Hingham ballerinas enjoy performing: ‘It’s rewarding when all your hard work pays off’

Tala Sanford as Dewdrop with Corps de Ballet in Waltz of the flowers, SSBT the Nutcracker 2023 By (Photo by Abbey Knoll photography)

January 18, 2024 By Carol Britton Meyer

Two Hingham ballerinas who dance with South Shore Ballet Theatre  — Hingham High School student Tala Sanford and Hingham Middle School student Lily Chamberlain — competed in the 2023 Youth America Grand Prix ballet competition semifinals in New York, placing second in large group ensembles for their piece, “Napoli.”

Lily Chamberlain at YAGP semi finals in Boston, 2023

Hingham High School students Saachi Menon and Marlo Stevenson also dance with SSBT. The four girls are pre-pro, meaning they are in a program that prepares them to become professional dancers if that’s the career path they ultimately choose.

After placing second in the YAGP NY semifinals, Tala and Lily and team received an invitation to the finals.

The YAGP is the world’s largest network of resources and opportunities for young dancers to gain exposure, offering participants an opportunity to be seen and evaluated by the directors and representatives of the world’s leading dance companies.

Second Place “Napoli” at YAGP New York Semi Finals, 2023

“Dancers who place in this competition are more likely to win scholarships to summer ballet programs all over the world, which gives them more visibility for future opportunities to dance,” Lily’s mother, Alison Chamberlain, told the Hingham Anchor.

Because three of the girls, including Lily, had commitments to participate in the Royal Ballet School’s Spring Intensive in London, South Shore Ballet Theatre decided not to compete in the YAGP finals.

Left to right: Tala Sanford, Saachi Menon, Marlo Stevenson and Lily Chamberlain

“We are a team, and while we have understudies for the roles, we wanted to keep the team together for the finals,” SSBT’s Artistic Director Marthavan McKeon said.

The Royal Ballet Spring Intensive program is quite selective, and the opportunity was too good to pass up.

The Royal Ballet School offers inspiring classes for 10- to 15-year olds beyond classical ballet technique — including character, contemporary, Pilates, stagecraft, and repertoire in both the spring and summer, and SSBT is thrilled to have sent students to both programs last year and again this year.

Saachi Menon performing in the CT Classic Scholarship Ballet Competition 2023

The four girls receive their training in an intensive South Shore Ballet Theatre program, which means that if they choose to take the professional route and audition for ballet companies, “they would have a better chance of receiving an invite because of their vigorous training,” McKeon said.

SSBT follows American Ballet Theatre’s National Training Curriculum, and McKeon — along with her faculty — are certified and affiliate teachers.

“While it’s tough to place in competitions, doing so doesn’t necessarily mean the dancers will go on to professional careers in ballet, nor does not placing mean that dancers won’t become professional ballerinas,” she explained. “However, the opportunities and scholarships that YAGP and YAGP Founder and Artistic Director Larissa Saleliev have provided open doors that would not necessarily have been opened.”

Tala Sanford performing at YAGP 2023

A life of dedication and discipline
The life of a ballerina is one of dedication and discipline. “The girls practice every day, [with few exceptions]. It takes a certain personality — very focused and regimented — but it’s also a wonderful creative outlet for them,” Alison said.

Tala’s mother, Alpha Sanford, commented that “as a parent, we see the importance of the performance arts — particularly ballet training — in the overall growth development of our daughter. I believe that part of Tala’s good standing in school is due to the life skills that she has learned through ballet since she was barely three years old.”

In addition, Alison believes that ballet “teaches them time management skills and how to work through challenges as a team, as well as developing a sensitivity to music and all-around appreciation for the art form.”

Research shows that the skills learned through dance help dancers in all areas of their lives, including academics.

Besides, Alison noted, “Dancing is something you can do for the rest of your life. SSBT teaches dancers of all ages, from children to octogenarians, unlike some other sports.”

All three girls started taking dancing lessons at SSBT at a young age. “It’s been a really great experience in such a supportive environment,” Tala said. “I’ve made a lot of great friends, like Saachi, Lily, and Marlo. We’re a varied group of different ages and talents, and it’s so much fun dancing with them every day.”

Tala enjoyed spending a few weeks last summer with the Asian American Ballet Project in Boston. Founded in 2022, it’s the very first Asian American ballet company ever. “It was there that I got a taste of what working as a professional ballerina is like,” she said.

Marlo Stevenson training at the Barre at SSBT. Photo by Abbey Knoll Photography

Ballet: ‘the intersection of all elements of dancing’
“For me, ballet is the intersection of all the elements of dancing — technique, movement, and music,” said Tala. “It just amazes me how everyone involved in a ballet show — from the dancers to the choreographers to the tech people — comes together, showcasing the talents of everyone.”

As much as she enjoys dancing, Tala plans to attend college before making any long-term career commitments.

Saachi had already started taking ballet lessons in the city before moving to India with her family. “I was fortunate to find a ballet school there. Ballet isn’t as common there as it is here,” she said.

Nevertheless, Saachi was able to participate in a few international competitions while in India. “It was definitely an interesting experience,” she said.

Saachi and her family used to stay in downtown Boston, and Saachi started ballet with the Dance Fit Studio in Brookline when she was three before moving to Chennai, India, when she was six.

Before the pandemic, her family moved to Hingham, “and I was lucky enough to find SSBT,” Saachi explained.

“We chose to move to Hingham because it was close to the city, and we love staying by the water,” Saachi’s mother, Anuradha, told the Hingham Anchor.

Saachi Menon in Boston for BB SI, 2023

“Once we had found a place to stay and settled in, we attended a trial class at SSBT, the weekend before the world shut down,” she recalled. “SSBT quickly came up with a good online class schedule, got us onboard, and Saachi has been with them ever since.”

There’s “such a sense of freedom in the movements, and you really feel good about yourself when you’re performing,” Saachi said.

She participated in her first summer intensive with Boston Ballet last year.

While she shares her friends’ love for ballet, Sacchi doesn’t know yet if she will pursue a professional ballet career.

Lily, who is in her 10th year with SSBT, said it’s rewarding when “all your hard work pays off,” especially when she performs in different “Nutcracker” roles in SSBT’s annual production.

Lily Chamberlain, age 13 in SSBT’s The Nutcracker 2023. Photo by Abbey Knoll Photography

Different styles of training
Ballerinas at this level spend a portion of their summer at programs called “summer intensives.” These programs take place all over the world, and dancers spend the month of January auditioning.

Last summer, Lily spent two weeks at Burklyn Ballet in Vermont, training with a variety of guest teachers.

Two years ago, she participated in the Rock School in Philadelphia. “It was fun being taught by teachers with different styles of training,” she said. Lily hopes to travel internationally this summer.

Looking toward the future, Lily, too, isn’t sure where her career path will take her, but there are a number of options related to ballet, she explained. “When you get older, you can be a trainee with a ballet company, with the possibility of being accepted into that company and moving forward from there,” which is one example, she said.

All four girls will perform in this year’s Youth America Grand Prix ballet competition and also in the premier Universal Ballet Competition.

They, along with other pre-pro dancers, are currently rehearsing a contemporary piece by well-known choreographer Adrienne Hawkins, to perform in these competitions.

Tala Sanford performing with Asian American Ballet Project

The group will also perform a classical piece choreographed by another well-known choreographer — Nilas Martins — in both competitions.

A handful of SSBT dancers will also be competing “variations,” meaning solos taken from popular ballets.

Marlo started out as a recreational — “for fun” — dancer at the age of two, along with some ballet.

“After COVID, I found SSBT when I was in the seventh grade, took a ballet class there, and loved it,” she said. “I’ve been taking lessons there ever since.”

Last year, Marlo participated in the summer intensive program at the Ailey School — founded by Alvin Ailey in 1969 — which offers young dancers the opportunity to study a variety of dance techniques in New York City.

“It was cool to be in the city for a a month,” she said. “I definitely learned a lot there. Since it’s a modern dance company, I took a number of modern and contemporary classes on top of ballet. I hadn’t realized how many other people love what I love, and it was interesting meeting them and learning about their different experiences.” What Marlo likes best about ballet is the combination of artistry and athleticism.

She also plans to attend college before making any career decisions. “Dance will always be a part of my life, although not necessarily with a ballet company right out of high school — but it will be with me forever,” she said.

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