Ballet Excel Ohio (BXO) has been combining hard-working, talented young pre-professional ballet students with original choreography since 1975. The school and company are notably diverse, with 30% of the young dancers from minorities or underserved groups. Working out of a modest storefront studio, they’ve trained many dancers who’ve gone on to national and international careers in dance. The upcoming program consists of I ❤ SHAPES and The Snow Queen: a frozen fairy tale. We want to talk about the dancing in the program, look into the reason for the company’s diversity, and tell a recent success story. And then there’s BXO’s current financial crisis, which puts everything on the chopping block.
We caught up with Tom Evert, the choreographer of I ❤ SHAPES and our former modern dance teacher, by phone.
CCD: What’s the premise of I ❤ SHAPES?
Tom Evert: It’s just that. It’s about shapes. The idea originated with Nan Klinger (founder of BXO and Mia Klinger’s mother) in the late 1980’s. I’d kind of made a splash with my dance company and Nan had never done a modern piece. She said she had this idea based on a children’s book called I Love Shapes. I liked the idea so that’s what happened.
CCD: How do you like working with young ballet dancers?
TE: I love it. This particular group comes out of the whole tradition that Mia and her mom have created there. They give you their best work and Mia knows the piece so well and she rehearses it beautifully so, even after 30 years, it’s still got legs.
CCD: What’s the relationship between I ❤ SHAPES and your current work using dance to teach academic subjects – including geometry – in the classroom?
TE: I’ve always had an affinity for geometry. You might remember the men’s trio, Mantl, which we did a few years before I ❤ SHAPES?
CCD: We do remember Mantl. It was a fascinating piece on many levels. (Read Anna Kisselgoff’s description of Mantl (https://www.nytimes.com/1988/02/29/arts/dance-tom-evert-company-from-cleveland.html) HERE.)
TE: It wasn’t until later in Cleveland and D.C. that we started teaching academic content. Then in D.C. they said, “Can you do something new, please?” so that was when I looked to geometry as a subject and it was as if it had been a germinating seed all along.
CCD: So now you’re back in Ohio classrooms. How’s that going?
TE: I’m enjoying wonderful results with improved test scores. The kids are learning geometry better than they ever have before.
CCD: So dance in the classroom is not just a frivolous diversion?
TE: Not at all. Test results show that it’s the most effective educational process that we’ve ever seen. (Laughs.) It’s kind of crazy seeing 40% improvements in test scores. And of course we’re dancing and having a great time. (Laughs.)
CCD: (Learn more about Tom’s work at danceevert.org.)
The other piece on the program is the world premiere of The Snow Queen choreographed for BXO by Tom Gold. Back in February we drove down to Cuyahoga Falls to watch BXO rehearse.
Watching the rehearsal, we saw how the young dancers of the corps de ballet created the warm / cold duality that organizes this ballet. Dancers portraying bumble bees and flowers told us that the weather was warm; shivering snowflakes and warmly vested skaters told us that the Snow Queen had brought the cold. Of course, little kids costumed as bumble bees are impossibly cute by default, but we noticed the impeccably shaped arms, the turned out standing legs, and the pointed feet. After decades teaching ballet to young students, we were impressed.
Later in a phone interview we asked Mia Klinger for a brief summary of the ballet.
Mia Klinger: The moral of the story is that love for a person is stronger than any other lure in life. In this instance, our choreographer, Tom Gold, put the two sisters together and their love broke the spell of the Snow Queen.
CCD: Snow Queen has a lot of costumes. That must have been expensive.
MK: You know how it goes in the arts. You have to work within a shoe string budget. Luckily Tom Gold, who has his own company, was very smart. He had us reuse costumes from our previous productions, maybe adding or modifying a little bit. Except for the leads, nearly all those costumes you see are redone.
CCD: Those do not look like recycled costumes. And, cute as those bumble bees look, I couldn’t help but notice their solid ballet chops.
MK: Well, that’s my goal, to educate the next generation to know classicism and to know how to do it correctly. I know I’m a bunhead but a dancer who’s classically trained can do very well in a contemporary dance company.
CCD: You’re preaching to the choir. The case you’re making for ballet training is universally acknowledged among dance people. We noticed you had color blind casting, which is the only way to do it.
MK: Of course. It’s whoever fits the part best.
CCD: For instance, you had Jonathan McCray, who is African-American, as the Snow King. How long has he been studying with you?
MK: Not as long as you’d think. Only about 4 years. He’s very innate. I knew from day one when I saw him that he had something really special. The kid can jump a mile. One day he came up to me and said, “Oh Ms. Mia, I was watching Apollo and I love that solo.” I encourage the kids to watch because we don’t have a lot of great ballet around here and watching great ballet can take their appreciation to another level.
CCD: Yes. Thank heavens for YouTube and ballet DVDs. Although, Apollo is pretty sophisticated fare for a 14 year old.
MK: Jonathan got a full ride to Chautauqua. Jean-Pierre Bonnefous called me up about Jonathan and another dancer and he said, “Your mother would be so proud of you.”
CCD: That must have made you happy. Whence cometh all this diversity?
MK: I think diversity is important. The funny thing is that right now New York City ballet and all these other major companies are figuring that out. I’ve been doing it for at least 10 years. I had Debra Austin teach a master class for us 2 or 3 years ago because I wanted the kids to see that it’s possible to be whatever you want – you just have to work for it.
CCD: (Our readers may ask, “Who’s Debra Austin?” Let us save you the google search. Although Misty Copeland was the first African-American principal dancer at American Ballet Theater, Austin joined Pennsylvania Ballet – another major American ballet company — as a principal dancer in 1982, the year Copeland was born. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Debra_Austin_(dancer))
A recent success story.
CCD: Please give our readers one recent success story.
MK: One of our former students, Dustin True, got into Dutch National Ballet, one of the top ballet companies in the world – great company. Like a lot of American dancers he went to Europe because there you get paid. 52 weeks a year and health insurance. It seems like Europe is much more appreciative of its artists.
CCD: Dustin is cutting a swathe. He shows up a lot in a google search. (See Dustin’s bio on the Dutch National Ballet website (https://www.operaballet.nl/en/people/dustin-true) HERE.
MK: Yeah, he’s done very well. He studied with me from 2005 – 2011. That kid was born to be a dancer.
CCD: We understand that you’re having funding problems.
MK: It’s been a rocky road for a lot of nonprofits in Summit County lately. Some have had to fold. Our grant from our largest funder went from $25K / year, which is a huge amount of money for us, down to zero in a little over a year. Of course I looked for other sources of funding but we have not replaced that money.
CCD: How does that funding shortfall effect your operations?
MK: I had to take over the administration of our ROAD program (BXO’s outreach program to the schools) because we can’t afford to hire an administrator any more. I’m doing that without compensation of any kind because I believe in it and I want it to continue. Also, I personally give full scholarships to a lot of these ROAD kids because I really believe in giving that opportunity to kids who would not otherwise get an education in the arts. I’ve always paid for some of it but now I pay for most of it.
CCD: (Funding shortfalls are a perennial problem in the arts. Over the years, we’ve talked with other artistic directors and heads of dance companies who’ve taken on additional responsibilities as the funding noose tightened. As much as we admire dedication and sacrifice, an artistic director can only take on so much and remain effective. We talked with one artistic director whose company, as it turned out, folded soon afterwards. He’d had to let go of everyone including marketing people, fund raisers, and administrative assistants. “I do everything here except mop the floors and clean the toilets,” he told us.) Anyway, you’ve made the rounds of foundations and individual donors and it does not look like you’ll make up that funding shortfall. What’s the next domino to fall?
MK: One of the next things to go would be the performance at the Akron Civic Theatre. I don’t want to diminish the experience for the kids but if I don’t find different ways to fund, I’ll have to.
CCD: We don’t want that to happen, especially over a relatively small amount like $25K. One medium-sized exhibition at Cleveland Museum of Art can easily cost a million dollars. Whether it’s one foundation or 500 individual donors contributing $50 each year, we hope that people will help you raise $25K. We urge our readers to go to www.balletexcelohio.org and click on Contribute.
Ballet Excel Ohio performs The Snow Queen and I ❤ SHAPES at Akron Civic Theatre at 2pm and 7pm on Saturday 3/14/2020 and 2pm Sunday 3/15/2020. For tickets @ $25, $18, and $10 go to balletexcelohio.org or phone the Akron Civic Box Office 330-253-2488.
Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas
As we go to press: BALLET EXCEL OHIO’S PERFORMANCE OF THE SNOW QUEEN POSTPONED FOR MARCH 13, 14 & 15
This weekend’s ballet performances postponed due to Coronavirus (COVID-19) concerns
Following the recent reports of the first cases of community-spread COVID-19 in Ohio and the latest message and recommendations from Governor Mike DeWine and medical experts, Ballet Excel Ohio has decided to postpone its ballet performances at the Akron Civic Theatre on March 13, 14, and 15. The health and well-being of our audience members, dancers, and staff are our highest priority, and we believe postponing these performances is the best course of action for our community and stakeholders.
Please hold onto your tickets. A reschedule may be announced shortly. We will provide additional information and details as soon as possible.
The following performances at The Akron Civic Theatre are postponed:
Friday, March 13, 2020 at 6:30 pm (Sensory Friendly Performance)
Saturday, March 14, 2020 at 2:00 pm
Saturday March 14, 2020 at 7:00 pm
Sunday March 15th at 2:00 pm
Please visit https://www.balletexcelohio.org/ for information and updates as the COVID-19 situation progresses