Ben Kuefler, a ballet dancer from Stow, just won first place in classical dance at the semifinals of the Youth America Grand Prix, a prestigious dance competition that reaches more than 7,000 students worldwide.
That’s a big deal because it’s not unusual for dancers at Kuefler’s level to spend several years honing their craft for YAGP, says Alexandra Koltun, artistic director of Watertown’s Koltun Ballet Boston. But for Kuefler, 19, who attends Koltun’s academy, four months was enough.
“He said, ‘I’m ready. I choose, I believe, I want.’ All those words mean a lot, of course,” Koltun said of him.
Kuefler (above, with Koltun) began his dance career at age 8 after a friend suggested he attend classes at the Acton School of Ballet. That would be a late start for some, but Kuefler was immediately enamored of ballet, and homeschooling allowed for a flexible schedule.
“I know as a guy you’re very into sports at that age, but it was very different and I fell in love with it from the start,” he said. “I’m very grateful for that.”
Kuefler’s flair for ballet displayed itself early on, according to Koltun, who founded the academy with her husband and fellow artistic director, Alex Lapshin, in 2012. Kuefler’s “raw talent” needed some direction, though, which Koltun and Lapshin, former Boston Ballet principal dancers, were able to provide.
When Koltun and Lapshin offered Kuefler a scholarship last summer, he expressed interest in training for YAGP. The instructors then began to prepare him for three performances — a classical “Swan Lake” variation, a contemporary piece choreographed by Lapshin, and a grand pas de deux from “Sleeping Beauty” — which required long hours and six-day weeks.
Kuefler’s classical win in the senior age division means he’ll participate in the world’s largest student ballet competition, the YAGP finals, which will take place April 7-14 in New York City. Koltun described the upcoming competition as “nerve-racking,” as the judges include dance bigwigs such as American Ballet Theatre artistic director Kevin McKenzie. And at Kuefler’s age, there can be contracts at stake.
“That’s why everybody wants to get to New York. If you’re good, you get a job,” Koltun said.
But Kuefler doesn’t seem worried. He has another opportunity on the horizon. After attending Bolshoi Ballet programs in New York for the past two summers, he was offered a spot in a two-week program at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Lapshin graduated from an eight-year program at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in 1986, and Kuefler is proud to follow in his instructor’s footsteps.
“It’s an incredible honor to be able to go to the same school my teacher did,” he said.
Then it’s back to business.
“You can see that the boy is talented, the boy is dedicated, and the boy has the goals,” Koltun said. “He came as an unpolished gem, pretty much, to us. With a little more training — we’re preparing him now for the New York finals — I believe he’s going to be even better.”