjkunBT offered her a position as a senior artist along with a visa that allows her to work in the United States for two years.
With dancers from five continents, it might seem that language would be an issue, but all speak English well enough to work together easily. “It’s a really great environment,” Bernard said. “The fact that we all come from different cultures and different countries, it makes it more different and special and real. You see a lot of companies like that, but they’re not that extreme.”
Having dancers who have trained all over the world brings a unique flavor to the work. “I think it’s good that we have so many different backgrounds, because we have so many different dance styles and different ways to perform,” Sasada said. “We help each other a lot. It makes us better performers.”
Bernard will be dancing the lead role of Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables” at The Egg. Even though Leonard Ajkun is a classically trained dancer, the ballets he choreographs have a distinctly contemporary style. Because audiences are familiar with the story line from the musical and movie, Bernard thinks that audience will enjoy the performance.
In addition to its contemporary creations, AjkunBT has more than 35 classic and chamber ballets in its repertory, and Capital Region audiences will have a chance to see “La Bayadère,” a love story and mystery set in ancient India to music by Ludwig Minkus and choreographed by Chiara Ajkun after Marius Petipa.
The ballet debuted in St. Petersburg in 1877. It tells the story of Nikiya, a temple dancer who falls in love with the noble warrior Solor, who has been chosen to marry the Rajah’s daughter, Gamzatti. Larrimer dances the role of Nikiya, Bernard dances the role of Nikiya’s slave, and Sasada will dance the role of Gamzatti.
AjkunBT arrives in Albany fresh from its European tour and will head to Australia afterwards for its annual tour down under.