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A Leap of Faith

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Orlando Canova burst from the wings, claimed center stage and propelled himself straight up, spinning twice like a corkscrew before landing on a dime.

Moments before, while other dancers might have been whispering prayers on Jell-O-for-knees, Orlando was gnawing a bread stick and clowning around with some of his buddies. No butterflies before that recent performance with the Anaheim Ballet.

The 16-year-old Laguna Niguel junior will need his steely nerve and delicate balance for the biggest back-to-school challenge of his life. The youngest of three sons of a single working mother begins training today at the prestigious academy serving one of the world’s preeminent dance companies, the New York City Ballet.

The dance troupe is banking on him, literally, with its premiere scholarship package. All his tuition at the School of American Ballet will be paid for. So will most of his room and board and his plane ticket as one of 20 fledgling dancers selected from 2,000 around the nation for the rigorous program.

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“I’m in the top class, and I have to live up to that,” the slender, soft-voiced teenager said, admitting to feeling a little stressed over the leap he’s taking--although he has done summer school stints at SAB for the past three years. “There’s going to be all these new kids that are probably going to be really good.”

It is a bitterly competitive world Orlando aspires to, one as mentally and physically challenging as training for the Olympics. Add to that the risk of injury and too few paying jobs. Less than a quarter of professional dancers in the United States work full time in their chosen field, according to psychologist Linda Hamilton, a former member of the New York City Ballet who now works with dancers.

In their relentless pursuit of perfection, ballet dancers suffer from higher-than-average rates of eating disorders--the art demands a lean look--drug use, severe depression and even suicide, Hamilton found in nationwide research.

Former New York City Ballet star Gelsey Kirkland detailed her battles with cocaine addiction and bulimia, which caused her teeth to fall out, in her 1986 autobiography, “Dancing on My Grave.” She was also plagued by chronic injuries, which have also sidelined scores of hopefuls and crippled or cut short ballet careers. Mikhail Baryshnikov’s injuries over the years pushed him into modern dance, a form more forgiving on the limbs.

Thanks to stars such as Baryshnikov, Kirkland and Rudolf Nureyev, ballet has become increasingly popular. As troupes proliferate, the demand is greater than ever for male dancers and, particularly Latinos such as Orlando, as companies strive for ethnic diversity.

Orlando already displays an emotional equilibrium that tempers a fierce determination to master his craft. In classes with the Anaheim Ballet and elsewhere, his single-mindedness is as evident as the sweat that drenches his T-shirt. The intensity of his expression seems to transform the teenager, whose voice hasn’t changed, into a man.

It has been like that for the past four years, when, at age 12, he began ballet lessons and replaced a regular kid’s social life with daily classes, evening and weekend practices and performances.

For all that, the boy, who is quick to smile, seems unflappable. Some dancers fall to pieces at teachers’ unending corrections. Orlando just works harder when he hears the shouts: “Lower your shoulders!” “Suck in your gut!” “Hip down!”

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“You usually learn from it,” he said with the same maturity that saw him through financial challenges, his mother’s recent bout with breast cancer and the inevitable ridicule that comes with being a boy in tights.

“Orlando has the perfect attitude,” said Lawrence Rosenberg, his lead teacher at the Anaheim Ballet school.

Orlando has studied with Rosenberg since the beginning. Even before his first lesson, he sailed through two out of three auditions when American Ballet Theatre came looking to fill the children’s roles in its Orange County tour of the “Nutcracker.”

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These days, Orlando can whip off five pirouettes with momentum to spare. With his dark good looks and brilliant smile, many have compared him to Jose Manuel Carreno, an ABT principal.

Orlando is long-limbed and svelte, but his insteps aren’t as highly arched as they might be. Not that the perfect ballet body is a requirement, but it helps, especially when gold medal equivalents of only a generation or so ago might be refused entry-level jobs today.

Every student--even one blessed with an ideal physique--must literally reshape his or her bones, repeating grueling exercises for hours a day, six days a week. The regimen perfected allows dancers to create a sort of visual poetry that draws cries for encores; but it also produces tired muscles and can result in chronic or career-ending injuries.

“These kids, they’re not normal,” said Nina Vance, a Laguna Hills resident whose daughter Barrete also starts at SAB today. “They’re obsessed with their love for dance.”

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Not all the scholarship kids survive the rigors of a top-flight academy such as SAB, which includes regular academic classes at New York City’s performing arts high school.

One of Rosenberg’s students couldn’t take it. The youth, whose name Rosenberg declined to disclose, was overwhelmed by the punishing dance training plus the academic load. Without a family support system, the overwhelmed teen left SAB, his dreams of a dance career in limbo.

“They go, but they may not be ready,” Rosenberg said.

Orlando Julius Canova, known as O.J., moved to Laguna Niguel from Whittier, his birthplace, when he was 5. Neither his proud father, Richard Canova, who owns a flooring business that bears his name, nor his mother had been arts lovers.

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The couple divorced when O.J. was about 1. Ever since, largely because all three sons lived with her, Silvia Canova has worked overtime at Pacific Bell in Anaheim or held a second job as a security guard at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. That’s where O.J. was introduced to ballet.

He “faked” his way through the “Nutcracker” audition, the youth now says. But the experience gave him a passion for dance.

At first, one brother thought it was just a phase, like the gymnastics and acting O.J. had dabbled in earlier, said Jason Canova, 22, who works with his father in Pomona. But “he kept doing it--seven days a week, all the time, ‘til late at night.”

A Life of Sacrifices

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Silvia Canova taught her boys discipline: They had to help her with chores, clean their rooms and do all their homework, said Jason Canova, who’s also learned a lot by playing basketball, golf and football. “Sports have been my life, but I don’t have the work ethic that O.J. does,” he said.

After 18 months studying at Anaheim (formerly Coast) Ballet, O.J. attended his first fully-paid summer session, this one with the Houston Ballet, progressing to three consecutive summers of thrice-weekly dance classes in New York.

One of his teachers there, Andrei Kramarevsky, extols the teen’s superior speed at grasping subtle technical concepts explained in his thick Russian accent. Krammy, as he’s called, has been teaching at SAB for more than two decades. He said Orlando has the ability to qualify for the New York City Ballet company by his 18th birthday.

“Because,” Krammy said, “for ballet, [it] not only takes body, it’s brain.”

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Kramarevsky’s praise notwithstanding, Orlando knows what’s ahead won’t be easy. He recently discussed the hurdles he’s vaulted after politely inviting a visitor into his mother’s immaculate home.

In jeans and a T-shirt, Orlando looks like a typical Southern California teenager on summer break. Nearby, stand two trophies he won in the countywide Disneyland Creativity Challenge this spring. They’re quiet reminders of the all-consuming life he chose before most of his peers began shopping for their own clothes.

Orlando has been teased for that choice, even by his brothers.

“It’s kind of a national shame,” said Edward Villella, one of New York City Ballet’s most enduring stars, now the father of three and artistic director of the Miami City Ballet.

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“I was an athlete in high school and college--from basketball to boxing,” Villella said. “But ballet is the most sophisticated form of physical investigation I’ve ever encountered, so those smirking and laughing are without knowledge.”

Orlando said he never let the put-downs get to him. It wasn’t so easy, though, turning down invitations to join friends for, say, a movie.

“People ask you, ‘Do you want to come with us? We’re going out to a dance club.’ And I say, ‘No, I have rehearsal tonight; I can’t do it; I’m sorry.’ ”

Other hardships are economic. Orlando has had to find sponsors to help pay for his New York summers and needs $2,000 for the upcoming year.

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Still, he has confidence. In the Anaheim Ballet, he burned with frustration when others got lead roles that he thought he deserved.

Two years ago, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Silvia Canova said she’s healthy now, and O.J., who attributes his outlook to the example his churchgoing mother sets, handled the trauma with characteristic coolheaded optimism. Standing in his bedroom, filled with photographs of such NYCB stars as Peter Boal, he said he never doubted she’d pull through.

“I really didn’t cry a lot.”

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He’ll need that kind of grounding.

Clinical depression strikes 20% of male dancers--nearly double the rate for the general population--according to a 1996 survey of 300 students and professionals printed in Dance Magazine and conducted by Hamilton, the former New York City Ballet dancer.

One-third of the dancers surveyed had contemplated suicide, 2% had attempted it, and 10% had taken antidepressants, reported Hamilton, who recently published “Advice for Dancers: Emotional and Practical Strategies.”

The book addresses drastic dieting (practiced more by women than men), grueling competition and perfectionism.

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“If you don’t have it in you, you’d never repeat steps [ad infinitum] to get them right,” Hamilton said in an interview.

A whole chapter of her guide is devoted to injuries. A few years ago, Orlando developed tendinitis in both legs. The doctor called it “growing pains,” and it since has disappeared. Still, odds are that he’ll strain something else. About 45% of students and 61% of professionals surveyed by Hamilton last year suffer chronic injuries, she said.

A Model for Others

On the upside, experts say being a male dancer and a minority can only help Orlando. Former New York City Ballet star Villella says he looks for talent, never skin color, in new prospects.

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Yet his troupe, like Anaheim Ballet, is collaborating with local public schools to bring ballet lessons to minorities. Government funders--in an era of diminished public arts support--also look favorably upon diverse arts groups, he noted.

Villella, who has never met Orlando, spoke in general about the teen’s prospects: “If he has an above-average ability, everybody will be looking at him.”

Silvia Canova believes her son could be a role model for other Latino youths. He’s been a model son. But when she thinks of the world of performing arts, she imagines a lot of drinking and drugs and generally a “faster life.”

“He’s basically not real streetwise,” said his mother, noting that last year, while he prayed that SAB would invite him to stay year-round, she prayed it wouldn’t.

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O.J. hasn’t had a girlfriend, and he calls his mother twice a week (his grandmother twice a month) when he’s away.

Sexual activity and drug use among dancers is below the national average for teens, Hamilton said she found, and alcohol consumption is roughly parallel. At SAB, Orlando will have a curfew and will be closely supervised by residential advisors. His dance classes, dorm room and dining quarters are housed in the same skyscraper on the city’s Upper West Side.

“You start to like elevators a lot,” he quipped.

Orlando acknowledges the hard work ahead of him. “There are so many good reasons to give up,” he said.

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Still, his desire to dance seems to override all doubts. He thrives on mastering a step or a technical riddle that has maddeningly eluded him. He’s charged by the artistry of crafting believable characters. He loves the applause, the recognition.

“Sometimes, after a performance, little kids will come back and say, ‘I really want to do this when I grow up.’ And I remember I was the same way. So to do that for somebody else is amazing.”

Now Orlando has the chance to inspire many, many more, much like Miranda Weese, also from Orange County. Two years ago, just shy of her 21st birthday, she shot to the top ranks at New York City Ballet.

Will Orlando join her there? He can see the dream in detail. It includes a huge apartment in New York and a house in Connecticut. There’s even a golden retriever.

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What if it doesn’t come to pass? Orlando is both philosophical and indefatigably upbeat.

“I’d get over it,” he said. “And I’d get into another company.”


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