Mia Kennedy, 17, has been dancing since she was 3 years old.
And for the last few weeks, the Kirkland resident had been under the instruction of the legendary ballerina Suzanne Farrell in an exclusive three-week ballet training program in Washington, D.C.
“She’s amazing,” Kennedy said of Farrell during her lunch break on Aug. 9. “She has so much wisdom and so much energy — sometimes she has more energy than we do.”
The Kennedy Center welcomed 22 students ages 14-17 from 12 states to participate in the 25th annual Exploring Ballet with Suzanne Farrell training program from July 24 through Aug. 12.
Kennedy said Farrell “never sits down” and “always finds something to help us improve.”
“It’s a lot of fun,” Kennedy said. “The harder I work, the better I get and when you’re better at dancing, you’re better able to express yourself. It feels like my soul opens up a little bit.”
Born in Japan, Kennedy began her dancing education at a small Japanese ballet school. She continued ballet when she came to the United States at the age of 5. Now, she practices dance at the Pacific Northwest Ballet School in Seattle.
During the program in Washington, D.C., the dancers began their six-day-a-week training program at 10 a.m. They attended two, two-hour classes each day with Farrell.
“It’s fairly intense,” Kennedy said. “The classes are really difficult. Ms. Farrell pushes us really hard. She gives us really difficult combinations but they’re really fun and freeing.”
She said the first half of the class is spent on the barre, practicing stationary movements like pliés or tendus. She said Farrell challenges the dancers with different timing and combinations.
“She makes us use our brains,” Kennedy said. “We do our best to have a lot of thought in what we do. We don’t get bored. It’s always different each time we do it.”
It’s easy to fall back on muscle memory, but you don’t get better if you’re not actively using your brain, she added.
The 22 students — from Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Washington — had to audition for the training program.
Auditions took place over the winter. Kennedy drove to Portland, Oregon for her audition. All auditions were led by Farrell.
Kennedy didn’t find out she had been selected until March. She was elated.
She and the other 21 students took up the second, third and fourth floors at One Washington Circle Hotel, in which they were staying throughout the three weeks.
“When you live with someone, even for a short three weeks, there’s definitely a connection,” Kennedy said as the end of the program approached. “It’s definitely going to be sad seeing everyone go.”
She and the other dancers created a community during their time together, borrowing jam or huddling together during scary movies.
And while dance is definitely a passion of Kennedy’s, she said she will likely not pursue a career in ballet.
“I would love to do something to help humans, maybe physical therapy or something to do with the brain,” she said. “Dancing’s a really hard career.”
Kennedy takes her ballet lessons as seriously as her schooling. She’s in the Cambridge Program, an advanced placement program, at Juanita High School in Kirkland.
“I like learning,” she said. “It’s fun. You don’t feel as clueless in the world.”
As far as dancing, she said she wants to always continue ballet and she encourages everyone to try it.
“You’re going to have ugly feet, but it helps with everything,” she said, citing it helping her coordination, determination, focus and time management skills. “Ballet is sort of this unreal world where you can sort of be happy and be in love.”
The three-week course cost each student $2,600, including housing.
The Kennedy Center initially offered two series of ballet classes with Farrell in the early 1990s.
“This series provided intermediate-to-advanced level ballet students in the D.C. area with the unique opportunity to study with one of the greatest ballerinas of the 20th century,” according to a press release. “In response to the program’s success, the Kennedy Center expanded Exploring Ballet with Suzanne Farrell to a national program in 1995 as part of the Center’s mission to enhance the arts education of America’s young people. Auditions for the program are annually held around the country.”
Farrell was one of choreographer George Balanchine’s “most celebrated muses,” according to the release. She danced with the New York City Ballet from 1961-69 and 1975-89.
“Over the years, she originated 23 roles in Balanchine ballets and her repertory eventually reached some 110 ballets, a third of which were created especially for her,” reads the release. “She has received numerous awards, including the 1976 Dance Magazine award, a 1985 Emmy for her performance in Eight by Adler, the 1988 New York State Governor’s Arts Award, the 2003 National Medal of the Arts, and a 2005 Kennedy Center Honors.”
Farrell has also been a tenured professor of dance at Florida State University since 2000.