- Associated Press - Saturday, July 23, 2016

CRYSTAL LAKE, Ill. (AP) - Teen ballet dancer Catherine Lasak spent three hours a day, six days a week commuting via Metra to downtown Chicago for two years, so great was her desire to perfect her craft.

Now, she’s among just 12 women — out of 375 who auditioned — accepted by the elite dance division of The Juilliard School in New York City. “Standout dancers are the ones accepted to the program,” said Lawrence Rhodes, the division’s artistic director.

Getting in was a surprise, said Catherine, 18, who graduated in May from Prairie Ridge High School in Crystal Lake after a stellar academic career. “I just went to the audition and gave it all I had,” she said.

Catherine studies at Ballet Chicago under artistic director Daniel Duell, who says she’s among the best students in the school’s 21-year history. She’s the first of his students to be admitted into Juilliard.

“She works very hard on all the simplest things, and she polishes them to an absolutely beautiful pearly degree,” said Duell, Ballet Chicago’s founder.

Her physique is exceptionally suited for ballet, which she complements with her own will and effort, Duell said.

“Her degree of amplitude is very great. She doesn’t just do a small pliĆ©; she does the biggest possible pliĆ© she can do, every single time. For pointe, she doesn’t get up there and rest on her shoes. She gets way up there, as high as she can.”

Catherine is more modest in her self-assessment.

“I’m not a technically perfect dancer by any means. There are a lot of girls who can just whip up four pirouettes or put their leg up to their ear,” she said. “I feel like I am a more artistically strong performer. My favorite part about performing is making the audience feel something. If you have good artistry, you can emote.”

Ballet — and the constant staring at yourself in the mirror — inevitably leads to self-criticism, Catherine said.

“All ballet dancers are hard on themselves,” she said. “When you get a correction, you want to change it right away. But you have to remember it doesn’t happen overnight.”

Catherine grew up in Ingleside and moved to Crystal Lake with her mother, Amy Bates, after her parents divorced in the seventh grade. Her father, Jim Lasak Jr., lives in Antioch.

She graduated from Prairie Ridge with a 4.2 GPA on a 4.0 weighted scale.

“I’m an easygoing, fun person to be around, but I’m more of a serious person with school and with my ballet, because I just have to be,” she said. “I can’t really procrastinate with anything.”

Kristen Gallagher, her sophomore English teacher, described Catherine as pretty much “the perfect student,” saying she has an outstanding ability to juggle ballet with academics.

“Catherine always did her work on time and to an excellent caliber. She was very motivated to get her work done so she could have time after school for dance, so she used every second of the school day to focus on academics,” Gallagher said. “It’s rare to see that much maturity and motivation in a sophomore, so I was constantly impressed with her work ethic.”

And she did it all with a smile on her face, Gallagher said. “She’s one of a kind.”

Having to sacrifice some of her social life is a price Catherine didn’t mind paying.

“There just something about ballet that feels like home. It feels natural,” she said. “It not only trains you physically — it trains you for life. It teaches you discipline and responsibility.”

Catherine started dancing as a toddler and says American ballet dancer Julie Kent is her role model. She said she thought of quitting just once, when she was 9 years old.

“There are times when I think, ‘I need a break.’ But it’s not a serious crisis.”

She decided around age 11, while studying at the Judith Svalander School of Ballet in Crystal Lake, to become a professional ballerina.

Her commitment never strayed, said her father, who converted her bedroom into a studio with hardwood flooring, mirrors and a ballet bar.

“We’ve never had to be the pushy parents. If anything, we always needed to be sure she’s not in the studio too much,” Jim Lasak said. “She’s been focused since day one — and it’s all her.”

Catherine took two summer courses at the School of American Ballet in New York City, where she fell in love with the Balanchine technique, a style invented by Russian choreographer George Balanchine.

She wanted to study at Ballet Chicago because Duell had been coached by Balanchine. She will travel to Seattle next week to study with the Pacific Northwest Ballet.

All that hasn’t come cheap, her father said, but he and his ex-wife always supported Catherine’s dreams, even if it meant taking extra jobs on the side. “People have no idea,” he said. “It’s another mortgage payment.”

Catherine said she’s grateful for the support of her family, which includes her younger brother, James Lasak III.

“I feel bad that I can’t have a job, because I’m always busy,” she said. “They have always been supportive of the fact that I wanted to dance.”

Catherine has a bright future as a professional, Duell said.

“If she stays physically healthy and keeps her desire, I cannot fathom that she would not land an excellent job in a major company,” he said.

A key to Catherine’s success is that she is not greedy about her talents.

“She’s very gracious,” Duell said. “Who you are to work with is as important as what you do, and what you can do.”

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Source: (Arlington Heights) Daily Herald, https://bit.ly/29bQg1K

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Information from: Daily Herald, https://www.dailyherald.com

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