Tallahassee Resilient Ballet Celebrates 50th Anniversary With Open House
What a difference 50 years can make! Even two or three when they are “COVID years”.
With a smile of triumph and gratitude, Tallahassee Ballet CEO Janet Pichard stands in the newly renovated 14,000 square foot world-class facility of Tallahassee’s oldest professional dance company.
Now located in the Northampton Center, this Sunday, August 21, the company will celebrate its silver anniversary with an open house at the new northeast Tallahassee location.
From a small group of dancers led in 1972 by Helen Salter, a former New York City Ballet Balanchine dancer who dreamed of inspiring dance careers for others, to today’s paid principals and soloists and the large body of ballet, Tallahassee Ballet has done what so many other local and national businesses have failed to do: it has grown and prospered.
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With so many “artistic dollars” available and a global pandemic that has caused Pichard to make huge cuts to Tallahassee Ballet’s budget, the boldness and successful management of the organization as seen today is astounding.
Pichard, who has been with Tallahassee Ballet for 12 years, is eager to show off the company’s new digs, a North Side location that was once a bodybuilding gym but is now a music-filled mirror conservatory where the girls lift their legs high above their heads and the young men stretch their muscles and prepare to spin. But getting here has been a long road.
Came out of the basement
Although the Tallahassee Ballet began in 1972 as a small concert group that drew its dancers from local dance studios, it soon became clear that without a school to provide a stable income, ticket sales alone would not suffice. not to support the organization. Thus, a school was created.
Recognized names from the past brought their immense talents: Nancy Carroll Abbey, Joyce Straub, resident choreographer, Kathryn Cashin. Straub and Cashin were responsible for the company’s first full-length ballet, “The Nutcracker”, in 1986, and Cashin continues his association with the company to this day.
From an original practice site in the basement of the Northwood Mall, the Tallahassee Ballet and School found rehearsal locations in the former Monroe Library, a Third Avenue setting, and in 2013 moved into units at street level at the Northwood Centre.
With passionate students from the then flourishing school, the company would go on to create a repertoire of 34 classical and romantic pieces, seven complete ballets, 47 modern and jazz pieces, and six ballets for children.
Artistic directors over the years brought professional knowledge from their own careers: Henry Hernandez who had danced in Belgium and principal dancer of the Orlando Ballet; Rick McCullough, now on the faculty of Florida State University; and since 2013, Tyrone Brooks, principal dancer and teacher at the Dance Theater of Harlem, whose administrative and artistic vision has helped the company grow, each has brought their own aesthetic and advanced the understanding of what ballet can bring to a community.
A sparkling new space
It’s almost 6 p.m. and under a sparkling chandelier, a dozen little girls in black leotards and pink tights are stretching and arching, pointing, and reviewing the arm positions they need to remember when their class begins. in the first of three massive studios.
Here, with portable bars and mirrored walls, they develop an understanding of how the body works, the discipline of repetition, and how frustration can be conquered through practice. And all wrapped up in a kind of musical dream.
At the end of a wide hall, another large classroom accommodates advanced dancers, company apprentices and members. Each slender, their physical power is no less breathtaking. A pianist plays a leaping mazurka towards which the young men and women rush in a series of combinations “fault, assemble”, fault, cabriole” which lead them through a room which acts as a stage. Athletes, sure. Artists, of course.
In the room, Janet Pichard peers through one-way glass that allows parents or other observers to watch without distracting the dancers. She won’t stay long even though she herself was both a dancer and a dance teacher. Instead, she’ll soon be back in her office using some of her other skills in administration and marketing, art coordination, and fundraising.
Journey to a new home
But first, as Pichard walks down a glittering hallway to show a visitor the costume and set storage area, she reflects on the journey Tallahassee Ballet has been on — and its recent challenges.
“When the City decided they needed the Northwood Centre, where we had been housed for six years, for the site of the new police headquarters, we still had two years left on our existing lease. For our needs—classroom and rehearsal space, storage, and costume making—we needed a lot of square footage. And it wasn’t going to be easy to find,” she said.
Still, the large space of Northampton, they thought, might just do the trick. Through careful negotiations with the city, Tallahassee Ballet was able to apply the two-year monetary difference between its old lease and the lease on the new property to secure the Northampton site.
“With the incredible help of GRC Architects and Construction Solutions, this incredible facility, complete with custom floors for the dancers, would be created,” said Pichard.
But just months before moving in, so did COVID. Pichard says she was ruthless. “I immediately reduced our budget by 80%. I cut most of the staff. Shows cancelled. Then we had no idea what the pandemic had in store for us,” Pichard said.
She also didn’t know where the money would come from to complete the construction of the Ballet’s new center. “Thank goodness I found out about ‘closed site grants,’ PPP loans, and staff grants,” she says. With those sources and Pichard’s preemptive cuts, Tallahassee Ballet has not only weathered the worst of the pandemic, but now, like the dancers next door, it’s soaring.
290 students, 37 lessons per week
With a current budget of $900,000, the CEO hopes to increase it to one million within the next few years. “We have 290 students, teach 37 lessons a week, and are able to pay our directors and soloists.” The new location, she says, has only increased the number of people wanting to learn to dance.
Janet Pichard then turns the key to a magic room at the end of the corridor. This is the costume room, located just opposite the space where the theater furniture and props are stored. The costume room smells strange, clean, but warm, alive as memories might be.
Here, on hangers, Clara’s white dress in “The Nutcracker”; jackets with gold braid; long blue, pink and lavender tulle skirts; and drawers of jeweled tutus, their stiff nets shimmering with rhinestones and pearls.
Sewing machines are lined up against a wall where seamstresses and designers create and alter costumes for one snow queen after another, or cygnets turned swans. It is dreams and experiences, remembered curtain calls and surviving aspirations that drive this silent piece of stage fabric.
Pichard locks the doors and takes another look at the dancers tying pink satin shoes. They are in rehearsal for “Sounds of Brazil”, on September 23 and 25, and later, for “Casse-Noisette” in December.
Go to schools with ‘Dance Chance’
With the opening of Leon County Schools, Tallahassee Ballet will also bring its artistry to schools and the community with the Title I program, “Dance Chance,” and professional TB performances for $8 during the season. will be presented to school students by bus. at the Ruby Diamond Hall.
This weekend’s “Backstage at the Ballet” is another of the many ways Tallahassee Ballet hopes to invite the community into its world and celebrate its 50th anniversary. On Sundays, from 3-4:15 p.m., kids can meet “Clara,” “Cinderella,” and even “Elsa and Anna” from Frozen, and from 4:30-5:30 p.m., adults can sip a glass of wine while watching Tallahassee Ballet dancers. rehearse and tour the new Northampton Centre, the doors will be open and the music will be playing.
And Janet Pichard will likely be seen smiling under a pretty chandelier.
If you are going to
What: Silver Anniversary Open House at Tallahassee Ballet
When: Sunday August 21, 3-4.15 p.m. for children; 4:30-5:30 p.m. for adults and older children.
Where: Tallahassee Ballet at Northampton Centre, 2910 Kerry Forest Pkwy. Check out Tallahassee Ballet on Facebook or visit tallahasseeballet.org.
Marina Brown can be contacted at [email protected] Brown is the author of four gold award-winning books, including the 2020 RPLA Book of the Year.
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