Between the imminent demolition of the Ballet Arts Center and the difficult search for new dance space, Ballet Bellevue faces a tough year ahead. But the performance company and school is taking on new challenges — not just by putting on an opera, but by putting on one of the most challenging operas around: Charles Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet.
Normally a towering and intense figure — a disciplined kind of man who seems to stand ramrod straight at all times, even when he’s relaxed and unimpeded by his cummerbund — conductor Philip Tschopp is ascendant as he stalks the hallway outside the Meydenbauer Center’s theater. He’s spent the last 90 minutes in the auditorium’s diminutive orchestral pit leading more than 30 musicians through Act One of Giselle. And now, during his brief reprieve, he’s riding the high of accomplishment.
“That was a great first act,” he says, beaming as he locks my hand in a crushing handshake. “Great. I can’t wait for Act Two.”
The ballet Giselle is one of the best-known in the medium. Abroad, it’s as well-recognized in mainstream culture as The Nutcracker is in the States. Composer Adolphe Adam’s score for the production was significant for being one of the first original compositions in ballet and a prime example of the employment of leitmotiv — callbacks to music that becomes representative of an emotion or character.
The story has the eponymous Giselle, a poor village girl pursued by the dashing young Albrecht. After a brief period of will-they-won’t-they flirtation, most of the first half is occupied by their flights of fancy throughout the Rhineland — as well as village-wide celebrations for a family of visiting nobles. Prancing abounds.
But things take a dark turn when a romantic rival reveals Albrecht is actually a noble prince, promised to another woman. Born with a weak heart, Giselle dies from the shock.
After audience members file back in from intermission, Tschopp is the last person to enter. He’s still standing tall, a one-man parade quietly urging the audience, with his body language, to get excited for Act Two. Conductors like Tschopp, who so clearly have a passion for the music of ballet and the movement it inspires, are the closest thing the art has to hype men.
It’s a role that’s important to the survival of old guard performing arts like ballet, and it’s an energy that will be especially be needed for keeping up his own momentum in Act Two, when things truly become dark.
It would be defeatist to suggest Ballet Bellevue’s production of Giselle parallels the many challenges it faces in the year ahead. However, the choice of show indirectly connects to the impending death of part of Ballet Bellevue: Downtown Park’s Ballet Arts Center, slated for demolition in 2015.
As Ballet Bellevue Executive Director Mary Hundley tells it, Giselle was the favorite show of Carolyn Gracey Greer, who operated her dance school out of the Ballet Arts Center for most of the latter half of the 20th Century.
Greer had become enamored with ballet as a child. She attended Cornish Preparatory Dance, but her parents had doubts about her aspirations to continue with dance after high school. Nevertheless, she went on to study at Juilliard and, for many years, continued with dance while she lived out of state with her husband.
When they returned in the early ‘60s, she began teaching classes out of leased commercial space in the city. At this point C.B. Gracey — Greer’s father and the vice president of manufacturing for Boeing — decided to support his daughter’s career fully by investing in the construction of a full studio.
“Her father basically said ‘If this is what you’re going to do, you should have a proper studio,’” Hundley says.
The Ballet Arts Center opened in 1966 and Greer operated it until her death in 1994.
A decade prior, the City of Bellevue commissioned designs for Downtown Park from Beckley/Meyers Architects. The firm didn’t envision a place for the Ballet Arts Center in its designs and city leadership at the time agreed. The City acquired the Center and leased it back to Greer with the understanding that — one day — the time would come to give it up.
“She was still fairly young when she died,” Hundley says. “She smoked — as people did back then — and I think that and the stress of not knowing what would happen to her school contributed to her death.”
Ballet Bellevue — which had become a professional company in 1995 after years of operating as the children’s company Ballet Pettit — acquired the Ballet Arts Center in 1997 and incorporated children’s classes to its mission. With it, they acquired the facility’s curse — one day, when the City needed the space, it would be gone.
After nearly 20 years, “one day” is nigh. Ballet Bellevue is scheduled to evacuate the space in March before demolition begins the following summer.
At least outwardly, Hundley is placid in the face of the many changes coming down the pike for her company. She’s arranged for company dancers to practice in Crossfit Amped on 106th Avenue Northeast and for Saturday children’s classes to take place in the Northwest Arts Center.
Space for weekday children’s classes is still to be determined.
In fact, Hundley, Tschopp and other Ballet Bellevue leaders are adding even more to their plates for the 2014-2015 season. Aside from their forced — but anticipated — search for space, the company will end the season in early 2015 with Charles Gounod’s operatic adaptation of Romeo and Juliet.
Operas will thereafter become a regular part of Ballet Bellevue’s show rotation. The plan is inspired by the Paris Opera Ballet, the oldest national ballet company in the world.
“Romeo and Juliet is a big project,” Hundley says. “But my thinking is, if you’re only going to have one opera in a season, it’s important to have the right one.
“Our choice to put on Romeo and Juliet is not particularly about the opera. It’s more about Shakespeare. It’s the name recognition. People who don’t know opera will come in because they know the story and people who know opera will be pretty impressed because they expect a lot from it.”
As a person whose exposure to ballet began and ended with a half-remembered viewing of the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker movie at the age of five, I wasn’t entirely convinced of ballet’s entertainment value by the end of Act One in Giselle. So far, it was just research for a story and a conveniently free birthday gift for my girlfriend. Act Two sold me.
Among its other accomplishments, Giselle is also perhaps a pioneer in the genre of undead romance. (Twilight before Twilight, anyone?)
No sooner is Giselle laid in the ground than she’s brought back by The Wilis, a supernatural hit squad of spurned lovers who roam the forests for unsuspecting men to slaughter.
The method of murder? They force their victims to dance to death. Of course.
The novice ghostling is sicced on Albrecht to take revenge for her death, but she can’t.
It is in this final act that dancers Nadia Iozzo and Christopher Scruggs showed the power of their partnership, moving in the synchronicity of perfectly matched lovers. It’s the sheer strength of their love, and Giselle’s forgiveness, that destroys The Wilis — and Giselle herself.
Albrecht is left alone with his grief to ponder his mistakes.
With the close of Act Two and the show itself, I was taken in by this company’s ability to pull off high drama in a limited space.
“I think Giselle went well,” Hundley says. “I mean it was pretty good. The house was about half full both nights. Maybe from 130 the first night to 200 on Sunday.”
We’re sitting in the Ballet Arts Center, in a small and crowded corner used as makeshift office space, while dancer Mireya Mascarello (a woman who kindly humored me and sacrificed some of her dignity for the photo series with this article) teaches a one-on-one lesson on the dance floor.
While Mary and I speak, we’re unexpectedly visited by Maurice Cooper, from the company’s board of directors. Whereas Mary approaches Ballet Bellevue’s obstacles placidly, Cooper is more outwardly passionate about the company’s search for permanent space and the neverending quest for publicity that could bring people to shows.
Giselle played during Arts Fair Weekend, but it wasn’t directly associated with any of the three street fairs. Examining the audience on the first night of the show, it was apparent it was comprised of people who had planned to be there. The majority were dressed in their finest gowns or button downs; only a handful had wandered in from the street.
The difficulty of ballet in America is that, outside of traditional productions like The Nutcracker, it’s not an art form that has mainstream appeal for spectators. The dedicated audience is comprised of connoisseurs — people with years of firsthand familiarity with dance or music, and the small group of laymen who can appreciate both.
Ballet survives in large cities or cities where a company has entrenched itself as an institution, places where it can concentrate enough of its small subset of fans in one place to chug along.
The same could be said of opera, of course — Bellevue Opera shut down in 2011 — but Hundley and Cooper hope a European-style dual company will stand out.
“In all fairness, this community (Bellevue) is fairly new,” Cooper says. “You don’t have the old guard that might support the performing arts. You don’t have people thinking about those opportunities.”
The older and wealthier communities of Medina and Clyde Hill contain exactly the type of patrons who attend ballet performances, Hundley says, but they often look to the other side of Lake Washington.
“The few groups from Clyde Hill who came to Giselle, I think they were proud,” she says. “That’s the thing: they will support something of quality. Bellevue needs to have something that’s a ‘diamond’ here.”