It has been led by artistic director Stoner Winslett since 1980, and the company's home is at Sixth and Canal streets in a state-of-the-art facility, which opened in July 2000. A prime feature of the facility is a 214-seat theater where the company performs its studio series. The spacious stage doubled as a television studio for the PBS filming last April.
Winslett says she wanted a program that was unique to the company and would give contrast. She chose Jessica Lang's dramatic "A Maiden's Hymn," set to the first two movements of Franz Schubert's String Quartet in D minor. Lang, a New York-based choreographer, has described the work as a retelling of Matthius Claudius's song "Death and the Maiden," about a young women facing two forms of death, one kind and the other cruel. For the PBS special, Jenna McClintock dances the part of the Maiden with Pedro Szalay as Kind Death and Brian Skates as the alter ego, Cruel Death.
San Francisco-based choreographer Val Caniparoli's "Bow Out" is the second work on the program. With a saxophone score by David Bedford and Roy Powell, this jazzy work for four couples was created for the Richmond Ballet in 1995 and has become a signature piece for the company.
Winslett hopes the television special will attract new people who may not be inclined to see a ballet performance live. She may well get her wish. The special airs on the Community Ideas Station WCVE in Richmond and its sister station WHTJ in Charlottesville, reaching a potential audience of 1.2 million people, according to John Felton, vice-president of programming and production at WCVE.
Felton says the purpose of the program is to nurture and support our area's art organizations, something that has been increasingly difficult in the past months due to budget cuts and a stalled economy. He gives a lot of credit to the ballet for finding the money to green light the production.
Jennifer Bennett MacKenzie, marketing director for the ballet, says that that wasn't an easy task, and it took a year of many stops and starts before the ballet secured a $5,000 grant made possible through Richmond's Retail Merchant Association. "That [amount] seems so tiny, but for the ballet and public television, it can make or break a deal," she says.
The biggest beneficiaries aren't just the viewers, but the dancers, who toil for years at perfecting their craft yet have little to show for it when their careers have come to an end.
"The experience of PBS was great for us," says dancer Pedro Szalay, an eight-year veteran of the company. "People don't know how much we sacrifice to perform that final product in the theater."
To give people a better understanding of what it takes to become a dancer, the special includes a look at Richmond Ballet School and the company's educational outreach program, "Minds In Motion," which works with public school children all over the Richmond area.
Just as this is the first time Richmond Ballet has been filmed for television, it also is the first time that documentary producer Paul Roberts ever approached dance as a subject. He admits to knowing nothing about the world of toe shoes and pirouettes before the shoot and was apprehensive about how to capture it on film. He spent a full day watching rehearsals to block out the camera moves.
"It was a challenge coordinating all the camera angles to pick up the most important parts of the dance. We used multiple cameras around the studio, each of which had its own zone, so we wouldn't miss anything," he says.
Roberts now is in the process of cutting and pasting this footage into a cohesive performance. He says the entire process should take about a month. And when it's finished, the Richmond Ballet will become a channel surfing opportunity for TV viewers.
"There are still some in Richmond who have no earthly idea that we have dancers like this," Winslett says. "I hope there are many folks scanning around on TV who'll stop and watch Richmond Ballet." S
The Community Idea Stations broadcast The Richmond Ballet on WCVE Richmond Wednesday, June 25, at 8 p.m., and June 29, at 2 p.m. More information about the performance and choreographers is available online at www.ideastation.org or www.richmondballet.com.
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