New Bedford Ballet brings joy to audiences that need it
By Karen White
A little girl with curly hair stared at Elizabeth Mello with saucer eyes. “You can touch my tutu,” said Mello, at that moment clad in swirls of deep purple tulle as would befit any Sugar Plum Fairy. “Go ahead, you can touch my pointe shoes.” The little girl slid off the chair and gently tapped the tops of Mello’s toes.
That was on a cold day last December. The New Bedford Youth Ballet had just given a 50-minute performance of a mini-Nutcracker in the upstairs lobby of St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Doctors in scrubs stood against the wall while administrators, hospital workers, and a few patients sat in plastic chairs, all watching quietly as Snowflakes and Asian Dolls glissaded across the rug and tried not to let beepers and arriving elevators distract them. One waltzing Flower launched into a grand jeté and, upon landing, found herself nose to the wall. Someone knocked over a speaker. Dancers squeezed in and out of costumes and around each other in a sandwich of a space created by scenery flats.
“Oh, how beautiful,” a member of the audience sighed.
It was just another on-the-road show for the Youth Ballet, a performing arm of New Bedford Ballet (NBB), a ballet-only school. The Youth Ballet is open to any Southeastern Massachusetts ballet student, not only those who take class at NBB. In the course of a year, the troupe will lug sets and costumes and pointe shoes through hospitals, elementary schools, and Councils on Aging. These serious dancers, ages 11 to 18, trade the comfort of sprung floors, private dressing spaces, and flattering lighting for the opportunity to share their love of dance with the most unlikely—but often most appreciative—audiences around.
Like the little girl at St. Luke’s, who would be undergoing surgery the next day. “She’s been so sick, but she’s been talking and talking since we came in,” grandmother and hospital employee Philomena Torres says. “I waited until the last minute to tell her she was going to see The Nutcracker because she’d get so excited.”
Outreach performances and community-based programming has long been a staple of New Bedford Ballet. Rebecca Waskiel-Marchesseault, artistic director since last September, was a member of the original Youth Ballet, which began in 1988 when then-school director Shirley Kayne insisted that her pre-professional dancers take their dancing out of the studio and into the struggling industrial city. (A nonprofit foundation had been created in 1987 to support the Youth Ballet and other outreach efforts, while NBB continued to be operated as a for-profit.)
“I remember packing up the floor, going to public schools,” Waskiel-Marchesseault says. “One of Shirley’s biggest goals was to promote arts in the community and to be seen by people who would not otherwise have the opportunity to see ballet.”
Many of Kayne’s students went on to dance professionally or teach—like Waskiel-Marchesseault, a former member of Connecticut Ballet who taught at both Hartford Ballet and Boston Ballet schools. When Kayne retired last year after 22 years with the ballet, Waskiel-Marchesseault happily took the helm of her home studio.
Other changes were afoot at New Bedford Ballet. Forced out of its longtime studio when the building was sold to new owners, in summer 2008 the organization appealed to the public for help finding a new, affordable studio. Businesspersons and city officials offered expertise and advice, parents chipped in with physical labor, and New Bedford Ballet finally moved into its new home on Purchase Street last January.
“I think we’ll remember these performances forever.” —dancer Rebecca Bier, 16
Also in 2008, the for-profit school became a nonprofit under the umbrella of the New Bedford Ballet Foundation. The foundation uses grant monies from public sources such as United Way and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, as well as private donors, to fund the Youth Ballet’s performances and numerous outreach programs.
And talk about outreach. There’s a summer Dance Arts Camp for preschoolers, an afterschool program for at-risk, underserved children, and hip-hop classes for hearing-impaired students. A multicultural program introduces elementary school children to Native American, Indian, Asian, and Trinidadian dance, while seniors benefit from an age-appropriate dance and movement program.
Terri deMedeiros, New Bedford Ballet Foundation board president says, “Fourteen students are now dancing on scholarships—half on full scholarships—thanks to the foundation.” Some dance students help with mentoring programs, such as Bringing Books to Life Through Movement, where school kids learn how to use dance to wiggle like the Hungry Caterpillar, or Mentoring Through Movement, where Head Start little ones dance out a story such as Peter Pan.
When the ballet comes to visit, everyone gets involved, says Karen Surprenant, PACE (People Acting in Community Endeavors) Head Start director. “They come with dance activities, with costumes; they talk about what it’s like to be a dancer,” she says. “All our boys and girls dance, and you should see them dance!”
On the morning of the St. Luke’s performance, Surprenant and about 40 of her tiny charges had braved the bitter cold to travel to the ballet’s studio for a Nutcracker showing. It was a lucky break for them—the Youth Ballet was to have danced, as it does every December, at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, but H1N1 flu fears got in the way. When the hospital cancelled the show, Waskiel-Marchesseault called PACE.
“For many of these children, their families don’t have the opportunity to see a live performance like this,” Surprenant says. “We do many projects with the ballet. It’s a nice relationship.”
The PACE performance would mark one of the ballet’s first showings of New England Nutcracker, set in the 19th century when whaling had made New Bedford one of the most prosperous cities in the world. Instead of Clara, this tale featured little Mary as the daughter of a whaling captain who brings back exotic animals—and a Nutcracker—from his voyages around the world.
The lights went down and the little ones were transfixed. There were cries of “Who’s that?” when a couple of Andean Bears tumbled about, and “Ooh”s of delight for two blue-and-pink Macaws. “Whoa, look at the pirates!” yelled another. (Actually, the “pirates” were whalers, but who cares?) Everyone wiggled and clapped when the Nutcracker and the Mouse King crossed swords, but the excitement was too much for one little tyke. “Quick, somebody stab him!” he shouted.
After the performance, the dancers and the Head Start kids mingled, laughed together, traded hugs. With three annual performances at hospitals, greeting children is a scene the dancers know well. “Talking to the audience after the show is the best,” dancer Rebecca Bier, 16, says.
Sugar Plum Fairy Elizabeth Mello, 17, and dancer Emily Bungert, 17, agree. They and Bier have stories galore about dancing on “vomit-proof” carpet (sticky and slick at the same time), adapting choreography to avoid trampling each other in small spaces, carrying so many flats up so many steps that their arms ache. There’s always that killer week in the spring when the Youth Ballet brings a spring production such as The Snow Queen or Peter and the Wolf to eight elementary schools in four days.
Minutes after the Head Start children climbed aboard their bus, the Youth Ballet dancers tore out of their costumes and prepared to move the show. Soon a heap of costumes and props was growing on the studio floor. Cold air whipped in an open back door as everyone picked up the edge of a flat and headed to the U-Haul. Carpool assignments were discussed, and it was off to the other side of town.
At St. Luke’s, the process unfolded in reverse. Dancers carrying flats were briefly flummoxed by the hospital’s revolving door, but soon they were hauling the scenery across the main floor and up the open-air staircase, oblivious to the stares of hospital patrons. Some warmed up holding onto telephone bays. Tiny Mice sprawled across the floor to chitchat. Waskiel-Marchesseault discussed a decision—pointe shoes or no pointe shoes?—with the senior dancers and adjusted a little dancer’s makeup. In less than an hour, the familiar first strains of the party music had begun again.
The dancers love it. “Honestly, it’s just crazy—the whole process of getting everything together,” Bungert says. “Once you are into the performance and you look at people, and you see you are brightening their day, it’s worth it.”
The annual spring trip to Boston Children’s Hospital is particularly special. There, many audience members are battling major illnesses. The dancers look out from their makeshift performance space to see tiny bald heads, feeding tubes, IVs in the aisles—but plenty of smiles. One little girl wearing a tiara told Bier, “If you get to look pretty, then I do too.” Two boys fussed to try on a reindeer head. One patient missed most of the show but was still happy. “I get to go home today,” she said to Mello.
The girls say that one of the “best shows ever” happened last year at a senior center. They danced in a space little bigger than a postage stamp, but the audience of elders was so grateful that some were in tears. “I talk to friends who dance other places. Technique here is important, but this is all just so different,” Bier says. “I think we’ll remember these performances forever.”
Waskiel-Marchesseault remembers her days with the Youth Ballet. An admittedly nervous performer, she found it difficult to dance for her peers at a public school, but she felt the joy of unconditional appreciation from nursing-home audiences. It’s why she came back to New Bedford—to continue what Shirley Kayne started, to serve the community through dance.
“Until last September, I was with Boston Ballet, and I loved being there. The prestige of that school is amazing,” Waskiel-Marchesseault says. “But when this came up, I thought—New Bedford needs this more. This school has done so much for the community, and I want to help that continue.”