After months and months of practice and preparation, P.E.I.’s Mark Sampson is finally living his dream.
He is studying dance at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City.
“It’s so much more than I ever expected,” says the enthusiastic 18-year-old Charlottetown resident, during a recent telephone interview.
Sampson is learning the basics — ballet and modern dance — and taking classes in composition (choreography), anatomy, acting, stagecraft, music and dance techniques.
“I’ve learned so much about myself and my own creative process in the month that I’ve been here. . . I’ve grown so much,” Sampson says.
Besides the new skills, he’s developing stamina and resilience.
“It’s a rigorous program. We’re in class sometimes from nine in the morning until eight or nine at night. We’re also rehearsing for our first show in December. It takes place at the Lincoln Centre,” says Sampson, who is making his home in residence during his freshmen year.
Back home in Charlottetown, the principal of the Island Dance Academy is cheering on her former student.
“I’m thrilled for Mark. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime. Mark knows he wants to dance and choreograph and there is no other school better than Juilliard that will enable him to develop these talents,” says Martha Nicholson, adding that Sampson is an inspiration to work with.
“As a dancer, Mark brings to the stage his passion for dance, fantastic technique and a strong sense of performance, artistry and drama. It is these qualities that help make his choreography interesting and diverse,” she says.
But, Sampson’s dream to go to Juilliard didn’t come without challenges, which started during tryouts for the school last September in Chicago.
“There were 52 dancers in my audition and five rounds to the audition process. The first was a basic ballet class with a normal routine . . . . When it was over, they cut 35 dancers so there were 16 of us left,” he says.
The next rounds included everything from a modern dance class to an interview to a challenge — learning a piece of choreography in 15 minutes.
“The dance was probably about a minute long. It was really fun and gave me a taste about what the school was like,” he says.
Artistic director Larry Rhodes remembers the audition well.
“We saw him in Chicago. I was really very, very interested right away. Mark had good training, a beautiful body, in terms of proportions and good facility in the hips, as well as well-trained legs and feet. So, physically, I saw that he had tremendous potential for this.
“Then, when he showed us a solo that he created, that took him over the top for me. It was so beautifully well crafted. I thought he was very gifted and put him on the acceptance list right away,” he says.
Sampson will never forget the day he learned that he had been accepted.
“It was the day of my ballet exam and I was nervous. It also was the biggest moment in my life. I started shaking and crying... I had just found out one of my dreams had come true,” he said.
The excitement continued to build as he set off to the dance studio to warm up for his exam.
“I got to tell everyone . . . It was an amazing day and the best ballet exam, for sure,” he says.
The second hurdle arrived as he was about to start rehearsals for Les Feux Follets with the Young Company at the Charlottetown Festival.
“I broke my foot and tore a ligament in my ankle,” he says.
So, instead of performing, he spent the summer doing some “intense physio” and personal training. “I’ve been working on my upper body strength. I had to keep in shape for the fall, so I did it anyway I could.”
The challenges continued when he arrived at school.
“It was hard (at first) because I was so weak (after the injury), but coming to such a great place was inspirational for me. I feel like I’ve been revived,” he says.
Now that everything has healed, he’s working on the steps of his first choreographed piece that will be performed this weekend.
“It feels amazing now that I’m back dancing . . . It’s what I’ve wanted to do all summer and now I’m finally doing it.”
AT A GLANCE
Up close and personal with Mark Sampson
Favourite movie: Pina, a documentary about the life of choreographer Pina Bausch.
Favourite food: Chocolate.
Favourite book: The Hunger Games.
Mentors: Martha Nicholson, David Moroni.
Schools attended: Royal Winnipeg Ballet School, National Ballet School, Stone Park Intermediate School, Glen Stewart Elementary School.
Defining moment: When he saw Riverdance, at the age three and immediately started to dance.
Taking direction: “People ask me which I like best, dance or choreography. I love both because they’re different. When you’re a dancer you have to be like clay so you can be molded. I love choreography because you can put something you want to say out there. Whether it’s important or not, whether it has a purpose or simply being done for entertainment, you have complete control. I think that’s exciting.”
Things to take to a desert island: iPod, family and friends, desserts, a pair of ballet shoes.