Leading the Joffrey Ensemble Dancers. (Director's Voice)

Article excerpt

"This company is about the dancers," says Elie Lazar, artistic director of the Joffrey Ensemble Dancers. "It's not about me judging the shape of their necks or their legs; it's about helping them grow." A former principal with the New Jersey Ballet, Lazar founded this youthful ensemble with the goal of creating "an environment that will narrow the gap between being a trainee to being a dancer in a professional company. That doesn't happen overnight," he says. "There's a process that your body, physically and mentally, has to go through."

It's a process that Lazar, 40, experienced later than most professional ballet dancers. Born in Israel, he began his own training with the Israel National Ballet at age 17. His teacher-mentor, Adam Pasternak, then invited a young Lazar into his home in Haifa, where and he and his wife ran a studio. In addition to taking class, Lazar learned how to teach children, he "breathed" ballet twenty-four hours a day in this environment. His training was interrupted after only a year, when he served in the Israeli army; he was, as far as he knows, the only soldier granted a day's leave every other week to take class, until the war started in Lebanon. (He found it hard to get ballet slippers over his blistered feet.) He says it was frustrating putting his dreams on hold, but in retrospect the experience of being in the army proved valuable: Serving as head medic, in charge of a unit of five doctors and thirty medics, gave him management skills that, twenty years later, he uses every day--like making sure people are in the right place at the right time, keeping up with supplies, and doing a lot of paperwork.

Lazar founded the ensemble in 2000 as a vehicle to enhance the performance skills of eight advanced students at the Joffrey Ballet School. Now the official company of the school, located in Greenwich Village in Manhattan, the group has grown to twelve performers and become an active touring entity. The young company members--who hail from four continents and range in age from their late teens to their late 20s--take a daily technique class and spend their afternoons rehearsing a repertoire of classical and contemporary ballets. …