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A National Stage

Glitz, glamour and pirouettes. The Richmond Ballet is leading Virginia's arts community to the Big Apple.

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The Richmond Ballet, which is the impetus for the whole weekend, has never made an appearance in New York. Winslett, who founded Virginia's first professional ballet company 21 years ago, says she just never saw the point.

"There's plenty of ballet in New York," she figured — "Why do we have to go to New York?" She wasn't interested in going just to say the company had gone. She didn't dream about her name in lights on the marquee. Rather, she says, her work was cut out for her at home — namely, raising the bar just a bit each time the ballet performed, and expanding the audience.

The latter she tackled with a cheaper, shorter, more accessible Studio Series of shows outside the ballet's big, traditional, full-length productions at the Landmark Theater. She also started an outreach program in the city's public schools called Minds In Motion. As for setting higher standards, that simply took time.

Winslett, whose attention to detail and straightforward style is slightly Martha Stewartesque, joined the Richmond Ballet school at age 21, directly after graduating from Smith College. Four years later, she began the professional company, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year.

While she prepared for the anniversary, Winslett had time to reflect on the ballet's growth. She says she realized she had commissioned 36 works during those years, a respectable number for a small company. "That's a lot. Not many people can say that," Winslett says. "And some of those new works have been really wonderful pieces that I look at as our gift to the field."

In addition to keeping alive classics like "Swan Lake" and Balanchine's "Apollo," the ballet had put "much energy and money and effort and time" into commissioning new works by modern working choreographers, Winslett says. Since dance only lives in performance — unlike theater, whose plays can at least be read after a show closes — Winslett sees the Richmond Ballet as serving a custodial role. It keeps the work alive of past choreographers, while at the same time nurturing new ones. Several of the new ballets commissioned by the company have gone on to be performed by other ballets. One, "Now and Then," was performed in Argentina.

Winslett says she finally recognized that her company had something to show the dance capital of the world.

"The reason to go to New York is if you have something really unique to show," she says. She concluded that she did with the company's body of work. "And it maybe is an important voice of our particular era," she says.

So the ballet submitted a video and application to perform at The Joyce Theater. Dance Magazine's Editor-In-Chief Wendy Perron says The Joyce might be the only theater in New York devoted solely to dance. It's geared for small- and medium-size companies, she says, and has a "terrific subscription season," which often attracts a pretty full house for a lot of the visiting companies, which are often unknown to New Yorkers.

The Joyce accepted the Richmond Ballet, giving it a six-day slot in its subscription season. The ballet will join other companies performing this spring from places as far-flung as Beijing, Brazil, Pittsburg and Toronto.

Modern dance companies usually dance the work of just one choreographer, says The Joyce's Director of Programming, Martin Wechsler. But it's not unusual for ballet companies to work with a variety of choreographers.

Winslett has made that practice one of the cornerstones of the Richmond Ballet. Working with choreographers "from the emerging to the well-known," Wechsler says — "that's really what sets them apart. They have to be able to pick up the challenge of working with many different styles … which develops choreographers, the dancers and the company."

Pedro Szalay, a company member in the Richmond Ballet, says that's why he's stayed with the ballet for nine years. "It's really a nice company for the dancers because it's challenging," he says. "Other small companies don't have as much variety."

The company's ability to dance different styles will be on full display in New York, where the ballet will present six different works, in six different styles. Only three can fit into one evening's performance, so Winslett has decided to present two different programs, creating double the work for the company, in an effort to give a true picture of what the Richmond Ballet is all about.

What does the ballet stand to get out of one string of performances at a 472-seat theater? The performance is about more than showing their stuff to New Yorkers, she says. It's about awareness and exposure both at home and beyond Virginia.

Of the ballet's 14 members and nine apprentices, a total of 18 dancers are making the trip. And if the right people attend the performances, the ballet could get booked on more tours, find it easier to recruit dancers and students to the summer school, and perhaps attract interest from a national foundation. (Currently the ballet receives a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, but it's mostly funded locally.)

How does it attract the right audience? The ballet has hired a publicity firm in New York to entice the press to the show and to review the company.

"Anybody can look at our budget size [$2.9 million] and see where we rank in that," Winslett says. "But when they see our work onstage at The Joyce I think they'll be surprised at where we fall on the artistic quality meter."

The ballet will have some big cheerleaders up north, including the governor.

When Warner got wind of the ballet's New York appearance, he thought it would be the perfect excuse to celebrate Virginia arts — a sector of the economy that has yet to receive much attention from his administration, which has been spending much of its time dealing with a budget crisis.

He envisions the weekend as a vehicle for getting high-powered corporate execs and arts supporters thinking about Virginia. It's a different approach to marketing the state for economic development and tourism purposes.

To pay for it, he created a public-private partnership — a format he's been fond of in the past, most notably for his Virginia Health Care Foundation. The partnership is meant to serve as a model for arts groups in the future.

On the public side of his partnership, Warner called on the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Virginia Opera, the Virginia Arts Festival in Hampton Roads and the Virginia Tourism Corporation to get involved. On the private side, he pulled in 18 corporate sponsors, including LandAmerica, Capital One and Genworth Financial, which are contributing about $20,000 each.

Warner says he has a number of prominent "decision makers" coming to the weekend's festivities, people whose attention he might not have gotten otherwise. "We've got a great product in terms of Virginia and arts organizations, Virginia tourism, Virginia economic opportunity; those are great things for me to try to sell," says Warner. "This is a way to get the people in the room to help us try to make the pitch."

The move has resonated with the arts groups, including the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. "The governor thinks big," says Suzanne Hall, acting associate director for communications and marketing at the museum. "This was a grand vision and one that the cultural institutions had to stretch to meet in a period of austerity. We didn't think it achievable, but he really has fund-raised for this."

"To see a state governor really coming out in support of the arts in a particular state, that is rare, almost unprecedented," says the Virginia Museum's Director Michael Brand. "That in itself will attract the attention of the press, I think."

The Virginia Museum is host to two of the weekend's five planned parties. It has invited young Virginia college alumni, including potential donors and working artists, along with well-known artists who have Virginia ties, to an April 8 cocktail reception at The Whitney Museum of American Art.

During the reception, a slide show will project Virginia artists' work onto a large, white wall in the otherwise industrial-looking space. Because the majority of Virginia art graduates invited — about 150 of the 350 — have ties to Virginia Commonwealth University, the VCU School of the Arts is helping plan the event. And the VCU Jazz Ensemble will perform.

"What's going to be good about that Whitney event is to have that audience," Brand says. They'll be reminded that the place they already have strong links to is connected in this way in the art world, he says. Aside from attracting their financial support, Brand says it's important for art museums to engage the next generation.

Also Friday night, the Virginia Museum is holding a formal, sit-down dinner for 200 at The Frick Collection, inviting selected "ambassadors" made up of both longtime and potential sponsors, and members of the Faberge Society (the museum's annual donors of $5,000-$10,000). These 35 people were already planning a weekend in New York to see galleries, artist studios, auction houses and private collections.

The last time the Virginia Museum was in New York it was to announce its expansion plans, and while again this time the museum will not be exhibiting any work, Brand sees the visit as a way to reinforce the museum's reputation and relationships with New York corporations and the press. Since The New York Times is "the paper of record for the art and museum worlds," according to Brand, attention on its pages is vital if VMFA wants to boost its reputation beyond that of a regional institution.

"It allows us again to raise our profile on a national stage, which is very important, because we have to work on a national stage as a major art museum. We have to share exhibitions with other major national museums, so that's very, very important to us."

Aside from positive press and more attention to Virginia's arts institutions, a spirit of collaboration may be the biggest result of Warner's arts weekend.

While such institutions as the Richmond Ballet and the Virginia Museum traditionally solicit the same donor base locally, they're pooling sources and reaching beyond that base for this series of events.

"You have arts organizations participating that would normally be in competition for philanthropic support that are, by the nature of this event, having to work together," says the governor's Press Secretary Ellen Qualls. She hopes the groups will see the benefits of reaching a broader group by achieving critical mass.

"We do want to collaborate in the future," the Virginia Museum's Brand says, "and I think what the governor is doing by bringing us all together in New York is great for our national profile and probably will be one of the more significant steps towards more collaboration in Virginia too." S



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