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On Ancient Airs 

Richmond Ballet’s Stoner Winslett celebrates 40 years by revisiting one of her first works with the company.

click to enlarge Artistic Director Stoner Winslett leading Richmond Ballet dancers in rehearsal for "Ancient Airs and Dances."

Sarah Ferguson

Artistic Director Stoner Winslett leading Richmond Ballet dancers in rehearsal for "Ancient Airs and Dances."

Year after year, the face of Richmond Ballet has remained the same.

Artistic director Stoner Winslett accepted the position in 1980 at the age of 22, one of the first female artistic directors in the country, when the organization primarily operated as a school for dancers.

Four years later, she established the ballet’s first paid company and choreographed one of its inaugural works, “Ancient Airs and Dances.”

This season, for Winslett’s 40th year with the ballet, “Ancient Airs and Dances” will return in Studio One alongside a world premiere from international choreographer Ma Cong.

Whether through classes or performances, Richmond Ballet aims to continue the tradition of the art form while letting it evolve. Both facets of this vision will be shown in the Studio One series through two Richmond-exclusive works that premiere three and a half decades apart.

The opener for the Studio Series gives a nod to Winslett for her service to Richmond Ballet over her long career. “When I first took the job, I was the only paid employee,” Winslett says. “Most of the original dancers were from the School of Richmond Ballet and were highly trained, very beautiful. Our first performance was even at the Mosque, now the Altria Theater.”

The city has seen restaurants, concert halls and arts groups rise and fall while the Richmond Ballet has grown to a multimillion-dollar nonprofit during Winslett’s tenure.

“We became the state ballet of Virginia in 1990 and we perform all over the states. The ballet has performed in New York and in D.C. at the Kennedy Center. We have performed at London and in China at Beijing,” she notes. “It’s been a good 40 years.”

The first one-act ballet that Winslett choreographed for the company was “Ancient Airs and Dances” and it became one of the most frequently performed ballets in its repertoire for more than three decades. Featuring a score of lutes and four couples in pas de deux, the ballet appeared on stages many times until Winslett decided to put it on a shelf after its last performance in the late 2000s.

When “Ancient Airs and Dances” debuted, Brett Bonda, managing director for Richmond Ballet, was in the original cast for the piece. He danced with the company for a decade before assuming an outreach director position for one of the ballet’s largest programs, where he stayed for 16 years.

Having served as the managing director for nine years, this new casting of “Ancient Airs and Dances” is an anniversary for him, too. Bonda is the second longest-running employee of Richmond Ballet besides Winslett, marking this season as his 35th with the organization.

“After I retired from the company, I directed the ballet’s Minds in Motion program. Dancer Ira White was a student of mine throughout his childhood and now he is performing the pas de deux in ‘Ancient Airs’ that was originally choreographed on me 35 years ago,” Bonda says. “For nine years, I’ve gotten to run the organization as managing director and to see my first ballet with the company live on is something special.”

“This ballet has become a generational one,” Winslett says, “and it is reappearing alongside a good friend of Richmond Ballet, Ma Cong, whose work we took and featured in Beijing.”

The second one-act ballet premiering at Studio One is a first look at a brand-new work from the renowned choreographer. Trained in Chinese classical dance, Cong first collaborated with Richmond Ballet on a piece he set in 2009 and has now, with this latest work, choreographed five total ballets with the company. Other Richmond Ballet works from Cong include “Winter’s Angels” and “Lift the Fallen.”

“Ma Cong’s choreography is breathtaking, and we have worked with him many, many times. When he first came in 2009, his work premiered in that year’s New Works Festival,” Winslett says. “And we’re glad that he enjoys working with our company dancers as much as they enjoy working with him.”

With the Richmond Ballet starting off its 2019-2020 season on a nostalgic note, Studio One is a performance space that pays homage to innovation. Some audiences may come to see a Winslett ballet they haven’t seen in 10 years and some may come to the latest installment of Ma Cong’s string of new works premiering exclusively at the ballet. But most will come for both.

“Dance is an elevation of the soul because it is emotion through movement,” Winslett says, “and that’s what makes new and old ballets so important. The emotion never leaves.”

“Studio One” is running Tuesday, Nov. 5 through Sunday, Nov. 10 in Richmond Ballet’s Studio Theatre at 407 E Canal Street. Performances start at 6:30 p.m. and tickets can be purchased through their website.

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