Bridgett Zehr had star quality even as a child.
The tiny ballet dancer with big eyes and big lips was accepted into Sarasota Ballet’s Dance — The Next Generation (DNG) program when she was only 7 years old, despite being two years too young for the dance scholarship.
Zehr, then a first-grader at Phillippi Shores Elementary School, remembers that only the children who applied for the school’s free lunch program received a letter explaining DNG. She remembers that her older sister, Rachel, was old enough to apply and that being too young for the program never crossed her mind.
Like most little sisters, Zehr just always did what her big sister did, so she stuffed the letter in her backpack and rode the school bus home.
“That same night, out of nowhere my mom asked if she could check my backpack for homework,” says Zehr, 25. “She found the DNG letter instead and could hardly contain her excitement.”
Without hesitation, Zehr’s mother, Ann Zehr, who had once been a professional dancer in Buffalo, N.Y., brought both her daughters to the audition at Main Plaza in downtown Sarasota. Zehr recalls the dance instructors checked her flexibility and asked her to skip across a big room. Much to Ann Zehr’s delight, both girls were accepted into the program.
“She was an ideal student,” says Isabel Dubrocq, who taught Zehr when she was 11 and 12 years old. “Pretty face, quiet, hard working and naturally talented, which, in ballet, means a lot.”
Zehr, who joined DNG in its second year, not only received pointe shoes and leotards for seven years, she got free transportation to and from class.
“Some years we would be picked up from school in a bus,” Zehr says. “Other years, it would be a volunteer picking us up in a mini van. The classes got smaller every year with people dropping out. By the end, a car would have done the trick.”
The program, which began in 1991, provides full dance scholarships to underprivileged or at-risk children between the ages of 9 and 16. About 50 children are accepted each year, and those who stick out all seven years receive scholarships to State College of Florida (formerly Manatee Community College) and the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee.
One of the youngest dancers to get accepted into DNG, Zehr is the program’s greatest success story. At 14 she received a full scholarship from the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation to attend the Harid Conservatory, a tuition-free ballet boarding school for gifted dancers in Boca Raton, and at age 17 she moved to Houston to study with the Houston Ballet. By 18, she was accepted into the company, and by 20 she was dancing lead roles. In 2006 she was hired as a soloist with The National Ballet of Canada, and in 2009 she was promoted to principal.
“I’m very impressed and not at all surprised that she’s a principal dancer now,” Dubrocq says. “I think anyone who saw her knew she was going to be a really good dancer.”
The subject of frequent newspaper and magazine articles, including a recent feature in Elle Canada and London’s Financial Times, Zehr is also the girlfriend and partner of Czech dancer Zdenek Konvalina.
Zehr met Konvalina in 2002 when she was a student at the Houston Ballet, and in 2006, when Zehr auditioned for The National Ballet of Canada, Konvalina followed her lead and also landed a contract.
Without DNG, Zehr says she wouldn’t be where she is today. Despite her charmed life and meteoric rise to fame, she refuses to forget her roots.
“I think one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is to remain humble,” Zehr says. “It seems to get you further. I see it in other people. The ones who continue to get greater and greater are those who don’t take what we do for granted.”
Contact Heidi Kurpiela at firstname.lastname@example.org
IF YOU GO
Bridgett Zehr and Zdenek Konvalina will perform choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s “Prokofiev Pas de Deux” in a special guest appearance with the Sarasota Ballet Feb. 19 to Feb. 21.
“Prokofiev Pas de Deux” was originally intended to be danced by Royal Ballet dancers Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg, but was created in 2007 for Zehr and Konvalina instead, after Cojocaru suffered a whiplash injury.
“The first day Chris put the music on I almost cried,” Zehr says. “It was so beautiful. He made a pas de deux that fits the music perfectly. He’s a classical choreographer, but he likes to break up the movement with something you wouldn’t expect, so there’s a lot of intertwining things. It’s so much fun to do.”
Also on the bill, Andre Prokovsky’s “Vespri,” Dominic Walsh’s “I Napoletani” Anna Pavlova’s “The Dragonfly” and “The Bronze Idol” from “La Bayadere.” For tickets, call 351-8000 or visit www.sarasotaballet.org.
Bridgett Zehr had star quality even as a child.