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Ballet Summer

Endurance is a precious gift for any dance company, and all the more so during a recession, so it is with no small sense of accomplishment that the Ajkun Ballet Theatre is marking its 10th summer residency at the Egg.

The result of all those long days of hot, hard work for 20 gifted young dancers from around the world will be this Saturday’s (Aug. 14) performance of Swan Lake at the Egg. Chiara Ajkun, who co-founded the company with her husband and principal dancer, Leonard, is the choreographer.

Each summer, the Ajkuns select 20 dancers from about 2,000 applicants for their three weeks at the Egg, to work with the permanent dancers in the company. The Ajkun Ballet Theatre is based in New York City the rest of the year, but the Albany residency allows aspiring stars a rare opportunity to train with high-level professionals in both ballet and modern dance. The residents come mostly from private ballet schools or smaller companies. Ajkun residents have gone on to impressive careers in dance, ranging from company directorships to full-time positions with major groups such as the American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet.

“The overall idea is we want these kids to understand what they are signing up for,” said Chiara Ajkun, who turned to choreography after a catastrophic leg injury ended her promising ballet career at 18. “So spending the summer with a professional company, putting on a professional performance in real time, is a good experience.”

It’s also an intense experience. The dancers live at the University Heights Suites, a student housing complex near Albany Medical Center. Rehearsals and classes at the Egg’s Kitty Carlisle Hart Theatre last until early evening. On their way home, they can often be seen in the Delaware Avenue Price Chopper in their warm-up garb and with heavy gear bags over their shoulders. The Albany community has been very welcoming, Leonard and Chiara Ajkun said. Price Chopper greets the residents with a bag of basic grocery items, in recognition of the fact that they have traveled a long distance on a tight budget to get here, and CDTA offers the dancers special three-week bus passes.

Despite the whirlwind pace, the experience is both instructive and exhilarating, said two of this year’s residents: Alynn Piccirillo, 20, a native of Poughkeepsie whose family now lives in Albany; and Australian Hayley Collins, 18, who was with a local ballet in Sydney when she auditioned for the residency.

“I think this is the first time a lot of us have had time to make contact with professionals,” Collins said.

Piccirillo joked that it took the residency for her to spend some time close to home, because her ballet training has taken her to so many different cities. She is the summer program’s only day student.

“It’s a really good opportunity because I’ve met so many people from around the world,” she said.

The Ajkun Ballet Theatre also uses its time at the Egg to collaborate with local talent. This year, the Albany-based dancer and choreographer Tsehaya Smith, founder and executive director of ArtsPartners/Tsehaya and Company, is working with the Ajkun as a choreographer and teacher; she is also coordinating an intern program for area youth that gives them experience in backstage production. Dancer and choreographer Ellen Sinopoli, whose company is in residence at the Egg, is also working with the Ajkun this summer. The result: a tightly packed schedule for the residents, but one that gives them a realistic taste of what they face.

“I think it’s record time to do this,” Leonard Ajkun said of the quick turnaround from their arrival in Albany to the one-night performance. In the current realities of the art world, however, shorter is better, he explained. In this economic climate, the era of months-long preparation for a production is long gone, no matter how efficiently a company manages its finances.

“If we want to exist and pay our rent, we have to be quick and productive,” said the Albanian-born Ajkun, who credits his early instruction by Bolshoi-trained teachers for his ability to still dance, injury free, at 42.

Quick and productive, yes, but still able to cast a spell at an open rehearsal this week that drew an audience of mostly children. Audible “oooohs” could be heard as the dancers came on stage in full costume.

Among those watching was Albany resident Tanya Zayhowski-Rigney, with her daughters Zoe, 10, and Ava, 7. Zayhowski-Rigney also trained as a ballerina, and performed in small companies in New York City 15 years ago. She wanted to show her daughters what she used to do, but she found herself lost in memories.

“It brings you back . . . the dedication,” she said as she watched the eager young residents on stage. “I know what it takes to get to this point.”

—Darryl McGrath

The Ajkun Ballet Theatre performance of Swan Lake is Saturday (Aug. 14) at 7:30 PM at the Egg. Tickets are $17-$29, and can be purchased online at; at the box office; or by calling 473-1845.

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