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Portrait of a ballerina

Come October all her friends will be heading off to University in Tal-Qroqq but Sarah Lanzon,18, is instead flying out to Manchester for a three year stint on her own. For a girl who has been donning a tutu since the age of three, and been dropped off several times a week at the Olivia Dow School of Russian Ballet in Naxxar, this is a dream come true.

Sarah has been accepted at the Northern Ballet School in Manchester. Very few - only 40 ballet students per year, out of more than 1,000 applicants - make it through their rigorous auditions for the prestigious post. Sarah will be reading a BA (Hons) in Professional Dance which will include tuition in ballet, jazz, theatre, contemporary dance, tap and pilates. She will be following subjects from human anatomy to dance history, drama, singing, choreography, stage technique and preparation and stage fighting.

I meet her at the studio which saw her grow up and bloom into a promising dancer. Even sitting down you can tell she is a ballerina. Straight back, hands gracefully folded in her lap, legs crossed to the side, neat hair pulled back in a bun, no stray hairs. She diligently follows Ms Dow's instructions for our photo shoot, but is clearly very worried as she later remarks: "I hope they'll be all right, the photos. I mean, I hope my poses are technically perfect." Her strive for perfection is astute, which is probably what got her to Manchester in the first place. She is excited in a contained sort of way, as if she is fully aware of the risks of her decision. She has to fork out more than £30,000 in tuition fees as well as cost of living expenses on top of that. "I will be working of course. I have to."

"Dance is a priority in my life and I believe Northern School will provide me with the opportunity to develop my creativity - that's why I'm opting to go there rather than the conventional university in Malta," she says. And of course she will miss her friends: "But they are extremely supportive and encouraging. They know how much this means to me, and I'm working on convincing them to come over as often as possible."

It's a dream but she is going into it having made a "conscious decision". I think she is trying to convince me that she is not blinded by the love of her ballet and that she is being all rational about it. But her eyes beguile her: She is clearly in love with her art, and in fact is eager to promote it in any way. "I get so upset when my non-dancer friends don't comment on whether they like a piece of dance or not. They go, like, ma nifhimx, which is silly because I just want them to say what it stirs in them and not to analyse techniques," she remarks.

She goes on to explain how, unfortunately, ballet remains an art form that people don't think of as accessible. "People believe you have to be educated into ballet to appreciate it. Which is so not the case. I mean, take a painting: You look at it and you either like it and spend time in front of it taking in the beauty or you just move away ... but you don't stay examining the brush strokes!"

For a teenager she has had to sacrifice a number of things for her art. She has to watch her diet, junk food is out and so is going out partying if she has a performance the next day, as tiredness would reflect in the quality of her performance. Ballet requires discipline, but it is learnt from an early age that this is part of the nature of the work - the more you put in, the more you get out.

"Sometimes coming to ballet practice is the last thing I would feel like doing but once I come through that door (of the studio) and start dancing, it's like Wow! This is what I want to do! I'm so glad I came! It's funny in a way because the feeling of euphoria is just while I'm dancing. I'll be grumbling again once it's over because I'd be feeling all the aches and pains... but for that moment you really forget everything. Ballet keeps my soul alive."

It seems that aspiring young dancers starting out just have to figure out that it's a question of balance. Ballet takes a lot out of you, but once you find a balance between the work you put in and the pleasure you take out, it will be worth it.

What keeps her awake at night? "Not being able to do what I love for the rest of my life! I'm renowned for stupid things happening to me, like the time I fell off a chair, injured myself and could not participate in a show."

Although she has been pirouetting since infancy - at the age of six she used to play at planning her own shows - Sarah says she hasn't always been confident about her dancing skills. Her breakthrough came three years ago, when at 15, she was encouraged by Ms Dow to sit for the first time for the Northern Ballet School in Manchester. "There were scores of others auditioning with me and I kept saying to my mother: What the hell am I doing here? Look at them! They're all so much better. But then, I was chosen."

She had to eventually relinquish her post because she was still doing her O levels "and I was not psychologically prepared to leave my family and make it on my own," she says. It was a boost which gave her the energy and determination to try again this year. "This time it was different. I knew I could do it. I wanted the post and I went all for it." And she has the support and blessing of her parents who are encouraging her to chase her dream.

Although she insists she has her feet well grounded, she does let on on her aims and wishes for the future. As an avid admirer of the 24-year-old Moscovite ballerina Polina Semionova, she would like to be a recognised choreographer and performer. And one day would love to star in Coppélia, a ballet about a dancing doll and La Bayadère, a ballet about a temple dancer. "Oh, I don't know. For now I just wish that these three years will be a challenge!"

Sarah says she will be following her best friend's advice: Never give up. "She came up with it when we were rehearsing for a ballet and couldn't manage a difficult step. It's since become our motto."

A motto which will stand her in good stead.
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