A Corps Dancer Leaps Into His Romeo Debut

Posted June 11, 2018 10:54 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — A bud of a male dancer has been sprouting from the back row of the corps de ballet at American Ballet Theatre. And Wednesday afternoon, Aran Bell, at just 19, makes an important debut: as Romeo in Kenneth MacMillan’s production of “Romeo and Juliet.”

At Ballet Theatre, such a leap for a relatively unknown dancer is rare. Dancers wait — and sometimes really wait — for a featured variation in a full-length ballet. But a lead like Romeo? It’s as if Ballet Theatre plucked a page from the casting manual of New York City Ballet, which often throws young dancers into principal parts.

For ballet fans, Bell isn’t a complete stranger. As a child, he was featured in “First Position,” a 2011 documentary that followed several young dancers as they prepared for the Youth America Grand Prix competition. He was tiny and adorable. Now Bell is 6’3”.

Until now, Bell, who became a member of the corps de ballet in 2017, has performed less illustrious roles in “Romeo and Juliet,” including a Capulet, a Townsman, a guard to Rosaline and Tybalt’s aide. His partner, the radiant principal Devon Teuscher, is making her Juliet debut alongside his Romeo.

Originally, she was supposed to dance with Alban Lendorf, but he was injured, and the artistic staff decided to try out Bell. “He was great after the first day,” Teuscher said. “Within a week it was like, this is official. He’s a perfect fit.”

For one thing, he’s a natural partner. “He’s amazing, and I had no idea,” Teuscher, 29, said. “He’s strong, he’s really coordinated and is able to read the woman very well.” And she sees his youth as an advantage: “It’s almost good that this is the first thing he’s doing just because he doesn’t know how hard it is.”

And he has more going for him than partnering skills. Bell can act, too. “I didn’t know how someone of his age was going to react,” Teuscher said. “There are so many moments when we’re just standing and staring into each other’s eyes. He has never shied away and never been uncomfortable. If anything, he’s only gotten better.”

Or, as Bell put it, “Fear is a great motivator.”

What follows are edited excerpts from an email interview with Bell.

Q: What are you experiencing, not just physically but mentally?

A: Physically, it is demanding, because it’s a full-length ballet, and Romeo is on the stage for the majority of the ballet with lots of partnering. Mentally, I feel preoccupied. I spend every spare moment thinking about it and going over it in my head.

Q: Your early training included studying with Denys Ganio in Rome. Some of the most memorable moments from “First Position” happen with you and Denys. As you said in the film, “He’s very strict, but he’s not mean-strict.” Looking back, how important was he?

A: He pushed me really hard, but always knew exactly when to let up. I never wanted to disappoint him.

Q: What other teachers helped pave the way for you?

A: My very first teacher, Michiko Schulbach, in Bremerton, Washington, really set the tone for my training. I was 4. She didn’t treat me like a baby, and she expected a lot from me. She didn’t teach kids my age, so she put me in class with older kids and expected me to follow along. I was good at mimicking. David Howard was a very significant influence. [Howard, an influential New York teacher, died in 2013.]

Q: How did he guide you?

A: He allowed me to start taking his professional class at Steps on Broadway when I was 8. He believed that if I could learn the general coordination of the steps at a young age, while still fearless, I would be able to refine them as I got older.

Q: How did growth spurts affect your dancing?

A: I had a couple of huge growth spurts between 16 and 18, while I was in [Ballet Theatre’s] Studio Company and as an apprentice. I was tall and scrawny for quite a while. It was hard to gain muscle. Because it happened so fast, I sometimes felt like I was dancing in someone else’s body. My limbs were hard to control, and it was challenging to find my balance. I also had a hard time with partnering, so I ended up doing a second year in the Studio Company while the rest of my group moved up to the main company as apprentices.

Q: That must have been hard.

A: Even though it was a little disappointing at the time, I needed it. I gained a lot of partnering experience that year and spent hours in the gym in between classes and rehearsals and at night.

When I was 12 and still pretty short for my age, my parents were told I might not be tall enough to be a professional dancer. We still laugh about that.