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Freemantle takes first step in Frisco

Benjamin Freemantle just turned 16 and acts like a typical teenager. The Grade 11 Port Moody secondary student is polite but mumbles. He likes to hang out with his buddies. And he's learning how to drive. But he's anything but average.

Benjamin Freemantle just turned 16 and acts like a typical teenager.

The Grade 11 Port Moody secondary student is polite but mumbles. He likes to hang out with his buddies. And he's learning how to drive.

But he's anything but average.

By the time this article is published, he'll be on his third day at the San Francisco Ballet School, one of the top training programs in North America that recently offered him a full-tuition scholarship.

He insists he won't get homesick during his year away. "I'll be Skyping twice a week with my mom. I'll miss my friends but I've been away before. It's no big deal," he says with a shrug.

Freemantle was one of 20 new upper-level students from the SFBS summer session to be invited into the annual program. The Level 7 student will be taught technique for 1.75 hours a day, Monday to Saturday, plus batterie or pas de deux for 85 minutes a day, Monday to Friday. As well, he'll take part in a weekly music class, and student showcase and company rehearsals. He's also allowed to drop in at a nearby contemporary dance studio for lessons.

And, in his spare time, Freemantle is expected to keep up with his PMSS studies online.

But he's most looking forward to hanging out with his new pal, a Level 8 ballet dancer from Prince George that he met at summer school; the pair are among eight international enrollees in the 400-student body. "It'll be nice to have someone else around from Canada," Freemantle says.

SFBS's Lauren White said students are evaluated twice a year and, in June, are promoted, asked to repeat their level, or released. Freemantle said he expects SFBS will be strict, but "I feel I will stick it out until the end, even if I don't like it.... Ballet is my life. I really don't do anything else."

Dancing has been in his blood since he was seven when his parents signed him up with the Penk O'Donnell School of Irish Dance, where his older sister took classes.

"I remember kicking and screaming as I was being dragged there," he recalls. "I was at the back of the class and a little confused about what was going on."

"Ben's talent was obvious right from the start," his teacher, Deirdre Penk O'Donnell, remembers. "Besides the fact that he was absolutely adorable and had huge natural ability, he was also very motivated and it was easy to instill a good work ethic in him."

By nine, he was a champion Irish dancer and, at 11, he ranked in the Top 10 in North America for males.

Still, at 12 he quit, unsure about what future he could have with Irish dancing. "There's not a lot you can do with it. It's a small community and the highest you can go is Riverdance. It wasn't for me."

His parents - artist Ian Freemantle and ArtsConnect president Marianne Larochelle, a Tri-City News sales representative - recommended he sign up with the Caulfield School of Dance, where his brother took contemporary dance and ballet.

"Ben took his first ballet class in January of 2008. He was 12-and-a-half," principal Cori Caulfield remembers. "Thankfully, we had a once-a-week beginner teen ballet class so we didn't have to to put him in with little girls."

Although he was disciplined, musical and able to learn and memorize movement sequences, his Irish dancing background didn't translate.

"He was starting from zero in every aspect of physicality that is ballet," Caulfield says; however, "Ben learned the basics of classical dance more quickly than any student I have ever seen and his development continues to be nothing less than astounding."

During his Caulfield years, Freemantle took part in competitions, earned numerous awards and scholarships and won spots at summer intensives, namely, with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the Pacific Northwest Ballet and, last month, the San Francisco Ballet School, where he was one of 200 young people from around the world.

The summer schools "gave me a boost. I was doing advanced learning while other dancers at home were sitting on the couch," he says.

SFBS was unlike his past summers as it taught strong classical ballet skills; that is, there was no room for different styles, he said. There, he learned the steps to his favourite piece, William Forsythe's In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated.

He has no role models, he said. Rather, he studies dancers' form and flow, and tries to mimic their actions for his self-cheorographed numbers. "I like So You Think You Can Dance? I see how flexible they are, where they put their feet. I think, 'How can I do that better?'"

In October, he'll perform one of his own solo numbers when he returns home to take part in the second annual Dancing With Our Stars, a fundraiser for Crossroads Hospice Society, at Red Robinson Show Theatre in Coquitlam.

He won't make a career from choreography. "I want to be a principal dancer," he says. "I like performing. I like the lights on my face and I like the audience's reaction. I always like to see that I'm making the connection.

"That makes me really happy."