Each day after high school, Natalie Reyes of Salem and Medea Cullumbine-Robertson of Woodburn commute to Portland. They drive up on Saturdays and Sundays too. Actually, they aren't old enough to have their licenses, so their very supportive parents do the driving. Why? So the girls can study with the best and pursue a dream.
Cullumbine-Robertson and Reyes are students at the Portland Ballet Academy and Youth Company. The preprofessional company's mission is to develop the next generation of ballet dancers and audiences. The rigorous daily curriculum demands incredible dedication and discipline.
"It's very hard to balance all my school work with ballet," Reyes said. "I manage to it. I stay up very late typing an essay paper or working on a project. But it's all worth it in the end, because I love dance."
Reyes, 14, is a freshman at Sprague High School. When she was very young, her mother enrolled her in dance, because Reyes was hyper and had a lot of energy. At age 6, Reyes started ballet at the American Ballet Academy in Salem. Her goal is to be a principal dancer in a major ballet company.
"Natalie is an incredible student. You can tell she's hungry for this," Nancy Davis, artistic director of the Portland Ballet, said. "In addition to her work ethic, she loves to perform. She's a very natural performer."
Reyes, who joined the company of roughly 120 students earlier this year, is in the second-highest tier of 11 dancers called youth company apprentices. Thanksgiving weekend, she will dance the roles Tarantella in "The Magic Toyshop" and Courtier in the Sleeping Beauty segment of "Tales from Mother Goose."
Cullumbine-Robertson, 15, is a sophomore at Estacada Web Academy. Going to school on a laptop has its advantages. She can complete classes on the run. She started ballet at age 7.
"My parents took me to 'Giselle' which is one of my favorite ballets. I just fell in love," Cullumbine-Robertson said.
She is one of 13 students in the ballet's top tier, the youth company. She will dance several leads in the coming production, Aurora in the Sleeping Beauty segment of "Mother Goose" and the Blue Fairy and lead Tarantella Doll in "Toyshop."
"Blue Fairy is really hard for me because I'm a very fast dancer. My strengths are turns, jumps and fast stuff. Blue Fairy is very slow. You have to use control and grace," Cullumbine-Robertson said. "I like a challenge, and I love that role."
John Clifford, the company's choreographer, has been teaching ballet around the world for 46 years. He witnessed dancer Gelsey Kirkland's development when she was 15. Kirkland danced the role of "Clara" in Mikhail Baryshnikov's production of "The Nutcracker."
"At 15, Medea is as good as Kelsey was at 15. I've only seen a few other children at that age that have that ability, talent and the brains," Clifford said. "I hope everything goes well for her in the future. She is going to have a huge career."
"She is an incredibly talented dancer," Reyes said of Cullumbine-Robertson. "She is my inspiration."
While the company is competitive, it isn't "Black Swan." Reyes said the older dancers mentor the younger ones.
"If someone's feeling down and can't get this one step, we help them," Cullumbine-Robertson said.
"We've created a very nurturing, family-oriented environment. We don't just think about dancers. We want them to be entire people," Davis said.
Davis hopes Mid-Valley residents will travel to Portland State University's Lincoln Hall to see the girls perform Thanksgiving weekend. The family-friendly production will be of professional caliber with a live orchestra. Most ballets are danced to recorded music. Performing with live musicians is a unique challenge and professional learning experience for the dancers.
"It's very exciting to see these preprofessional dancers on the verge of something great. It's almost more exciting than seeing a finished project," Davis said. "I think you will go away feeling pretty inspired."