For many ballet students living in suburban areas of America, being a bunhead can be an isolated life, with infrequent opportunities to see professional ballets performed live and little access to students outside their own schools.
For these dancers, Regional Dance America, or “festival” as participants call it, is a way to share their passion for the artform with hundreds of their colleagues who study ballet in similar environments, take classes from new teachers and perform for a discriminating audience made up of their peers. “This is the only chance a lot of the dancers from the suburbs get to see their contemporaries, especially if they don’t go to summer programs,” says Regina Moyano, co-director of DanceWest Ballet in Naperville, IL, whose company participated in the Mid-States Regional Dance America Festival that was hosted by Alexandra Ballet in St. Louis earlier this year. “This is their time to be with their own kind.”
“Regional dance,” once a pejorative term, has now come to describe a community of teachers and dancers committed to improving the quality of ballet training and performance at the local level. RDA, founded in 1988 by the National Association for Regional Ballet, aims to achieve this goal by holding annual festivals in each of its five regions, where members come together to take class and to perform. (RDA currently has 94 member companies nationwide.)
“RDA takes serious studios from suburban areas and puts them all together,” says Matthew Frain, 17, also of DWB. At this year’s Mid-States Festival, a tightly knit group of devoted directors, teachers, students and parents gathered to support each other in the technical and artistic growth of their respective youth companies.
The first day of the three-day festival began with breakfast, followed by morning classes held in partitioned hotel ballrooms renamed for ballet bigwigs (Petipa, Ashton, Pavlova), each equipped with dance floors, barres and pianos. Throughout the day, buses ferried groups between the hotel and the theater at the University of Missouri–St. Louis for rehearsals in preparation for the evening’s performances.
The ranging levels of technical proficiency of the 14 participating companies made class more challenging for some, but the guest faculty, which included Trinette Singleton, Alan Hineline and Randall Newsom, pushed each student to do more.
A key part of the festival experience is exposure to different teaching styles, says Mai Uesaka, a 16-year-old dancer who has been studying with Michigan Classic Ballet since her family moved from Aichi, Japan, five years ago. “You just have to keep an open mind,” says Uesaka, adding that she has also learned from observing others whose techniques seem to be working and those whose are not. AB’s Consuelo Williams, 17, agrees, “So many dancers with different training come together to make this melting pot of dance, and you get new corrections that you wouldn’t get at your home studio.”
At the end of the day, which had some students taking up to four classes from a selection that included technique, pointe, pas de deux, character and modern, everyone took a dinner break and prepared for the first performances of the weekend. Before curtain, AB’s artistic director, Alexandra Zaharias, reminded the dancers about proper audience etiquette—enthusiastic applause and decorous “bravos” were acceptable, hooting and hollering were not.
AB, the host company, which had celebrated its 20th anniversary two months earlier, opened the Showcase Performance with the Kingdom of the Shades scene from La Bayadère. (Guest artists Maya Makhateli and Nathan Vander Stoep from Colorado Ballet danced Nikiya and Solor.) The remaining opening night works—many created by RDA students—had been preselected by a special panel of adjudicators. The evening closed with Divertissements, a ballet choreographed for select dancers from each of the member companies by Salt Creek Ballet Co-Director Sergey Kozadayev.
A familiar scene began the second day: Scores of dancers lined the hotel hallways gingerly taping blistered toes before cramming feet into their shoes for another long dancing day. The schedule, while intense, gives them a taste of professional life. “Just waking up in the morning and going to class first thing is the best,” says DWB’s Jamie Ripsky, 17.
Later on, in Rosanna Ruffo’s variations class, Ripsky was a standout in a variation from Le Corsaire; the other students studied her intently. “She’s gorgeous,” whispered one dancer to her friend, who nodded emphatically while the class applauded. This exchange was emblematic of the weekend’s supportive atmosphere. Many dancers who have been coming to festival for multiple years have forged friendships with students from other companies, keeping in touch throughout the year. “Your dance friends are with you all the time,” says Williams. “They understand things that your school friends never will.”
Uesaka, Frain, Ripsky and Williams all have professional aspirations. “A lot of girls around here want to be in ABT or NYCB—everyone has their dream company,” says Frain. “But my favorite company in the world is the National Ballet of Cuba. All their dancers are really amazing. I’d have to get very good.” But rising through the ranks is at the top of his list. “I don’t want to be just good. I want to be the best.”
The second evening of performances is called the Concert Program. The performances display how each company has grown in the year since the last festival, but they are also an opportunity for dancers to enjoy a large stage in a theater with all the accoutrements, something they might not have with their home companies. “I really enjoy being onstage, but we usually perform at a high school, so being on a big stage and getting to move is good,” says Uesaka, who that night danced the role of the Summer Fairy in an excerpt from Cinderella.
On the final day of the festival, instead of a second morning class, everyone attended a special seminar on Antony Tudor given by Sally Brayley-Bliss, executive director of Dance St. Louis. Other educational opportunities offered throughout the weekend included kinesiology, a class on how to audition and a session on musicality taught by the University of Utah’s Rob Wood.
The final performance is typically a Gala Evening that features the festival’s most regarded works. (Each piece performed is ranked on a point system beforehand by an independent adjudicator—this year it was choreographer and former ABT soloist Charles Maple.) Following tradition, the audience wore its best attire—many of them in gowns and suits. AB opened the program again, this time with an excerpt from Esmeralda, with Williams in the title role. She explained earlier that she tries to be a little anxious before taking the stage, citing the one time she was completely calm as the only instance she’s ever fallen in a performance. But she hid any nervousness, and her performance was received by the audience with a standing ovation.
After the show, the festival wrapped up with an elegant banquet back at the hotel. As everyone gathered in the hall, a video featuring highlights from the last three days was projected onto a wall. After dinner, honors, scholarships and awards were given out, including scholarships to RDA’s annual Craft of Choreography Conference, which offers both emerging and seasoned choreographers a forum to create works on dancers.
As the evening wrapped up, dancers made their goodbyes and exchanged addresses. Ripsky summed up the experience: “[RDA] has been a huge part of my training,” she said, happily clutching the scholarship she had received that night. For more: www.regional-dance-america.org