By Heather Youmans
2:31 PM PST, February 22, 2012
Since its founding in 1940, the esteemed American Ballet Theatre has appeared in a total of 132 cities, 42 countries and all 50 states.
And throughout its 72-year history, the New York-based company has commissioned works by all of the great choreographic minds of the 20th century: George Balanchine, Antony Tudor, Jerome Robbins, Agnes de Mille and Twyla Tharp, among others.
Now, at the tender age of 18, Fountain Valley ballet dancer Jamie Kopit can call the ABT her home.
Kopit began dancing at the age of four at Southland Ballet Academy in Fountain Valley, shortly after her oldest sister enrolled in classes there.
"She actually really liked tap dancing and it wasn't until she was 12 that she really took ballet more seriously," her mother, Diane Steinberg, said in a phone interview. "We had no idea that she would want to do ballet."
Until 2009, Kopit studied for 12 years under long-time SBA instructor Salwa Rizkalla. In 1988, Rizkalla founded the studio's Festival Ballet Theatre Co., which has since become one of the nation's springboards for prima ballerinas. Pointe Magazine has ranked Southland Ballet Academy in the top seven studios nationwide that are cultivating top talent.
Over the years, Kopit danced a range of roles with FBT at The Irvine Barclay Theatre and various local venues. It was these shows that helped her get performance experience and with time, she eventually worked her way up to principal roles like that of "Clara" in "The Nutcracker."
"Jamie was a very special dancer, a unique dancer," Rizkalla said. "She had a lot of agility, was a really hard worker, and had determination from a young age. From the beginning, she was determined to be successful and to be a ballerina."
During Kopit's early training, Rizkalla saw the promise in Kopit's ability and recalled recognizing her "extremely nice lines," "incredible determination" and patience.
Soon enough, Rizkalla started coaching Kopit privately for the Youth America Grand Prix — a worldwide scholarship program and ballet competition. Oftentimes, renowned ballet school directors in attendance will offer scholarships or contracts to stand-out dancers.
"I used to work with her two hours a day each week to prepare her for competition and she would just work through the hours non-stop," Rizkalla said.
At age 14, Kopit won the prestigious award of "Grand Prix" in senior division at the Youth America's Grand Prix Los Angeles Regional in 2009. This award earned her an invitation to the international finals in New York, where she won a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School in London.
"It was very exciting, [and] although it wasn't a full scholarship and my parents had to pay for some, they couldn't say no," Jamie Kopit said in a phone interview. "So, I actually left home when I was 15 years old to live in London."
Following her year in Europe, ABT Ballet Mistress Nancy Raffa — whom Kopit knew from Rizkalla's master classes — encouraged her to attend the ABT auditions in London.
Although a little nervous at first, Kopit convinced herself that she was ready. She dove into the audition scene with more than a year left at the Royal Ballet Academy.
It was in London where the ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie spotted her.
"Kevin McKenzie watched and he said 'I'm really interested in you; we'll get back to you, but we don't make decisions fast here,'" Kopit recalled.
"I was just impressed by the fact he even considered me. So, I was all happy. I went back to school as usual and, two weeks later, I get an email saying 'Would you like to fly over to New York for a second audition? We'd love to see you again.'
"After that, two weeks later I get an email with an apprentice contract starting the following month" Kopit said. "It was all very, very quick."
Kopit joined ABT in May 2011 as an apprentice, learning "somewhere around eight ballets in eight weeks," but with no guarantee of stage time.
"So at the end of the season, I had a meeting with Kevin and Victor Barbee and they said they were interested in keeping me for good," Kopit said.
Kopit joined the ABT's Corps de Ballet in October, which marked her official induction into the company.
"I was so excited. I mean, ABT's always been a dream," Kopit said.
To date, Kopit has visited Japan and Oman with ABT and has performed Corps' roles in "Giselle," "Swan Lake," "Sleeping Beauty," "Cinderella," "Lady of the Camellias," "Don Quixote," "Romeo and Juliet," Ratmansky's "Bright Stream," and "The Nutcracker."
In regards to her future aspirations of advancement within the company, Kopit takes it one day at a time, grounding herself in reality.
"You earn your place there," Kopit said. "That's how it works."
And back home, there's an avid support group.
"When I come home, I still take classes at Southland with Salwa," Kopit said. "It's just really nice to be with people who are aspiring to be where you got to, to help them. I'm really excited so they can finally see me dance with ABT."
At the end of March, following the Festival Ballet's production of "Sleeping Beauty" at the Irvine Barclay Theatre on March 24 and 25, American Ballet Theatre will come to Orange County to premiere "Firebird" at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa.
"Every day I can't believe she's in the American Ballet Theatre," Kopit's mother said. "I just pinch myself every day, not believing that this worked out for her at 18. It's pretty dramatic."
If You Go
What: American Ballet Theatre performing the world premiere of Alexei Ratmansky's "Firebird" with music by Igor Stravinsky, the West Coast premiere of "Thirteen Divisions" by Christopher Wheeldon, and the Segerstrom Center for the Arts premiere of "Duets" by Merce Cunningham
Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: March 29 through April 1
More information: For ticket prices, tickets and showtimes, go to http://www.SCFTA.org or call (714) 556-2787.