Ballet Beyond Borders

Montana dance festival has global reach

by Bonner Odell

The snow-capped mountains surrounding Missoula, Montana, might seem like a surprising backdrop to a dance festival featuring some of the world’s most elite dancers and teachers. But Missoula is the birthplace of the Vienna International Ballet Experience USA (VIBE USA), which last year alone drew more than 6,000 people between participants and audience members.

Spread over five chilly January days, the annual festival includes an Art of Diplomacy conference, a film series, a gala, and special events exploring an ongoing theme: the role of the arts in global communication. At the heart of the festival is a dance competition, the Grand Prix Dance Challenge, which offers students and professionals the chance to compete in ballet, contemporary/modern, and an open category that has drawn talent in Native American, hip-hop, and Chinese folk dance, to name a few—the 2017 Grand Prix featured 200 competitors. Stand-out participants have received scholarships to study with international schools, but all the dancers who take part in the festival leave with something valuable: a cross-cultural education, professional and personal connections, and memories to last a lifetime.

“I met so many amazing people, from Portugal, Romania, Ethiopia. We all fell in love with Missoula.” —Giovanni Giordano

From Montana to the world and back again

The story of how an international ballet festival landed in cowboy country is inextricably linked to that of its founder, Charlene Campbell Carey. Campbell Carey studied ballet at American Ballet Theatre and danced at Radio City Music Hall. After decades of choreographing ballets, operas, nightclub acts, and industrials, Campbell Carey moved from Los Angeles to Missoula in 1998 and founded Rocky Mountain Ballet Theatre (RMBT), a school and a company celebrating the spirit of the American West. “I am more inspired creatively here than in a big city,” says Campbell Carey of Missoula, home to the University of Montana.

Dancers welcomed to the Grand Prix Dance Challenge stage hailed from Montana’s Salish and Kootenai tribes as well as international ballet schools.
Photo by Ari Dennison

Over the last two decades, Campbell Carey’s troupe of pre-professional and professional dancers ages 12 and up has evolved into an acclaimed international touring company. An invitation to represent the U.S. at Austria’s prestigious Young!Tanzsommer dance intensive in 2002 opened doors for further travel. In 2005 RMBT went to Italy, where dancers studied at Balleto di Roma. The following year, Campbell Carey contacted Montana senator Max Baucus to pitch the idea of the company representing Montana in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics. Baucus, who is now retired, supported the trip, and has since partnered with RMBT to present performances for foreign diplomats in Montana and abroad.

Rocky Mountain Ballet Theatre’s cultural flair has been warmly received. In Beijing, the company presented Western-themed ballets with cowgirls alongside a rope-tricking Montana rodeo champion and a Native American fancy dancer from Montana’s Salish and Kootenai tribes. It also performed sections from two classic Chinese ballets in tribute to its Chinese hosts.

“The primary goal is to take our culture to the rest of the world and promote understanding,” says Campbell Carey. “Technology has advanced rapidly in recent years, but there is still a tremendous chasm in the world. The most real and lasting form of communication is still people to people.”

The seeds for VIBE USA were planted in 2014 in Austria, where Campbell Carey’s dancers opened the Salzburg Festival and competed in the Vladimir Malakhov Grand Prix. At the competition, Campbell Carey met Vienna State Opera Ballet principal dancer Gregor Hatala, who went on to found VIBE as a Vienna-based competition in 2015. In 2016, Hatala invited the Missoula school to host the premiere of VIBE USA. Campbell Carey accepted, but envisioned something more far-reaching than a competition alone. A team of RMBT staff and volunteers helped bring Campbell Carey’s broader vision to life. They raised all the necessary funds, recruited dancers and jury members, scheduled master classes in a range of styles, and organized community events.

Any dancer registered as a competitor can take master classes, which are taught by visiting teachers and take place on the University of Montana campus. The competition itself spans four days, with an awards ceremony, gala finale, and party on Saturday. Visiting competitors stay in Missoula hotels or with host families arranged by festival organizers.

“I got to meet a bunch of different teachers from all sorts of places, and see all different types of dance, which is really important.” —Ruby Jenni

Dancing across genres

The festival’s reach extends beyond the studio and the stage. The Art of Diplomacy conference, created in partnership with the University of Montana, draws college students, faculty, and community members to its performances, panel discussions, and lectures. Conference events are held in the evenings, and are free and open to the public. Last year’s topics included the role of the arts in fighting adversity, strengthening communities, and promoting women and democracy.

A Rocky Mountain Ballet Theatre dancer shares the spirit of the American West with audiences at Vienna’s Salzburg Festival.
Photo courtesy Rocky Mountain Ballet Theatre

After winning two gold medals in the VIBE USA Grand Prix, South African dancer Andile Ndlovu, who dances for Washington Ballet, returned last year to serve as a conference panelist. “I think I brought awareness [about] how an African boy with his distinct identity can pursue an art form that is totally not his heritage,” he says. “It was a great experience [despite] temperatures I have never experienced in my life.”

The festival’s film series provides another outlet for dance viewing and dialogue. Last year’s series featured nine international dance films. Among them was Strike a Pose, about seven male dancers on Madonna’s Blond Ambition Tour, some of whom were carrying the secret that they were HIV-positive. Dancer Carlton Wilborn, featured in the film, attended the Missoula screening and served on a panel about HIV awareness.

As of press time, organizers had not released the film titles for the 2018 festival. They had, however, confirmed that Patricia Ward Kelly, wife of dance legend Gene Kelly, will present a one-woman performance about the life of her late husband at the festival’s opening night. Above all, Campbell Carey says, the festival “is a place to share stories. Even our jurors are chosen with this in mind. We pick individuals who can do more than grade dances from 1 to 100, but who also have a story to tell.”

“The primary goal is to take our culture to the rest of world and promote understanding.” — Charlene Campbell Carey

A choreography of connections

If the festival serves as a forum for stories, it has also changed some of them in storybook fashion. Many dancers have come away from the Grand Prix with scholarships to prestigious dance schools, enabling them to realize their dreams. Giovanni Giordano, a 21-year-old Italian ballet dancer, is among them. He described the experience as magical.

“I will never forget standing in a circle onstage with dancers from all over the world before the curtain opened at the gala performance,” Giordano says. “No one was out of this magic circle. We were all just there, enjoying the moment, enjoying the bond we share through dance. I met so many amazing people, from Portugal, Romania, Ethiopia. We all fell in love with Missoula.”

For Giordano, the magic didn’t end there. After watching him compete, VIBE USA juror and former National Ballet of Canada prima ballerina Chan Hon Goh awarded him a scholarship to study at Goh Ballet Academy, which she directs in Vancouver, British Columbia. “It is one of the most beautiful memories of my life,” says Giordano, who moved into his first apartment in Vancouver last fall, having never lived outside of his home in Italy. “I did not win first prize, but if I had, it would be just a medal for the wall. But this experience has changed my whole life.”

When he participated in VIBE USA, Giordano stayed in house owned by a vacationing RMBT-connected family, along with five fellow Italian dancers, one from Portugal, and one from Brazil. The group ate meals together—they all spoke some English and became fast friends. “I see them on Facebook often,” says Giordano, “and just sending them a message is beautiful because I know they share the same affection.”

International borders melt away when dancers such as Ashley Hagler of Montana and Andile Ndlovu of South Africa (left) and others celebrate their love of classical ballet through VIBE USA’s annual festival, this year rechristened as Ballet Beyond Borders.
Photos by Sam Zauscher

Giordano learned about VIBE USA through his teacher in Italy, Guy de Bock, whom Campbell Carey met on the company’s first trip to Italy. Other competitors find their way to Missoula through the event’s international liaisons, who recruit in Russia, Eastern Europe, and several Spanish-speaking countries. In some cases, Campbell Carey discovers dancers through clips they post to her Facebook feed.

This is how she learned of Dandara Amorim Veiga. An extraordinary Brazilian dancer with no way to pursue her dream at home, Veiga traveled to VIBE USA in 2016 with the help of donations Campbell Carey raised. She gave a stunning performance and tied for the grand prize. Afterward, ballerina Annarella Sanchez awarded her a scholarship to study at her school in Portugal, Academia Cubana de Ballet e Danca. From there Veiga received a scholarship to The Ailey School, and now dances professionally for Ballet Hispanico.

Missoula dancers have also experienced the festival’s life-changing potential. RMBT dancer Ruby Jenni, 13, has been dancing at the school since age 3, and competed in the 2016 and 2017 VIBE USA Grand Prix Dance Challenges, where she was a finalist both years. Her performance at the 2016 event won her a scholarship to compete at VIBE Vienna. A student at Missoula International School, Jenni speaks fluent Spanish and served as a translator for Sanchez and some of the other Spanish-speaking judges at last year’s competition. After seeing her perform in 2016, Sanchez offered Jenni a scholarship to study in Portugal, where she spent the 2017 fall semester.

“It’s always good to make connections because you never know how they might play into your career if you plan to be a dancer,” says Jenni. “I got to meet a bunch of different teachers from all sorts of places, and see all different types of dance, which is really important.”

For Campbell Carey, that kind of exposure and opportunity to connect are what this project is all about. As RMBT enters its 20th year, she and the board have decided to rebrand the festival as Ballet Beyond Borders, effective January 2018. “With BBB, we are doing what RMBT has always done, encouraging our dancers to take their dancing beyond borders. I think of Ballet Beyond Borders as encompassing all of our cultural exchange projects, with the competition as the annual culmination.

“It’s a tapestry of relationships,” Campbell Carey says. The festival “is an ongoing project with the goal of connecting all these people so they can help each other in the future. When we choose what dancers to sponsor, we ask ourselves, ‘Who is going to take this scholarship and give back to the community in Brazil 10 years down the road, or maybe tell their story to an American child so she knows she is not alone?’ This way, when the competition ends, there is no end to the ripples.”

BBB runs January 9–13. See for info.


Bonner Odell has served as editor of In Dance, a lecturer at California State University–East Bay, and a teaching artist for Luna Dance Institute. She holds an MA in dance from Mills College.