An Upper Arlington teenager has followed her dancing dreams to New York City, where a five-week summer course with the School of American Ballet won her an invitation to be one of 20 young dancers -- from a pool of about 2,500 -- to participate in the company's year-round program.
Isabelle Lapierre has been dancing since she was 2 years old. She began training at the BalletMet Dance Academy in Columbus when she was 3.
When she was 9, she performed as a party guest in BalletMet's "The Nutcracker," and beginning when she was 11, she spent three consecutive years in a lead role as one of the company's Claras in the annual production.
Now 14, Lapierre has taken a bounding leap toward turning her passion into a professional career.
The School of American Ballet was established in New York City in 1934 by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, and it is recognized as a preeminent ballet academy in the U.S. It is the official school of the New York City Ballet, based at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
"We don't have a set course or graduation schedule," said Amy Bordy, director of public relations, recruiting and outreach for the School of American Ballet. "Usually, a young person is ready to start a professional career when they are 17 or 18.
"We think in the summers, they should be training with schools that have companies, and Isabelle will attend auditions over the next four years in different markets so she can get to know them and they can get to know her. She won't be in Ohio very much."
Lapierre was, however, back in Upper Arlington over Thanksgiving to visit friends, her parents, Maria and James, and brother, Jean-Luc.
She also is slated to take part in a red-carpet premiere Monday, Dec. 3, at the Gateway Film Center in Columbus for "Finding Clara," a documentary by Elevate Pictures and Justice Studios, in partnership with BalletMet, that provides a behind-the-scenes account of the local company's annual "Nutcracker" production.
The film features Lapierre as it follows her and four other young dancers through auditions, rehearsals and the selection of the lead role of Clara.
Kylie Lovsey, Elevate Pictures project manager and design researcher, said Lapierre's enthusiasm in seeking the role for a third time at age 13 is apparent in the film, and as the oldest, most experienced Clara, she became a mentor to the other girls.
"Isabelle is a true role model, with both the talent and heart to steal the spotlight," Lovsey said. "We were so glad to be able to tell her story of how she found her Clara."
Lovsey said "Finding Clara" demonstrates how the Columbus ballet community empowers young girls to "dream big and work hard," and it is a "true, authentic story."
"Capturing all the moments, from auditions to rehearsals to the girls hanging out at Jeni's getting ice cream, created an experience for all the viewers to have a piece of that holiday joy that BalletMet creates every year," she said. "Our production team was shooting at least three times a week at the studio, truly immersing ourselves in the culture and constant hustle that happens every year during 'Nutcracker' rehearsals.
"We're all very excited and proud to have the premiere here in Columbus. It's a 100 percent Columbus film, made with a lot of teamwork across the different companies, organizations, partners and cast who all dedicated insane amounts of time to making something truly special."
Lapierre said she is excited for her first movie premiere and proud her last time as a BalletMet Clara was documented.
She also is looking forward to getting back to New York soon after the premiere.
"I feel at home here," she said. "I'm living and learning, and I'm becoming more mature and independent. I love it."
Leaving her family in Upper Arlington and BalletMet has been an adjustment for Lapierre. She has a roommate and lives in a dorm in New York City.
She acknowledges it's more like being in college than a high school freshman, which she would be had she stayed in Ohio.
It's also tremendously challenging to keep up with training six days a week, she said, but she is inspired by the history of the School of American Ballet, its world-renowned faculty and the New York City Ballet dancers she can watch perform regularly.
"It's so fulfilling and an honor to be able to dance (Balanchine's) works where it all started at the School of American Ballet," Lapierre said. "At summer auditions, my mind was so opened by his teachings.
"It's something I can't get somewhere else. It's so amazing, and New York City is where all the arts are at their finest."
In addition to classical ballet, Lapierre is studying pointe, the technique ballerinas learn to be able to perform on their toes while creating an impression of airiness and fleetness. She also is taking a "variations" class, which provides excerpts from classical and contemporary ballets, as well as music lessons to cultivate rhythm and harmony through music sensitivity and understanding.
"I get to play music once a week, which is great because I was playing piano at home," she said. "It trains your brain to dance on the music, how to talk to a conductor if you have to and to use correct terminology."
Some of her teachers are professional dancers Lapierre has grown up watching and hoping to emulate: Susan Pilarre, a former New York City Ballet soloist; master teacher Suki Schorer, a former ballet principal with the New York City Ballet; and Megan Fairchild, currently a principal with the company.
"Having class with them, that's just surreal," Lapierre said. "Motivation and organization have been big things. From the minute you wake up, you have a lot to think about, and when you go to bed, you're already thinking about tomorrow."