Reaching Out

The benefits of company and school outreach programs go both ways.
Published in the August/September 2007 issue.

In her final year at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School, Maureya Lebowitz embarked on a tour through the Canadian outback, entertaining young audiences, learning to get along with others on a 33-hour bus ride, staying with strangers and setting up and breaking down the stage. When Island Moving Company dancer Michael Bolger took on his new job, he knew that teaching dance to squirming tots and preteens in the Rhode Island public school system would be among his duties. And before Ballet Chicago student Jacob Laub performs at schools, he has to wait for young audience members to stop laughing at the sight of him and other boys in tights.

Lebowitz, Bolger and Laub are all participants in dance education outreach programs aimed at helping the public understand and appreciate ballet. According to Rima Faber, program director of the National Dance Education Organization in Bethesda, Maryland, companies have expanded their outreach efforts significantly in the last 15 years. Such programs help companies build audiences, generate grants and even spot potential talent, but the benefits for dancers can also be substantial. Participation in an outreach program can help with confidence and technique, and develop their maturity, resourcefulness, diplomacy and professional responsibility. And teaching non-dancers and performing on tile and carpeted floors in retirement homes and tiny spaces build skills, stamina and a new kind of courage.

Bolger is in his second year as director of education at IMC, a contemporary ballet troupe in Newport, RI. He performs full time and trains dancers to be outreach teachers, allowing them to create lesson plans and workshops. New teachers also shadow Bolger and Artistic Director Miki Ohlsen for one to two days in the schools. “Even if they’ve taught at a studio, teaching in an auditorium or a gym with a concrete floor is different,” Bolger says. Used to full warm-ups and studio floors with cushioning, new IMC teachers must learn to temper their movement while demonstrating in schools to avoid injury.

While IMC only hires dancers who are interested in participating in the company’s outreach programs, Ohlsen says, even with training, the dancers are still “scared to death” to teach outside of the studio. Bolger, who thrives on inspiring kids to dance, admits teaching schoolchildren “can be hard, whether you’re in a wealthy or a poor school. You really have to captivate the audience. You’ve got to make it feel like it’s cool.” If learning ballet is not perceived as cool, kids—boys in particular—will hang back. Instead of relying on technical jargon, Bolger and his colleagues are careful to build fun and energy into their presentations and get kids running, jumping and creating quickly. “They experience it right away, and they take ownership,” he says.

Outreach performances can take place under challenging conditions. For Ballet Chicago’s Laub, a student at Northwestern University, performing in retirement homes is particularly tough. Residents are often elated by the entertainment, but their reactions can run the gamut, from comatose to overly involved. “Sometimes they dance with you,” Laub says. Once, in the opening scene of Giselle, he adds, “one guy kept yelling, ‘That’s it, boy! Go get her!’” The payoff for Laub and other dancers-in-training is learning to stay focused and keep one’s cool.

Former dancer Kasandra Gruener, now director of education and outreach at Oregon Ballet Theatre in Portland, acknowledges the challenges of intense outreach performance schedules, but adds that the program also benefits OBT’s 12 apprentices. Dancing in late January through April in the in-school performance program, “The A-Zs of Becoming a Dancer,” for kindergartners through eighth-grade students, apprentices emphasize the importance of hard work and dedication in any field, and simultaneously gain experience in their own discipline. This, of course, comes after performing in corps roles or second casts during the year and in 18 to 20 Nutcracker performances. While the company gets a month off after Christmas, apprentices get a week before returning to work to rehearse for “A-Z,” which is squeezed in between company performances. That extra responsibility can be difficult, says Gruener. “That’s the juggling for them. But it gives them live performance opportunities during this time. They get a feel for touring, visiting the schools, setting up, warming up and doing costumes and makeup. It’s fully produced.”

Seventeen-year-old Grace Shibley, who became an OBT apprentice in 2006, has made two tours to a local Portland elementary school, dancing, acting in skits and exploring the contents of her dance bag with some 200 little ones. She found it daunting at first to perform on a tiny patch of Marley flooring surrounded by children seated just three feet away, but, Shibley says, “It was a really good experience for us. The kids were so close. You see and hear their reactions immediately. It’s very exciting.” In OBT’s program, the apprentices have the novel opportunity to express themselves verbally in skits they make up.

Bruce Monk has witnessed his own charges’ growth as a result of outreach performances. As director of Royal Winnipeg Ballet School’s Concert Hour Ballet tour, he rode the same bus through Saskatchewan and Manitoba as Lebowitz and 17 of her peers. “In northern Manitoba, which is just below the Arctic Circle, they don’t get a lot of entertainment,” he says. “When you perform your craft and the audience is incredibly enthusiastic, it gives you
confidence.” With on-the-road coaching and daily performances, Winnipeg students were also able to fix mistakes and fine-tune performances. “We ran a piece today that we did on tour,” Monk adds, “and I thought, ‘Wow! These kids have come up a notch!’”

Other than the obviously grueling schedule and hard work, Monk doesn’t see any downsides for dancers who
participate in outreach efforts. “If dancers figure out ‘It’s not for me—it’s too much work,’ or ‘I don’t need to be in front of a group of people,’ then that’s an accomplishment, too,” he says. “But these kids chose to be here. They know what they want.”

The Canada tour was an exceptional learning opportunity for Lebowitz. Best of all, she learned to cope, she says, by putting a smile on her face and finding private time for herself: “We did it all. We were tired, but it was so rewarding. It’s our show. You perform; you put it on; it’s your responsibility. You don’t feel like a student. You feel like a true artist.”

Susan Chitwood, a former apprentice with Virginia Ballet Theater, has an MS in journalism from Columbia University in New York City.