Like so many artistic organizations, the Raleigh Dance Theatre had humble origins: a yard sale. Ann Vorus had trained dancers three years in classical ballet technique at The Raleigh School of Ballet and realized that her students needed a performance outlet. But there was no performing company, much less a name. With the proceeds from a yard sale in the fall of 1984, the former soloist for the Atlanta Ballet filed the paper work for a not-for-profit 501-c-3 arts organization, the Raleigh Dance Theatre Inc. Its mission is to provide pre-professional performance training for qualified dancers while promoting and fostering dance awareness in the Triangle.
On March 25, 1985, RDT had its first performance at Athens Drive High School. Peter and the Wolf was among several pieces presented. The company also performed Peter and the Wolf as part of the N.C. Symphony Young Peoples Series at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. With those performances, RDT was on its way.
Today RDT, the performing affiliate of RSB’s pre-professional program can list an impressive array of accomplishments. It has a permanent home at 3921 Beryl Road, a one-story, 5,280 square-foot building across Hillsborough Street from Meredith College. Former RDT dancers have been or are currently part of the world dance scene performing with Aspen/Santa Fe Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, New York City Ballet, Dutch National Ballet, Stuttgart Ballet and Carolina Ballet, among others. Carolina Ballet grew from RDT. And for 25 years RDT has presented quality ballet performances for Triangle audiences while providing educational outreach at area schools and libraries.
Ms. Vorus’ had three very specific goals for RDT: 1) develop the technical proficiency to dance Giselle to live music; 2) join Regional Dance America/Southeast Regional Ballet Association (RDA/SERBA), a regional dance organization; and 3) perform a Balanchine ballet.
Through the mid-late ’80s the company performances included joint productions with other companies including Wilmington Ballet and Concert Dancers of Raleigh. It was a member of Dance Associates, an eastern North Carolina organization that presented among other things A Midsummer’s Night Dream, choreographed by Rochelle Zide Boothe.
In 1988 Ruth Mones joined RDT as artistic advisor and set Les Sylphides and Giselle. Today dancers still talk about working with Ms. Mones. Megan Marvel, associate director of RDT: “Ruth Mones was a force when she came to RDT. She pushed the company and each of us individually to find ourselves in the dance world.”
In May 1991 the first of Ms. Vorus’ original goals was achieved. Giselle was performed as part of the North Carolina Symphony’s inaugural ballet series at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. Carrie Sample, who had trained with RSB/RDT for two years before receiving a contract with the Tulsa Ballet returned to dance the role of Giselle.
On Oct. 11, 1991, RSB and RDT left behind what had been a series of homes on Hillsborough Street and began operating out of a brand- spanking new building on Beryl Road where it remains today. A deep porch softened the concrete and stone façade. A Chinese fringe tree and pink crape myrtle make the building blend into the landscape.
There was office space and the three studios were equipped with sprung floors to diminish the repeated impact on dancer’s joints. One of the three studios measures 35 feet by 50 feet, which is no accident. Those are exactly the dimensions of Raleigh Memorial Auditorium’s stage.
RDT achieved Ms Vorus’ second long-term goal in 1993 when it became a member of RDA/SERBA. While the public reception of Giselle with the N.C. Symphony had been a high water mark in 1991, joining RDA/SERBA two years later was equally important.
“SERBA’s high technical and artistic standards were another acknowledgement of RDT’s success,” says current RDT Artistic Director, Mary LeGere. “Being accepted into SERBA validated all of the work by the students and faculty. The feedback from being adjudicated is invaluable.
“Each year the dancers have the opportunity to perform at the spring festival in front of their peers. Standards are high. They take classes and participate in seminars with professionals from all over the world who are at the top of their field. The dancers soak it all up. They love it. It is something they look forward to all year as a highlight.” In May 1993. RDT performed Swan Lake, Act II. In the spring of 1994 RDT followed with a full-length Coppelia. That spring, Ms. Vorus stepped down as artistic director of RDT to concentrate on running RSB.
Ms. Vorus was succeeded by Ms. LeGere, a former soloist with Pennsylvania Ballet, who started teaching at RSB in the summer of 1990 and became associate director of RDT in the fall of 1991.
“I learned so much about directing a student company from Ms Vorus,” says Ms LeGere: “All of it was invaluable; from her honest, straightforward and fair approach when working with the dancers to her business acumen. It was and continues to be an honor to carry on her legacy by building on the strong foundation she created.”
“I learned discipline and the value of a commitment (from Ms Vorus,” Maggie Whitmeyer LaPlante. “I also learned how sweet it is to work for a goal and achieve it. Through discipline and technique, Ms. Vorus shaped me as a dancer, but I used the skills that I learned from her to go on to earn a full academic scholarship (a Park Scholarship) to NC State for my undergrad degree and Tufts for my masters degree. When you got praise from Ms. Vorus, you knew it was sincere and that it was special. It is rare to find a teacher who can get so much out of students, be respected like Ms. Vorus was respected by all of us, and be someone we all wanted to be. To this day, I have not met anyone like her and I don’t think I ever will. She is one of the most amazing people I have had the blessing to know.”
In 1994 Ward Purrington, a RDT board member, suggested to Ms. Vorus, and Ms. LeGere, that a professional company be created. Over the next three years, Ms. Vorus, Ms. LeGere, the board and Purrington, a well-connected Raleigh lawyer, increased the ballet company’s budget and staff and bumped the performing schedule up to three series a year. Raleigh Dance Theatre changed its name to Carolina Ballet Theatre in 1995. In 1996 the name changed yet again to Carolina Ballet, the same year Susan Galdy, a New York City native with a BFA in dance from State University of New York at Purchase, became associate director.
In the fall of the same year the company reached the third of Ms. Vorus’ original goals by performing a Balanchine ballet. On a recommendation from former New York City Ballet principal dancer Melissa Hayden, The George Balanchine Trust approved Robert Barnett, another former NYCB dancer and past director of Atlanta Ballet, to set Raymonda Variations on RDT.
Ms. LeGere found directing the company during its transition into a fully professional company exciting and rewarding. But as the mother of two young children, she realized she did not want to take on the life-consuming task of directing a professional company.
She and Robert Lindgren, former dean of dance at UNC School of the Arts and founder of N.C. Dance Theatre, were among the members of a search committee formed to find a new artistic director. From a pile of candidates, they recommended Robert Weiss, who had been Ms. LeGere’s artistic director at Pennsylvania Ballet and was a former principal dancer with NYCB under Balanchine.
“I knew from experience he had what it took to direct the company,” she said later. Mr. Weiss was hired at the close of the 1996-97 season, marking the final stage of achieving professional status.
RSB/RDT dancers were present at the creation of Carolina Ballet. Lindsey Purrington and Emily Younger (Wells) were founding members of Carolina Ballet and cemented what has been a long-standing and mutually profitable association between Carolina Ballet and RDT/RSB. Phillipa Armes, Christine Brown, Ashley Hathaway, Yvette Sumner, Giovanna Montoya, Sarah Newton and Marissa Slutsky (Ashley), all became members of the professional company.
Student dancers from RDT have regularly augmented the Carolina Ballet’s corps de ballet. In addition to dancing in the holiday favorite, The Nutcracker, RSB/RDT dancers have appeared in Carolina Ballet performances of Monet Impressions, Messiah, Rubies, Carmen, Coppelia, Le Petit Ballet, Four Temperaments, Firebird, Cinderella, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream among others.
“We are extremely proud of the fact that we are the only school in the area that has consistently provided quality dancers (for Carolina Ballet),” Ms. LeGere says. “The dancers need to be at a certain technical and performance level to be able to blend into the corps of a professional company.”
As the Carolina Ballet ramped up to a fully professional company, RDT reestablished itself. In 1997, RDT reclaimed its old name and focused again on pre-professional training. Original choreography, live music and artistic collaborations have been part of every RDT dancer’s experience. Dancers experience the exhilaration of dancing to live music welling up out of an orchestra pit and the nerve-wracking adjustments to the changes in a conductor’s tempos, exactly like professional dancers.
A staple of the repertoire during the last half of the ’90s was The Dancing Princess which Ms. Vorus adapted from the Brothers Grimm fairy tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses. The piece met the need for high quality ballet while appealing to adults and children alike.
Collaborations with the North Carolina Master Chorale, The Enloe Chamber Choir and the Triangle Youth Philharmonic have been sprinkled among visits by acclaimed guest choreographers. Among those choreographers are Leslie Jane Pessemier, who has set pieces on over 30 companies around the world; Laura Dean, a modern dance pioneer; Tyler Walters, a former principal dancer with Joffrey Ballet and Atlanta Ballet, who is now on the Duke University dance faculty; and Lu-Chou Cheng, a native of China who is on the dance faculty of Texas Christian University. RDT has performed two pieces set to the music of Robert Ward, a Pulitzer-Prize winning composer, who now lives in Durham.
The RDT staff has changed with the years. In 1999 Ms. Galdy resigned her post as associate artistic director of RDT to devote full-time to running RSB. “Ms Galdy inspired me to break out of my shy, inward dancing and be confident enough to give every dance step all that I had, which ended up being what I loved most about dancing and performing.” recalls Christa Palchinsky.
Ms Galdy’s successor at RDT was Jennifer Clagett Sommers, who has a masters’ in performance and choreography from Smith College. Ms. Sommers served as associate artistic director from 2000-05. Her resignation and move to Minnesota where her husband had a teaching position, brought consternation and tears from RDT dancers.
Kathryn Daniel was 15 when she heard the news. “I was pretty upset when I heard she was leaving. She’s such a wonderful teacher. She really cared about the dancers. She really inspired me. If I couldn’t do something she would work with me and say, ‘You can do it, if you practice.’ She encouraged me to keep trying. She was one of my favorite teachers.”
Ms. Marvel, a N.C. State graduate and former RDT dancer, followed Ms. Sommers as associate artistic director in 2005 and currently holds that position.
Ms. LeGere’s years as Artistic Director since 1994 have drawn praise from dancers, respect in the dance community and financial stability. Leave it to RDT founder to identify another quality of Ms. LeGere: “Ms. LeGere, fresh from performing with the Pennsylvania Ballet, brought the dancers not only her excellent knowledge of ballet, but even more, she gave them a belief in themselves. After all, she, a newly arrived professional in their midst, believed in them.”
When Ms. Vorus resigned from RSB in 2003 and retired to Brevard with her husband, former N.C. Symphony associate conductor, Jackson Parkhurst, the Ann Vorus Choreography Fund was created. Interest on the fund’s principal pays for original works of choreography for RDT dancers. In May 2009 the contributions to and the growth of the Ann Vorus Fund permitted RDT to finance Leslie Jane Pessemier’s “Vox humana.”
RDT has regularly jumped through the application processes to receive funding from The Triangle Community Foundation, the United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County. But it has realized that with today’s uncertain economy it must rely on its own earned income and grants from private organizations like Target.
RDT has been well-received in SERBA since its admission in 1993. In May 2000 RDT hosted the annual SERBA conference in Durham. The three-day conference drew over 600 students from seven southeastern states and included master classes, workshops and performances. Meticulous planning and preparation by the RDT staff and volunteers won rave reviews from the participants and a little money for RDT coffers. RDT hosted an even larger RDA/SRBA festival again in 2005 in Durham.
RDT has a fully professional training curriculum that emphasizes classical ballet technique. Discipline and dedication are instilled in and expected from students as they work to hone technique in the studio and learn performance skills in rehearsal. To this day, former RDT dancers who are accomplished professionals and mothers, refer to their teachers as “Miss”. It’s part of the school’s respect for the tradition of their art form and for each other.
And, oh yes. In the best French tradition, RDT dancers do say “merde” as they dip the toes of their pointe shoe in the rosin box before the curtain rises on a performance.
How strong is that RDT technique? Listen to Carrie O’Brien who danced with RDT from 1994-1995: “When I was at Appalachian State University, I went to a local ballet school and took a class just for fun. I hadn’t taken a ballet class in a really long time.
“After one or two classes, the teachers were so amazed by my technique that they talked me into taking a company class and asked me to be in their Nutcracker performance. Ha! Ha! I kindly turned that offer down, but it was so funny how great they thought I was when I was so out of shape.”
RSB’s stable finances, varied and challenging repertoire, time-tested success in training of future professional dancers and respect in the teaching profession are all exactly what RDT set out to achieve in 1984. RDT dancers say there is more to it than that.
“Through ballet, I learned the importance of discipline and professionalism in all things,” says Cara Allen, who from 1986-94 studied at RSB and danced with RDT. “I gained confidence, self-respect and an appreciation of the rewards that come from working hard toward a goal.”