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Volume 26, Number 2 — February 2019

Bristol Ballet on its toes since 1948

Jacey Clark prepares to dance with her class partner in the Pre-Ballet class at Bristol Ballet.
Jacey Clark prepares to dance with her class partner in the Pre-Ballet class at Bristol Ballet.
Additional photos below »

By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | March 30, 2015

Constance Hardinge started Bristol Ballet in 1948 to train young people in the art of dance. She founded a performing company in 1959, comprised of 12 dancers.

"This company grew in stature and became one of the leading regional ballet companies in the nation," says Michele Plescia, artistic director. "It has been a member of the Southeastern Regional Ballet Association, had many guest teachers and choreographers and trained many dancers who have gone on to professional dance careers." In 1965, Maria Tallchief, noted American ballerina and founder of the Chicago City Ballet, visited Bristol Ballet to select a handful of young students to receive Ford Foundation Scholarships to pay tuition for studies at Bristol Ballet. Plescia was one of those lucky students.

Bristol Ballet produced the area's first "Nutcracker" ballet and has continued that tradition for 38 years. Other productions, such as "Mountain Ballad," "The Cloistered" and "Recess," are all original works by Hardinge. In 1972, she became head of the dance department of Virginia Intermont College, and the company expanded to include VI students, as well as local members.

In 1986, the company returned to its origins and was largely a regional company of local dancers. A year after Hardinge's death in 1992, the school and company were incorporated as one nonprofit entity. Plescia returned to the Tri-Cities in 2004 and became the artistic director.

Children can start studying as young as age 3 at Bristol Ballet. "Different ages definitely require different teaching styles and methods, as well as different goals. Three and 4 year olds don't have the muscle strength to execute actual ballet steps. The focus for preschool groups is on body awareness, basic fine and gross motor skills, following directions and developing a joy for dance. Their classes are done with play activities and a lot of imagination and imagery. As the students grow in age and develop physically and emotionally, classes become increasingly more technical and structured," Plescia says.

Proper body posture and proper execution of exercises is always emphasized and should be mastered before progressing to the next level. There is a performing company for intermediate and advanced dancers. Members are accepted by audition and perform in "The Nutcracker," a spring gala and a student concert each year. Younger non-company dancers perform in the student concert and can participate in other productions, if appropriate.

While Bristol Ballet focuses on classical ballet, dancers are introduced to other styles of dance, usually in summer intensives for pre-intermediate to advanced levels. Jazz, contemporary, musical theater and modern dance increase movement ranges and provide a well-rounded education in dance.

This season there are two major productions remaining "Unbroken Circle Bristol's Music in Motion," April 11 and 12 and "Snow White," May 17. "Unbroken Circle" is a celebration of the Bristol Sessions music, created in cooperation with the Birthplace of Country Music and in honor of the opening of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.

"Bristol Ballet and the Birthplace of Country Music are providing performers with a tour of the museum and providing the audience with program notes about the music and its significance to Bristol and in the development of country music," Plescia says. "This will be a varied performance, with traditional and non-traditional ballet, and maybe even an authentic clogging piece by the cloggers from Bristol Dance Academy."

"Snow White" is a student concert that involves students ages 4 and older. It tells the traditional tale of Snow White. "There will be the obvious characters Snow White, Evil Queen and Dwarves (although there may be a little surprise about the dwarves), to birds, butterflies, flowers, diamonds and tears of sorrow. The children are all very excited about not only their own roles but the roles of other classes," Plescia says.

Bringing all different ages and levels together for a performance begins with appropriate casting of roles and designation of rehearsals. Each role is rehearsed separately until closer to show time. Usually there is one large studio rehearsal that is a full run through of the production. Then there are tech (stage) and dress rehearsals the week before the show, running each production in its entirety to make sure people have time for costume changes, to set lighting and music cues, and ensure that props and scenery changes work smoothly. The younger dancers are on stage with company members, so that they have someone to help them along and guide them while they are on stage.

Bristol Ballet also brings in guest artists for productions. "The upsides to guest artists are many. They bring the professionalism and excitement to performances and take the productions to higher levels. And it's so good for the students to see what they have to look forward to what professional dancing looks like, what they are aspiring to. The guest artists can also give them tips and insights on things from how to tape your toes to where to dance in college or as a professional. Our guest artists have always been very gracious and willing to do extra activities to help promote the production or to participate in educational activities for both the dancers and attendees at performances. Last "Nutcracker' we had a group of 65 middle school children who attended one of our school performances, then went to our studio and had a bag lunch and asked questions of the cast members, including every professional guest dancer. The participation was optional for the professionals, but each of them happily participated because they understand the importance of educational activities and want to help promote dance."

Plescia says nonprofit ballet companies could not exist without volunteers. They help with costume design, execution and alteration. There were more than 125 costumes for "The Nutcracker." Their other duties range from changing light bulbs to set design. "I have a parent volunteer who works with me to create costumes. We discuss each of our visions for new works and come up with ideas that ultimately turn into what is seen on stage. Even for existing costumes, we look for ways to change and recreate the looks that are seen on stage. I have another parent volunteer who creates props and headpieces for us. It's such a blessing to have them both." Plescia estimates that last season in-kind and volunteer efforts had a value of $30,000.
Students make a time commitment from 30 minutes a week for 3 year olds, to three hours for non-company members. Senior company members have classes and rehearsals for 16 hours a week, plus additional hours during the weeks of productions.

"We work very hard to make the commitments age appropriate for non-company members. There's a tee shirt for sale somewhere that says "I can't. I have Ballet' on the front. The kids thought that was cool."

Ballet is "cool" for girls, but recruiting male students isn't easy. "It is very difficult to recruit and keep male students, largely because of the lack of education and appreciation for the arts in America. Boys are supposed to be rugged and play football or soccer in many people's minds, particularly dads. The boys who are allowed to take ballet have a hard time staying beyond elementary school age, as their peers tease them about being sissies. It takes a brave boy to stay in classes; although as a rule there are fewer men than women in ballet everywhere. Men and boys who have participated in our productions in non-dancing roles have learned the skill and strength that it takes to be a male dancer. Imagine having to jump three feet in the air while turning and landing gracefully, or carrying a 100 pound (or more) ballerina around as if it were nothing."

Plescia does a large part of the choreography, but also hires people to choreograph as well. "It's good experience for the dancers to work with other artists and not get used to one particular style of work," Plescia says.

"From the earliest age on, the benefits of ballet are endless: independence, following directions, coordination, memory skills, a sense of responsibility and leadership, physical fitness, injury prevention, basic anatomy, music appreciation and basic music theory, appreciation for other art forms, higher test scores at school due to the ability to retain information, problem solving and ability to think outside the box, creativity, working as a team, seeing a project through to the end and tenacity.

"There was a study done about companies/businesses and their hiring practices, which determined that businesses now seek out employees with arts backgrounds, because of their ability to think creatively and problem solve. Many studies have been done about how the arts affect children's learning abilities and test scores all positive. People involved in the arts also live fuller, happier lives in some regards, because of their inclusion of arts in their lives," Plescia says.

Many students who have been a part of Bristol Ballet have gone on to careers in dance. Others went on to dance in professional companies or to freelance as professionals. Many started their own schools and companies some in the area, and others farther away. They have majored in dance at college, acquired teaching positions in arts schools, and some have dreams of dancing professionally or teaching when they graduate from college. "It's a tough profession to break into, and the career span is short lived, much like professional sports. But the passion and desire to promote dance, once that fire is lit, can be significant," Plescia says.

Plescia's greatest challenge is getting everything done. As a small nonprofit, the staff includes her as the one full-time employee, and one part-time employee. "There is always the challenge to make the arts more accessible to everyone, so looking for ways to fund classes for economically disadvantaged children is a constant, as are ways to balance the budget and still keep the arts accessible to the majority by keeping tuition and ticket prices reasonable," Plescia says. "However, I have a job where I get to hear beautiful and inspiring music every day and create movement to complement that music. I have the joy of working with children and seeing their progress, both physical and emotional. Hearing a dancer squeal with delight when she accomplishes a triple pirouette or seeing the huge smile on the face of a younger child when she struggles and then accomplishes a new step is priceless. Instilling the joy of dance and seeing that on stage when the dancers perform, watching them really care about their progress and be "all in' are worth all the extra hours and multitasking. Knowing that the people in our organization make a difference in our community, both with students and audience members, is fantastic. I love moving audience members emotionally, making them feel something joy, laughter, tears. That's what art is all about."

(Left to right) Abby Kaylor, Tory Dillard, Kallie Huffman, Paxton Adkins, Madyson Kent, and AnnaLee Adams (as Clara), dance Waltz of the Flowers with Dew Drop Monica Kaul, center. From the 2014 production of The Nutcracker.