Aidan Buss of Old Greenwich has been in love with ballet for eleven of his fifteen years. He describes dancing simply: “I just like performing and showing other people this part of me that I can’t show otherwise,” he says. “With classical ballet you have this classical music performed by these fantastic composers. I love what ballet can make me do. It’s just a fantastic way of movement and art, and Aidan Buss of Old Greenwich has been in love with ballet for eleven of his fifteen years. He describes dancing simply: “I just like performing and showing other people this part of me that I can’t show otherwise,” he says. “With classical ballet you have this classical music performed by these fantastic composers. I love what ballet can make me do. It’s just a fantastic way of movement and art, and I have so much passion for it.”
Last year, Aidan was the only American to be accepted to the Lower School (ages eleven to sixteen) of London’s prestigious Royal Ballet School (RBS). He found himself on stage at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden performing with the full contingent of 200-plus students in the traditional ballet school finale, Grand Défilé. There were performances around London too, all staged to show off the extraordinary hard work and promise of these students. At Opera Holland Park in Kensington, on a stage with the backdrop of a half-ruined castle, Aidan was challenged with tap dancing to lively Irish music. He was seen again Scottish dancing in a kilt in the famed ballet La Sylphide, partnering with a ballerina classmate. And this is only the beginning of his journey.
GETTING ACROSS THE POND
Aidan’s passion for ballet began at age four when he first saw the New York City Ballet dance The Nutcracker. After seeing the Dance of the Candy Canes, he turned to his mother, Carissa, and asked, “Can I do that?”
Carissa, who took ballet in her youth, enrolled him in a boy’s hip-hop class at the Old Greenwich Riverside Community Center. “Mom,” he reminded her, “I want to do ballet!” “He was so emphatic,” she recalls. “It was crazy for a four-year-old to be so specific.
”He went on to spend two years at Stamford School of Dance before enrolling in Greenwich Ballet Academy (GBA). Over the next six years Aidan became a star student, rising to the lead role of the Prince in The Nutcracker.
By the end of seventh grade at Eastern Middle School in June of 2016, Aidan’s growing prowess brought him to the finals of the world’s largest ballet competition, the Youth America Grand Prix in New York City. There, he caught the attention of Christopher Powney, artistic director of the Royal Ballet School. Powney had seen Aidan dance from the ballet Satanella and approached him afterward: “I think you could possibly be a good fit. I’d like you to come for a week at our school.”
An elated Aidan was soon on his way.
The road to White Lodge—the Lower School of the Royal Ballet School (the Upper is at Covent Garden)—leads through England’s largest Royal park, Richmond Park, a favorite hunting ground of Henry VIII. The Lodge passed into private hands and hosted the Sadler’s Wells Ballet School in 1955 and then the Royal Ballet School in 1956. But Aidan’s interest was not in the history. His eyes were on what the school had to offer.
“It was so much fun,” he recalls, with a hint of an English accent. “I went to the academic classes. I observed some of the rehearsals because they were preparing for Opera Holland Park. I got to do ballet classes. I got a taste of what it was like and I liked it.” Aidan was also impressed with the behavior of the children in the classes. “They didn’t talk or fool around. They did their stretching, they did everything required because these children really, really did want to be professional dancers.”
And the Royal Ballet School teachers liked what they saw in Aidan. “They tested my flexibility, how able my joints were to move, the amount of movement I could do with my limbs,” he recalls. At week’s end, Powney watched him perform. Once back home, Aidan received the offer to attend the 2016–2017 school year of one of the most selective ballet academies in the world. Each year 700 to 750 young dancers audition for a place, of which about fifty are chosen (roughly half each for the Lower and Upper schools). Those who make it through to graduation are virtually assured a dance career.
HONING HIS CRAFT
For the first few months in residence, Aidan was adjusting and finding himself in a dance class of all boys instead of the only boy in a class of girls at the Greenwich Ballet Academy. (RBS is on average evenly split among boys and girls.) He also found he was dancing in a slightly different style from his classmates. “Like when I do a battement movement to the side,” he says, demonstrating with his long limber leg. His GBA teacher Yuri Vodolaga teaches the battement in Russian style. “Yuri wants my leg straight to the side, but the Royal Ballet School wants my leg a little bit more in the front of my hips.” So, Aidan needed to learn to dance the English, RBS style. “No style is bad,” he notes. “It’s just keeping two different techniques separate from each other.”
Vodolaga has played an important part in shaping Aidan’s dancing ability. “He’d say you have to keep your ribs in, your elbows up, your fingers together,” says Aidan, “You have to repeat these things, and after a while, it becomes a part of you. It’s the ballet line.”
“Aidan is very determined and hungry to learn,” says Vodolaga. “He is teachable and is a good team player. He is very good at contemporary work and has a personality that makes it enjoyable for anyone to work with him.”
At RBS Aidan’s greatest challenge is being far from home, even though he has British grandparents nearby for TLC. “The pros are I get to see family that I don’t see often,” he says, “I get to experience a new culture. I get to go to a great school. But the biggest con is homesickness.” Nightly FaceTime with his parents and younger brother are lifesaving. “He was very homesick, but once he made friends and settled in we were happy for him and we talk every day, so that makes life much easier,” says his father, Andrew.
And keeping busy also helps. Last year he tried out and won the role of one of eight toy soldiers in The Nutcracker at the Royal Opera House. Then came February’s annual “artistic assessment.” Specific exercises that address four levels of criteria are practiced for weeks before being performed in front of a panel of judges. “They judge us on our performance, our technique, our feet, our stage presence,” explains Aidan.
On spring break he received the invitation to return to complete Lower School. “I was so happy I had made it through to continue for two more years,” he says. “I was so relieved. Others in the class were not so lucky.” At the end of Lower School he faces another test for Upper School.
But does he ever feel like he’s missing out on a normal life? “As a dancer at a boarding school,” he says, “you can’t really do a lot of other activities. They don’t allow skiing.” Aidan loves to ski. “And you can’t play soccer because one kid broke his wrist so he couldn’t perform. You have to preserve your body.”
Over the summer, however, he found time to be a teenager. He talks of a family trip to Disney World, of swimming and sailing lessons. But the demands of ballet are never far off. There were technique classes at GBA, and a one-week (six hours a day) dance camp in New York. “I really liked the dance camp,” he says. “I could see a great improvement of my turns—I turned with more ease.” He also got close to greatness. Aran Bell, star of the documentary First Position, was taking classes there.
Aidan ended the summer with private lessons at GBA with Vodolaga, who praised his progress. A year at the Royal Ballet School had given him “more strength, and the position of his arms and upper body is much better.” But there was a gentle prod. “He still has to work on the details including improved hip rotation—to ensure his feet remain flat on the floor.” Aidan similarly impressed GBA board chairman LeAnn Lindsey. She says she sees Aidan as “more focused, more confident and more precise.”
This year will stretch Aidan’s dance horizons, in both classical ballet and contemporary dance. But as he and his parents look toward the future, they also reflect on what got him to this place. “We let him follow his dreams,” says Andrew. “And put him into the best local ballet school we could find. GBA’s dance fundamentals are really, really strong, and that is what positioned Aidan so well for success.”
“I can do something extraordinary,” says Aidan. “I am going to such a fantastic school, getting an amazing experience—and that makes me so happy. I love it.”
The future is most certainly bright for Aidan, but he knows that a dance career doesn’t last forever. “Obviously, I want to join a company and dance professionally. And while I’m dancing I want to get a college degree so I can do something different after I finish dancing.” And although post-graduation Aidan has his sights set on the Royal Ballet Company, eventually where would he like to end up?
“Somewhere close to home,” he says. Even for the most talented of teens there’s still no place like home.
A DAY IN THE LIFE
Becoming a world-renowned dancer is no easy feat. We take a peek into an average school day from Aidan’s first year.
7:00 a.m. Wake up
11:00 a.m.–1:00 p.m. Classical ballet
4:00–6:15 First hour: Rotation of character class, Irish dance, Scottish dance, fitness class, conditioning. Second hour: More ballet
7:15 Prep or homework
8:30 Parents calling time
8:30–9:45 a.m. Contemporary dance
10–11 Morris dancing
11–11:55 Benesh notation theory
12–1 p.m. Choreography study