Ballet in the City fills a unique need for ballet dancers and their families. It is a presenting organization, rather than a school or company comprised of its own dancers, and that structure allows it to educate and expose people to ballet in a very powerful way. Registrants of Ballet in the City programming attend an extensively planned whirlwind of events comprised of performances and master classes that build in time to develop relationships with celebrity ballet professionals. The young non-profit organization has already developed a loyal base of patrons and is excited to continue growing in its vision. Dance Informa spoke with Jessica Wallis, Ballet in the City founder and executive director, to learn more about the organization as it celebrates its fifth anniversary with a gala planned for September 30 and October 1, at Kent State University.
What is the mission of Ballet in the City?
“I am pleased with the Ballet in the City model. Things have to be different in this day and age, and Ballet in the City shines because we have the freedom to do many different things. The mission is to really educate people about ballet and its relevance. There’s a big educational component. Ballet in the City seeks to educate young dancers, their families and the general public.”
The list of master teachers presented by Ballet in the City since its 2012 inception is vast and star-filled. What are some examples of the programming, performances and events Ballet in the City assembles with these artists?
“We presented National Ballet of Canada Principal dancer Sonia Rodriguez in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We took her to Detroit for the debut and then Cleveland last year. Sonia is in a stage of her career that she wants to do some smaller and more intimate projects. Her work, A Ballerina’s Legacy, tells the story of her career and educates the audience. The performance opens with Sonia giving herself a barre on stage. She then dances several variations and even invites some audience members to perform with her. Sonia and Piotr Sranczyk, principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada, gave master classes all the next day. The whole weekend was meant to be experienced all together. This is an example of how Ballet in the City is able to connect really personally with dancers. We did something similar in concept but different in scale with Ashley Bouder, principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. We worked to produce with her the Ashley Bouder Project in Cleveland. It was a very large performance that sold out a 1,000-seat house in Cleveland. The next day was filled with master classes, and then the students were taught some of the piece that was danced by the New York City Ballet dancers the night before.”
What inspired you to found Ballet in the City?
“My inspiration to found Ballet in the City was a perfect storm. I was a public school educator and was finding that education is at a point where the focus has shifted very much into testing and teaching to the test. I was a dancer before I had an injury and had to stop dancing. The creative part of my being never left me. I did not want to keep teaching because I was so unhappy. I had to go with what made me happy, and the answer to that was ballet. I live In northeast Ohio; we do not have any big resident ballet companies. Big dancers from the big companies are always who inspired me. I would still go to Pittsburgh to see the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre or to New York to see the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. I knew there have to be other people from Ohio who love these companies and these dancers, and there’s no reason we couldn’t bring them here. We presented only master classes for the first year of the organization. After the classes, we found through Q&A session that people were very inspired. We noticed that the personal connection between students, parents and dancers was so valuable and that we had a platform to provide more of it. We are now able to collaborate with dancers to present performances while keeping the personal component. I saw a way to access ballet and ballet dancers that I felt was lacking, and I wanted to provide that to others. We find that even in areas that have a lot of access to ballet, we have provided something special.”
I noticed Ballet in the City has two scholarship opportunities. What type of dancer and person is an ideal candidate for these awards?
“The first scholarship was created as a result of working with Misty Copeland, principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, when she and Carlos Lopez, former soloist with American Ballet Theatre, danced at our gala in 2015. Misty was becoming a celebrity at that time, and I knew we may not have the opportunity to work with her again. I wanted her weekend to have a lasting impact. I worked with Misty and her agent to found a scholarship for African American dancers. Misty did not want the scholarship to be about her but about the dancers and the other professional dancers working with the dancers. This year, the committee wants to award one to a male dancer and one to a female. It’s not entirely about technique; it’s about who those dancers are as people. Those scholarships are awarded holistically, to dancers not only with talent but with character.
Discount Dance Supply saw the Ballet in the City scholarship and liked that idea. They wanted to collaborate with us to present a scholarship open to dancers ages eight through 18. These scholarships are awarded to two dancers of any gender and are selected by a committee that not only looks at technique but at the people.”
How does Ballet in the City secure funding, and what are the program’s greatest needs right now?
“It’s pretty miraculous, really. Our programming is highly successful, and we connect with a lot of families who support the organization. We had people from as far away as Michigan come to see Sonia Rodriguez in Pittsburgh. The reality is we are a non-profit, and we need funding from revenue and for operations. That’s our biggest challenge. When you look at the scope of what grantmakers support, they are reluctant to provide operating funds. We’ve done well with corporate sponsors in the past, but that’s getting more difficult. It’s also always a matter of manpower. It’s really me and one assistant from an operating perspective. I think we can play upon the unique nature of our organization, but being able to get our message out to grantmakers and corporate sponsors is a challenge.”
Please describe the Fifth Anniversary Gala Weekend at Kent State, September 30 and October 1, and how to purchase tickets.
“I’m very excited to have the professionals for the gala and the classes the next day, and I’m excited about our ambassadors. Having ambassadors has become very important during the past few years. We have ambassadors coming from four states to perform. I am very proud to provide that. Rebecca King-Ferraro, corps de ballet at Miami City Ballet, and Michael Sean Breeden, corps de ballet at Miami City Ballet, and co-hosts of the ‘Conversations on Dance’ podcast have interviewed everyone in ballet and are phenomenal and educated. They are going to co-host the show with me and will interview the ambassadors on stage. The gala will also include performances by 2017 Ballet in the City Scholarship recipient Kayla Thomas and ballerina superstar Dusty Button.
The next day will be master classes. Anyone attending will get to take Balanchine style technique class, learn an excerpt from Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15 variations and take pas de deux class – all with Rebecca and Michael. Dusty Button will be teaching ballet and contemporary classes and an advanced contemporary choreography workshop.
Tickets are open to the public and available for purchase at balletinthecity.org/programs-and-events.html.”
What are you most excited about with Ballet in the City right now? What exciting plans are in the works for the organization?
“We’re currently working with Lauren Lovette, principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, to provide a platform for her to present her choreography. Lauren first worked with us in June, and we really connected. She’s a beautiful person. Our performance with Lauren may not be until 2019. We want it to be the right city, venue and time, so it may take a while.”
For more information about Ballet in the City, visit balletinthecity.org.
By Emily Yewell Volin of Dance Informa.