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Fort Wayne Ballet celebrates 50 years of history

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


The Fort Wayne Ballet marks a milestone when it kicks off its 2006-2007 year — during the weekend of September 29, two “Director’s Choice” gala performances and a special children’s matinee mark the 50th anniversary of the ballet.

The weekend also serves as a homecoming: on stage and in the audience will be many past dancers and associates of the Fort Wayne Ballet. “We wanted to celebrate the success of this organization through those years, so we’ve invited our former artistic directors, as well as young people that we’ve trained that are still dancing and contributed to this field,” says Karen Gibbons-Brown, artistic director of the Fort Wayne Ballet.

The Fort Wayne Ballet, with guests, will be performing four pieces at the gala “director’s choice” performances on Friday and Saturday night. The performances are the same both nights, but Saturday, September 30 is the big celebration, with cocktails and hors d'oeuvres before the show and a special champagne and dessert reception afterwards.

The short Saturday children’s matinee at 2:30 pm, performed by the Fort Wayne Ballet’s youth company, is called Dance Imitates Music, includes a special feature entitled: A Young Persons Guide to the Orchestra.

The four pieces comprising the Director’s Choice performances on Friday and Saturday night showcase the range of dance that falls under the umbrella of many modern ballet companies, from traditional ballet to more contemporary movement pieces.

On the traditional side is the “Black Swan Pied A Duex” from Swan Lake, probably the most difficult piece from the world’s most famous ballet. The tough part? As Odile the black swan, the Fort Wayne Ballet’s Lucia Rogers does 32 fouetees, which in non-technical terms means she spins around 32 times. “Instead of doing 32, every now and then she’ll stay up and go around a few extra times,” Gibbons-Brown says. “There’s 32 beats in the music, but every now and then you’ll see her do 42. It’s pretty amazing.”

Another more traditional piece, the Bournonville Divertissement, is set by Jeremy Blanton, a very well known figure in the ballet world (he is a former co-director of the Joffrey II Ballet Company in New York and the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company, among other accomplishments) who has worked with the Fort Wayne Ballet many times before.

Some of the Fort Wayne Ballet alumni performing during the weekend include some more recent “graduates” who are now dancing professionally. Chelsea Teel, now dancing with the Kansas City Ballet, choreographed what Gibbons-Brown describes as a neo-classical, three section piece to a Bach section of music.

Two more of the alumnae guest dancers are David Ingram and Emily Reinking O’Dell from the Louisville Ballet, performing an original piece called “Free Flow” at the gala. It’s a contemporary piece choreographed by the Louisville Ballet’s resident choreographer Adam Hoagland. “It’s high energy, a lot of innovative movement,” says Reinking O’Dell, who graduated from Concordia in 1996.

“It’s very different, a little provocative,” adds Ingram. "We’ve also got a cellist accompanying us on stage, so we’re very excited about that.”

A few years separate Reinking O’Dell and Ingram (Reinking O’Dell graduated from Indiana University in 2000; Ingram from Butler in 2004), so they never worked together while in Fort Wayne, but they both secured jobs dancing for the Louisville Ballet after graduating college. As of this writing, they were in the middle of rehearsals for Beauty and the Beast, with Ingram dancing “the Beast.”

Reinking O’Dell began dancing at the Fort Wayne Ballet when she was six or seven, though it wasn’t until her freshman year that she decided she would try to dance professionally. She danced with Kristen Scott, another alumni returning for the gala who now dances with the American Repertory Theatre. “We were fortunate to have really great friends and a good high school experience, but (dance) was our life,” Reinking O’Dell says. “You pretty much give up any other outside activities. You missed… well, not everything, but a lot of things were given up for it, and gained at the same time. So that’s when you got serious, and to carry it on to college is obviously a big commitment.”

“When you’re younger and you go and watch professionals, they’re so beautiful on stage and it looks so effortless, and I think when I was younger I thought with time it just got easier, and it doesn’t,” she adds. “You’re constantly working and improving, and just when you think you’ve overcome a hurdle there’s another one. And that’s kind of the fun of it, too.”

Ingram didn’t start dancing until he was 12 or 13. “I was playing football at the time, and I was kind of slow,” he says. “My coach suggested trying ballet for balance and coordination. And you know what? The ratio of boys to girls in a ballet class is just brilliant. So I decided that this was the place for me. Along the way, I just fell in love with dancing. That was it.”

Other alumnae performing at the gala are Kristen Scott, Molly Merkler and Ashley Benninghoff.

The gala performances on September 29th and 30th are just the beginning of events planned to celebrate the Fort Wayne Ballet’s 50th anniversary. So, what could a 1956 audience at the Fort Wayne Ballet have seen? Cinderella was one of the first major productions, and the ballet is planning on staging a version of that later this season. Beyond that, no one really knows; records weren’t kept and they’ve had to piece together what the organization was like from other sources like pictures and articles they’ve uncovered. “I’ve uncovered that we did a La Patineur, which is a ballet from the 1940s, so technically at the time of this organization, that was only a fifteen-year-old piece of work,” Gibbons-Brown says. “There were some original pieces presented as well, but what the company was at that time, we don’t really know.”

But what has really impressed Gibbons-Brown are all the people who have contacted the Fort Wayne Ballet in response to the 50th anniversary. Many of the people are no longer involved in the field of dance (which isn’t all that unusual; even if they did continue in dance after leaving the Fort Wayne Ballet, a dancer’s professional stage career is relatively short), but Gibbons-Brown says she has heard from people as far away as Saskatchewan and Italy. “It’s been amazing some of the contacts that have just said ‘I was a part of this organization from 1972 – 75 and I would love to participate,’ and it’s a new name to us, we don’t have it anywhere in our records,” she says. “So it’s been wonderful to find people out there who have such warm and fond feelings for this organization and the part this organization has played in their lives as they’ve continued on.”

50th Anniversary Gala Performance
Friday, September 29
8 pm
Arts United Center
303 East Main Street
Tickets: $15/adult; $10/other

Children’s Matinee
Saturday, September 30
2:30 pm
Arts United Center
303 East Main Street
Tickets: $15/adult; $10/other

50th Anniversary Gala Celebration
September 30
Arts United Center
303 East Main Street
6 pm — cocktails and hors d'oeuvres
8 pm — performance
10 pm — champagne and dessert reception

Call the Fort Wayne Ballet at (260) 424-9646 for tickets, or drop by their offices at 324 Penn Avenue.

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