by MELODIE M. DAVIS
An ordinary college theater stage is transformed into another time and place with dozens of graceful and muscled dancers pirouetting and leaping to classical choreographed music. Beautiful and elaborate period costumes transport performers and audience into the pathos, pomp or party scene of well-loved traditional ballets.
Rockingham Ballet Theatre (RBT) brings all this and more to the Shenandoah Valley. This year it is celebrating 20 years of staging full-scale classical ballet productions twice yearly and not just recitals of children and teens demonstrating their progress in the disciplined art form. Anyone from any dance program or studio (including adults with limited walk-on roles and ballroom type dancing) can audition for these productions.
“The productions are more like musicals, with a story line and theater-type set” notes artistic director and the driving force behind RBT, Susan Muterspaugh. She also emphasizes that RBT is not resting on its many laurels, but working toward the future and hopes to see the opportunities it offers expand.
The laurels come in the form of RBT’s ability to attract professional ballet dancers to join in its productions as guest artists. For its 2013 “Nutcracker” run at Bridgewater College, RBT brought its first American Ballet Theatre ballerina to the Valley, Michele Wiles as the Sugar Plum Fairy. They have hosted professional ballet artists in productions for twenty years as well as professional instructors at their annual “Summer Ballet Intensive” week-long training workshops. The roster includes dancers from the top two ballet companies in the U.S., American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, in addition to professional dancers from closer by such as Richmond and Raleigh, N.C.
“These opportunities are not only an inspiration for young dancers in the productions but for local people who can see fully professional ballet performed right here in the Valley,” Muterspaugh points out.
For children and families who live here, Muterspaugh, or “Miss Susan” as most of her students call her, is pleased that through RBT and her own dance studio on Main Street in Bridgewater, Ballet Extension, children as young as the age of three can begin training that takes them all the way to professional dancers, if they are so inspired. Ballet Extension also offers a wide range of classes in tap, jazz, hip hop, modern, cheer dance and gymnastics.
Earlier in May, Caroline Kempfer, a graduating Broadway High School senior, danced the lead role of Cinderella in the full scale ballet put on by RBT, with guest artist David Claypool of Richmond Ballet in the role of the “Prince.” Kempfer hopes to enter Joffrey Ballet School’s professional Trainee program this fall, where she studied last summer. (Trainee is the first stage of a professional career and is a highly competitive program.) This summer she will take advantage of local training through RBT’s Summer Intensive week—six days of study with guest teacher Kaitlyn Gilliland (of the New York City Ballet and School of American Ballet). On the application form to audition for the Summer Intensive, Caroline wrote, “I know I will get teaching on a par with what I would be getting in New York City if I were able to afford it.”
Chris and Jenn Bryant are the parents of Hannah who began ballet in 2006 at the age of three on an entry level. Now Hannah is a sixth grader at Montevideo Middle School who has her own sights set on pursuing ballet professionally. “We’re not the kind of parents who are pushing her, but that’s what she sees in her future.” Hannah knows she has benefited not only from the constructive criticism offered by the professional dancers who come to teach at the Summer Intensives, but they’ve “really expanded her view of what’s out there,” according to her father.
Valley students who are currently working in professional dance include Madison McPhail who is a dancer with Peridance Contemporary Dance Company in New York City, and Daniel Ranck, who dances with Ballet Magnifcat which toured this spring in South Africa. McPhail appreciates the disciplined and professional approach Muterspaugh used in her teaching. “She took me from a young kid to having these grown up thoughts about dance,” reflected McPhail. “Looking back, I feel like I’ve been a professional dancer since I was 10.” McPhail took classes with Ballet Extension about four years before entering art school. She still keeps in touch through email and Susan “often comes to my shows.”
“These opportunities are not only an inspiration for young dancers in the productions but for local people who can see fully professional ballet performed right here in the Valley.” —Susan Muterspaugh
Muterspaugh was born here in the Shenandoah Valley but moved away, including living in Paris. However, she didn’t study ballet until she was in her late teens, due to frequent respiratory illness as a child. She graduated from Virginia Tech, received her Master of Arts at the University of Virginia, and a PhD at New York University, taking ballet classes as many as five days a week in each locale. In New York she also worked for American Ballet Theatre before moving to Paris and finally ended up moving back to the Valley where she finished her dissertation.
Observing that there were no classes in Harrisonburg or Rockingham County in the early 1990s focusing on “classical ballet,” Muterspaugh offered some free classes; one of her first students entered a summer training program with a scholarship just two years later, which made Muterspaugh believe she must have been doing something right in her instruction.
Today she frequently works 12-13 hours a day in administrative work for her various dance involvements, as Artistic Director of RBT, teaching dance classes during after school hours and rehearsing for productions well into the evening. She is motivated to keep going by “seeing the individual progress of students and how excited they get about dancing. They develop their dance skill and also experience pride and fulfillment from performing on stage,” she says.
Rockingham Ballet Theatre was organized as a non-profit classical ballet company serving the whole community (not just Muterspaugh’s Ballet Extension students) and has been supported in part by funding from the Virginia Commission for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. Muterspaugh also runs “Ballet Extension Dancewear Store” offering dance supplies for ballet students (open on a limited basis; call for hours).
Information on summer all-day and part-day dance camps offered in June is available on the website. A July 27-August 1 “Summer Ballet Intensive” workshop of six days is still open for auditioning students; auditions will be May 30 and June 13. Visiting instructors include Kaitlyn Gilliland, a former dancer with New York City Ballet, who currently freelances with contemporary ballet companies and teaches at NYC Ballet’s School of American Ballet; Maggie Small, principal dancer with Richmond Ballet; and Sasha Yapparov, master teacher with Cincinnati Ballet. Visit www.balletextension.net/rockingham-ballet-theatre.html or call 540 828-0026 for more information.
MELODIE DAVIS, editor of Living, is the mother of three young adult daugthers, and lives with her husband near Harrisonburg, Va. She also blogs at www.FindingHarmonyBlog.com.
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