Rising high school senior Max Azaro is your typical teenager. He loves the latest shows on Netflix, says “lit” way too often and shares the hilarious moments of his life through his “Finsta” (fake Instagram account).
What most people don’t know is that he dedicates countless hours in the studio perfecting a craft where there is always room for improvement: ballet.
Azaro, 17, currently attends the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in New York, which is the official school of American Ballet Theatre. He will be entering Level Seven this upcoming fall, which is the most prestigious level the school offers.
Azaro was recently awarded the JKO’s Northern Trust Award, which is given annually to a student of exceptional promise. He was chosen out of hundreds of students who attend the school from around the world.
Azaro was in class when school Director Rebecca Schwarz pulled him aside and informed him that she and Franco De Vita, the artistic director, had chosen him for the award. “I was very surprised,” Azaro said. “I got to attend the gala and it was pretty cool and I’m still surprised and grateful.”
Risa Kaplowitz, artistic director and founder of Princeton Dance and Theater Studio in Plainsboro, has known Azaro since the beginning. She fostered his passion for the art and trained him early on.
“This award holds huge prestige. It’s massive to win … former winners all have gone on to become professional dancers—most with ABT,” Kaplowitz said.
Kathy Azaro, Max’s mother, even jokes that Kaplowitz is his ‘ballet mom.’ “But she did say biological moms win over ballet mom when it came to who got to come to the Gala with him,” said Kaplowitz.
“My mom loves free things, so she’s like ‘you’re going,’ and at first I was against it. Then I was like, ‘Eh, why not.’ So I went and I fell in love with it,” Azaro said.
From the first class, Kaplowitz felt saw he had great body coordination and would be a standout student. She offered him a scholarship to stay at the school and train.
For the first two years of Azaro’s training at PDT, he also continued competing in gymnastics. He was an accomplished gymnast, competing at 8 years old in six events. He won second in the New Jersey state competition and at 11, placed seventh in the state regional competition.
“I always liked climbing and flipping,” he said. “I was the classic 7-year-old climbing on stuff. I played soccer in the first grade and I absolutely hated it so I knew sports weren’t for me.”
After having barely any time to do his homework, Azaro decided to leave gymnastics in 2011 and put all of his energy into his classical dance training.
At PDT, Azaro danced at various levels, including the Conservatory Program, where students dance for close to 15 hours a week before rehearsals and performances. Princeton Youth Ballet, formerly DanceVision, is the youth performance company under Kaplowitz that Azaro has had the opportunity to perform principal roles. This tacks on another five plus hours of training a week.
His first role was in the Nutcracker as “Candy Cane Boy,” where he used his knowledge in gymnastics to help him through the acrobatic role.
In 2012, he attended his first Summer Intensive on a full scholarship from the Orlando Ballet at 13 years old. For that program, Azaro, a Grover Middle School student at the time, went to Florida for five weeks.
“That’s when I saw different schools and talented serious dancers. It was a fun summer, but after it ended I got way more serious about ballet,” he said.
The following year, Azaro competed in Youth American Grand Prix, performing the James Variation from La Sylphide.
“I was on a flight to a Summer Intensive audition when Max was performing, so I relied on Kathy to keep me posted,” Kaplowitz said. At first she thought Azaro had placed second in the men’s division for his age after watching everyone’s performances.
When Kathy called Kaplowitz and told her that Max didn’t just place second in his division, but second overall at the competition, Kaplowitz screamed in the airport. “People definitely thought I was crazy,” Kaplowitz said.
Azaro went onto compete at the NYC Finals. He was asked to partake in a special class where major players in the dance world, including JKO, the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and the Royal Ballet School, all had representatives watching.
De Vita asked Kaplowitz for her permission to offer Azaro a full scholarship to attend JKO.
“He chased after me and explained how well he thought Max performed, even being the youngest in the class and on stage, and that’s how it happened,” Kaplowitz said.
Kathy also wanted to ensure that when he went to JKO, he would be able to continue his studies. They decided to enroll Max in The Professional Children’s School, where all of the students are involved in acting, dance and singing and attend school half a day in order to go do both their craft and schooling.
His days vary based on how many hours he’s training at JKO. Because the commute to NYC is so long from West Windsor, Azaro resides in Short Hills during the week with his grandparents. He wakes up at 4:30 a.m. every morning to head to school.
Three of the five days during the week he attends school from 8 to 11 a.m. He then does homework and heads downtown to take classes at JKO from 2:30 to 7:30 p.m.
For the past two years Azaro has been in Level 6. His senior schedule will drastically change when he begins Level 7 in the fall, setting him up for an even more demanding schedule.
Max isn’t the only Azaro deeply involved in dance. His younger sister, Annabel, 15, dances in the Conservatory Program at PDT and with Max in PYB.
“I have never seen siblings more supportive of each other. Max can be seen in the wings putting on Annabel’s headpiece and vice versa. They’re extremely supportive—it’s just amazing ot watch,” Kaplowitz added.
His 10-year-old sister Eliza also tried dance, but decided that its not for her.
Kathy works reviewing disability claims for the state of New Jersey also works at the studio in the office and was the former president of PYB. Max’s father, Marco, works as a professor and biochemist researcher at Rutgers University.
Azaro said he doesn’t have much free time to participate in other arts, but often spends time to hang out with his family and friends.
To Max, dance is more than just physically demanding—it’s also mentally taxing due to the large amounts of criticism a dancer has to take.
Kaplowitz thinks she knows the best reason for people to take up dancing. “If you can do dance, you can do anything. It’s proven time and time again, nothing is harder or more beneficial,” she said.