(Image: Spartanburg Ballet dance company principal dancers, from left, Nichola Montt, Will Scott, Analay Saiz, Will Robichaud, and Meghan Loman, rehearse at the Chapman Cultural Center in Spartanburg)
When a group of 85 ballet enthusiasts and visionaries, led by the late Majorie Riggs, got together in 1966 to form what would later become known as Ballet Spartanburg, few could have imagined the tremendous growth the organization would experience over the next half-century.
But as it celebrates its 50th anniversary during the 2016-17 season, Ballet Spartanburg has cemented its role as a key member of the city’s thriving arts community. The nonprofit organization now has its own professional ballet company and a highly-regarded dance education program. It has also expanded its public outreach and continues to present multiple performances each year.
“When it was chartered as the Ballet Guild of Spartanburg, the concept was basically just to be a presenting organization,” Ballet Spartanburg executive director Teresa Hough said. “But over the years we’ve offered so much more.”
The 50th anniversary season kicked off with a family-friendly ballet, “The Little Mermaid,” in October, and Ballet Spartanburg is gearing up now for its annual production of the holiday classic, “The Nutcracker,” which will be performed Friday, Saturday and Dec. 11. The 2016-17 season will continue in February with an intimate performance, “Fire & Passion,” which is part of Ballet Spartanburg’s Studio Series. DanSynergy 9, with a theme of “Celebrating the Power of Women,” will be presented in March, followed by “An American in Paris” in April.
“Education certainly is a very important part of our mission and so is the outreach, but the high quality of the performances that we present to the audiences is also very important,” said Carlos Agudelo, who has served as Ballet Spartanburg’s artistic director since 1991. “We see the growing enthusiasm of the people who come to the performances — the standing ovations and just a lot of compliments — and it encourages us.
“The thing we want to do with ballet is to explore social themes and other things that are relevant to our society, so, in general, we have to be creative, we have to be open to change and we have to be willing to develop new experiences.”
In its first few decades, Ballet Spartanburg presented performances by some of the most notable ballet companies in the world, including the National Ballet of Washington, D.C., Houston Ballet, Atlanta Ballet, and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. It also hosted a 1988 performance by international ballet superstar Rudolf Nureyev, who substituted for an injured Mikhail Baryshnikov.
“I sat in the third row and I remember looking up at (Nureyev) and being like, ‘I cannot believe this is happening,'” Hough said. “That was a major fundraiser, and it was just great.”
Since 2013, Ballet Spartanburg has had its own professional dance company, which has added a new dynamic to the performances and to the educational and public outreach aspects of the organization.
The only professional dance company in the Upstate and one of only three in South Carolina, Ballet Spartanburg hires top-notch dancers from around the world to showcase their respective talents.
“It’s amazing that (Ballet Spartanburg) has been around for 50 years and that it’s been so successful,” said Nichola Montt, a Boston native and member of Ballet Spartanburg’s professional company. “They’ve got a really great community here, and I think a lot of it has to do with the hard work that Carlos and (ballet mistress) Lona (Gomez) put into it.”
Having its own professional company allows Ballet Spartanburg to present high-quality performances without having to hire outside professionals as it did previously. Now, the students at the Center for Dance Education have an opportunity to work with professional dancers on a regular basis as opposed to only a few days before a public performance as had been the case.
“The fact that my 6- and 4-year-old daughters, Wallace and Harriet, get to work with professional ballet dancers in Spartanburg is a huge deal,” said Griffin Lynch, who served as president of Ballet Spartanburg from 2012-2014 and took classes with the Dance Center as a youth.
Referring to one of Ballet Spartanburg’s professional dancers, Lynch added, “Miss Analay (Saiz), who played ‘The Little Mermaid,’ is both girls’ teacher, and for them to be able to sit in the audience and watch their teacher on stage in that role is really inspiring.”
Will Robichaud, who grew up in Woodruff and took classes at the Dance Center for much of his youth, was recently added to Ballet Spartanburg’s roster of professional dancers. He initially got into dance by following in the footsteps of his older sister, Natalie, who is now a business professional in Brooklyn, N.Y. “The discipline that they taught us when we were really young has definitely stuck with us,” Robichaud said.
Robichaud’s mother, Amy, said the lessons her children learned from Ballet Spartanburg can be carried throughout life.
“When our daughter, Natalie, started an entry-level job, she said she remembered Carlos saying, ‘there is no small part, everybody has to do their own part,'” Amy Robichaud recalled. “And when Will went to study with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, he had not only very sound technical training but he also had an appreciation for the hard work you have to put into it.”
The vision for the Center for Dance Education started in 1967 when the late Barbara Ferguson began teaching ballet classes. The actual dance school opened in 1976.
Now, nearly 400 students, from toddlers to senior citizens, study dance through programs offered by the Center for Dance Education.
Gomez said one of the reasons for the school’s success is its emphasis on teaching dance in a non-competitive environment. “In this day and age, children are used to very quick rewards,” said Gomez, who is in her 22nd season with Ballet Spartanburg. “Here, we want them to understand that it’s a journey. Not everybody advances at the same pace.
“It’s about learning things slowly and mastering them, and then when you have mastered them, you go on to the next level. You’re not supposed to compare yourself to the person next to you. We try to celebrate their individuality.”
The classroom methods used by Gomez and Agudelo seem to be effective, given the success of many of the Center for Dance Education’s alumni. Among those who have gone on to pursue ballet as a career are McGee Maddox, now a principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada, and Chase Brock, now a prolific choreographer whose credits include the Broadway musical “Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark.”
“Our goal is to develop the students’ full potential and give them opportunities to perform,” Agudelo said, “but we also want to develop their kinesthetic intelligence, which facilitates other academic forms of learning and teaches life skills.”
Throughout the years, Ballet Spartanburg has continued to increase its public outreach. The organization works with area schools, offering ballet demonstrations and a free annual performance of “Peter and the Wolf” while also providing summer programs for at-risk youths in inner-city housing projects and at the Boys and Girls Club of the Upstate.
Ballet Spartanburg gives performances at nursing homes, hospitals, and various community events while also offering classes for students with special needs, including Parkinson’s disease patients. And three years ago, it began presenting a sensory-sensitive production of “The Nutcracker,” geared primarily to students from the South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind.
“My wife Roberta and I are in health care, and their Parkinson’s class is something that’s truly amazing,” said Tom Jennings, who served as president of Ballet Spartanburg from 1996-1998. “They’re one of the few ballet companies in the United States that do these classes, and that’s probably one of the things I’m most delighted about.”
Ballet Spartanburg is housed in the Chapman Cultural Center. “We are not a huge metropolis where you’d normally find a ballet company, so it’s really special what we have here,” said Chapman Cultural Center president and CEO Jennifer Evins, who was a Ballet Spartanburg board member in the mid-1990s. “It’s pretty rare to have dance presented four or five times a year in a city our size, but I think it’s a reflection of our entire community and how we value the arts.”
Hough said Ballet Spartanburg, as a nonprofit, would not have endured for the past 50 years without the support of corporate sponsors and individual donors.
“We’re extremely fortunate to have so many people who believe in what we’re trying to accomplish,” she said. “We’re all about culture, we’re about diversity, we’re about collaborations, and we’re about creativity. We’re not about just being a teeny, tiny little school that’s just for the served; we’re for the underserved and for bringing in those who might not otherwise have the opportunity to dance.”
For more information about Ballet Spartanburg, the Center for Dance Education, and upcoming performances visit www.balletspartanburg.org.