Raising the Barre

Raising the Barre

By Kenneth LaFave

Tia Wenkman is the latest star to rise out of Master Ballet Academy

Ballet dancers are known for big jumps, but the one Tia Wenkman made from Wisconsin to Mississippi by way of Scottsdale could be a record-breaker.

In June, Wenkman, 14, won a bronze medal at the prestigious International Ballet Competition (IBC) in Jackson, Mississippi. The IBC, held every four years, is one of the most important ballet competitions in the world, a place where over a hundred auditioned dancers from around the globe meet to put forth their very best under the intense pressure of judges, audiences and the press.

Wenkman’s win in the junior division was a huge leap indeed: She was the youngest dancer ever to win an IBC medal. (While this is thanks, in part, to the fact that 2018 was the first year the competition allowed 14-year-olds to compete, it is nonetheless true that no other 14-year-old came away with a medal.)

“When they called my name for the bronze, I was really surprised. IBC is such a high caliber of dancers, the top of the top,” Wenkman says by phone from New York, where she is spending the summer studying at The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre.

The medal certainly lifts the young dancer’s reputation, but Wenkman’s career had already taken on a diverse profile earlier this year, when she appeared as the sole dancer in French recording artist Bob Sinclar’s music video, “I Believe” (viewable at bobsinclar.com). Performing in a tutu, she does some classical steps and a few very un-classical steps to Sinclar’s contemporary beat. On Youtube, the video has had more than a million views.

Come late August, Wenkman will return from her global adventures to the place the Wisconsin native has called home for two years: the studios of Master Ballet Academy in Scottsdale (masterballetacademy.com).

Founded 11 years ago by Slawomir and Irena Wozniak, Master Ballet Academy (MBA), located at 7625 E. Redfield Road, has become one of the preeminent ballet schools in the world. When Tia’s mother, Tana, was looking for a school to give her daughter the professional edge she needed, the name popped up on social media.

“Tia was taking class at Milwaukee Ballet and she wanted to move to the next level, but we didn’t know where to go,” Tana Wenkman recalls. “Instagram is king, right? So we followed a lot of accounts of other dancers, to see where people were training and having success. Someone mentioned a wonderful Polish couple in Arizona. All the reports were good.”

Tana and Tia moved to Scottsdale for the summer of 2016, to check it out. Tana recalls: “Tia was taking class at Master Ballet for three days when she said, ‘Mom, I feel like I’m home.’”

That fall, Tana and Tia, along with Tia’s little sister, Willow, made the move to Scottsdale. Tia’s father, Bill, stayed in Milwaukee to work. The trio of Wenkman females will return to Scottsdale in August so Tia can continue at MBA.

Master Ballet Academy has emerged over the last few years as a major destination for aspiring dancers. The prominent website and magazine, aballeteducation.com, recently ranked it the fourth-best ballet school on the planet.

Internet mentions and the testimony of graduates who have placed with major ballet companies are two reasons students give for enrolling at the school, says Master Ballet Academy general manager Heather Hudak. Another is seeing academy students like Tia – and MBA’s Gisele Bethea, who won gold at IBC four years ago – at competitions. (Bethea, by the way, now dances for American Ballet Theatre.)

“Tia is certainly one of our best students,” Hudak says. “But it’s important to remember that we have many high-caliber students.” Another of those stellar students is Madison Penney, who also qualified to compete at IBC this year. Unfortunately, an attack of appendicitis took her out of the running.

Current MBA enrollment is 310 students, with room for perhaps a couple dozen more. Demand to get in is intense. Students who are accepted take classes in classical technique, variations, repertoire, pointe, partnering, contemporary, neoclassical, lyrical, jazz, character and Broadway basics, plus acting for dancers, all in an effort to prepare dancers for the eclectic array of gigs awaiting them.

Hudak cites the superior quality of the school’s teachers for its success. “Irena Wozniak is so much in demand that people wait for months to take private lessons with her,” Hudak says. The guest faculty roster includes such luminaries as Yuri Fateev, acting director of the fabled Mariinsky Ballet in Saint Petersburg, Russia, who will teach MBA classes in August.

For young Wenkman, a lot is happening quickly and soon. Three years ago, she didn’t even want to pursue ballet, preferring hip-hop. But when she was cast as Clara in Milwaukee Ballet’s Nutcracker, the ballet world opened up for her, and she “fell in love with it,” her mother says. Tana Wenkman has gotten her daughter an agent, so look for more music videos featuring a young ballet dancer with hip-hop sensibilities. Says mom: “She has a big vision for herself.” 