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Everything Was Beautiful at the Ballet... The Maine State Ballet That Is! | Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold | Scene4 Magazine-September 2015  www.scene4.com

Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold

“I enjoy beautiful productions, and I don’t want to have to travel to see them and share them. We provide a context for young people to fulfill their creativity, to have a safe, nurturing place to learn a discipline, and to create something beautiful.” Linda MacArthur Miele is talking with pride about the dance company she and her husband Jonathan Miele founded in 1976 and which is still going strong forty years later.

 

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The Maine State Ballet, which now makes its home in Falmouth, Maine, just outside the Portland city limits, has been a labor of love for the former Balanchine dancer and her small staff, who have transformed the small ballet school they took over four decades ago into the educational and performing institution it is today. Offering classes to almost five hundred students from ages four to seventy-four, MSB also fields a fifty-person professional company which produces four full-length ballets each year, together with smaller recitals and the annual gala Nutcracker production at Portland’s famed Merrill Auditorium.

 

As is often the case with dance companies, the personnel form a close-knit society of their own, bound by artistic and often Photo3Glenn-crpersonal ties as well. In Miele’s inner circle of administrators and teachers are her husband Jonathan, her co-director, son-in-law, Glenn Davis, who serves as the School Director and the company’s premier danseur; her daughter Janet Davis, his wife, who is Assistant School Director and prima ballerina; Frederick Bernier, who is Theatre Production Manager, dance instructor, and a principal dancer;  Gail Csoboth, Associate Director and chief scenic and costume designer; and Scott Miele, Development Director.

 

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Born and raised in Boston, Artistic Director Linda MacArthur moved to New York City when she was eleven to pursue her vocation as a ballerina. There she joined Balanchine’s School of American Ballet before becoming the youngest member of the New York City Ballet company at age thirteen. With Balachine and his troupe, Miele toured Paris, Rome, Athens, Venice, London, Salzburg, Montreal, and danced numerous performances at Lincoln Center, where she learned not only the inimitable Balanchine style, but also absorbed the master’s choreography for many classics of the repertoire.

 

In New York, MacArthur met Jonathan Miele, a dancer who had been trained at the Dorothy Mason School of Dance in Maine before becoming a performer on Broadway. The pair fell in love, married, toured nationally and danced in several Broadway shows together before deciding that the place to raise a family was not New York City or on the road. Returning to Jonathan Miele’s roots, they came back to the Portland area, where they purchased the former Mason Dance School from its second owner, Polly Mason, who was retiring. Together, the Mieles transformed the curriculum to focus primarily on ballet and began to produce their annual Nutcracker performances at local schools. By 1980 the troupe had outgrown high school auditoriums and took the popular Nutcracker to Portland’s Merrill Auditorium, where it has continued to be a huge performance event each Christmas for the last twenty-five years.

 

In that period another opportunity came to the Mieles, which they wisely snatched. “We had incorporated the school and the ballet company under one umbrella by 1985, and the opportunity to buy this building came along,” she says, referring to the Falmouth facility which now houses their teaching and rehearsal studios, a full costume shop, a 140-seat theatre, and company offices. “We seized it,” Linda Miele recalls. Ownership of their own artistic home would allow the company to produce more performances without the prohibitive costs of renting Merrill, but, first “the building had to be retrofitted,” Miele says as she shows me around the impressive, expansive, and modernized space.  “When we bought it, it was like a warehouse; it had only two large rooms. We put in heating, flooring, walls, insulation. We developed the theatre space, the studios, the shops. We assembled a group of investors to help us fund the renovations; we got a few grants, and we took a construction loan and mortgage.  We are only now starting to emerge from all that.” The company today exists on a solid, even enviable fiduciary base: it is 95% self-supporting through tuition and performance revenues, the remainder raised through charitable giving.

 

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“It’s like the tortoise and the hare,” Glenn Davis adds. “We keep investing in the structure one year at a time to improve things. The students get lots of experience by dancing here. By eighteen a kid can have been in 250 performances if he/she has been with us through the years. They not only learn technique, but they learn how to be part of a team.” Davis, himself, is a product of that philosophy; having been raised in nearby Lewiston, Maine, he was an All-Star basketball and soccer player, as well as a dancer, who took his degree in history and education from University Maine before working full-time with the ballet company.

 

I ask Davis and Bernier, who holds a degree in theatre from USM, about their experiences as young dancers in a state like Maine where ballet may be seen as a “foreign experience” and how they all have worked to make MSB’s school and dance company reach out to boys and girls. Recounting his own experience of being smitten by dance, Davis says, “ I went to see Annie in New York, and I thought to myself, ‘I can do that.’  Miele, Bernier, and Davis concur that they have attracted more young men to the school and company over the years, though this continues to be an uphill battle, and that they do try to do as much outreach as possible with school children.

 

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“This year, for example, when we did Le Corsaire, we invited some school groups here to see the sword fights and pirates,” Miele says. “And we always have large groups of kids at our Nutcracker performances, but we would have to add another staff position in order to be able to expand these outreach efforts.”

 

As it is, MSB’s goals are pretty far-reaching in and of themselves. “Our mission is to uplift the entire community through dance,” Davis maintains. “We try to engage our students at the level they find themselves. We have some dancers who just take a once a week class, and, naturally, we have others who have a deeper commitment.”

 

“For those who want to perform,” Miele says “we had to instill the mindset that the commitment then becomes more than a once a week activity. It is like a varsity sport; you have to devote three-four days a week or more to it, give up your summers, and invest a great deal. But, fortunately, there have been young artists willing to make that commitment. So far, we have never had to hire any dancers from outside the school or company to do our productions, even large-scale ones like Swan Lake,” she says with obvious pride.

 

“In fact,” Bernier continues, “we have some of our long-time dancers actually choosing to go to college nearby so they can continue to dance with us.”

 

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Miele explains that in order to nurture these dancers, MSB “tries to create a family-friendly atmosphere and to make memories for these young people. We offer not only ballet now, but also tap and jazz. We have some kids who start at three and never leave; we have whole generations of families returning to us. Sometimes at school registration, we meet people who are returning with their grandchildren to enroll them!  Jon [Jonathan Miele] grew up here; my kids all went here, and I even have a granddaughter who is now studying here.”

 

And what of the aspiring young dancer who wants to leave Maine ? Bernier replies,” We have a small number who do go on to New York to work on Broadway or with other larger companies. Just recently, we just had a student picked up by the Pennsylvania Ballet’s second company, which is a feeder for the main company. The numbers aren’t that large, but if we think it is the right course for a student, we will do everything we can to help them.” To date MSB alumni can be found at ABT, National Ballet of Canada, Boston Ballet, and Miami Ballet, among others.

 

“But we are also honest with the kids,” Miele adds. “If they want to go off to try their fortunes elsewhere, we may have to caution some of them to be prepared in case it [the career they envision] doesn’t happen.”

 

That career did happen for Linda and Jonathan Miele, however, just as their eventual relocation to Maine was a professional choice they embraced. With some coaxing Miele talks about her years with Balanchine. “I had been dancing since I was three in Boston, and I outgrew that experience. I was accepted into the American School of Ballet on a Ford Scholarship at eleven and into New York City Ballet at thirteen. Balanchine always got what he wanted, and he decided he wanted me to go on tour with them so they had to find a governess accompany me because of my age..” Waxing eloquent about the great choreographer and dance icon, Miele says, “He taught company class every single day. I absorbed his philosophy and his style. It became so much a part of my nature that I also absorbed the choreography by osmosis, which is why I can recreate it today.”

 

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Miele has been granted permission to restage Balanchine’s choreography for portions of her MSB’ s Nutcracker and for Serenade from the Balanchine Trust, a singular honor and privilege. “We were able to get the rights, and they allowed me to stage it without using a repetiteur because they knew they could trust me. I am now on their list of choreographers whom they can call on if they need to recreate Balanchine choreography anywhere in this region.”

 

But Miele crafts most of her choreography for MSB herself. It allows her to tailor dances to the company resources, avoid paying sometimes expensive rights (however lenient the Balanchine Trust is with her), and gives her a chance to put an original twist on productions. MSB has more than thirty full-length ballets in their repertoire. Miele sees her company as “a Balanchine company,” though she has also mounted the Petipa works like Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty based on her own training with Alexandra Danilova. However, “I like the look of our company to be uniform, so the advanced students and the company classes are all in the Balanchine mode, while the younger kids study with teachers who have been trained in different styles.

 

“The younger students, however,” Bernier points out “are exposed to diverse styles and methods because our teachers come from different backgrounds, and we believe it is good for young dancers to be able to adapt to varied approaches.”

 

“We all bring something special to the table,” Davis concurs. He goes on to explain that the school likes to provide the most committed students with three different teachers in three individual weekly classes to broaden their experience.

 

The process of programming repertoire for the company is one which is also based on the company’s resources. “We were able to do Le Corsaire this year,” Miele explains “because we had a great many men, and because we know they will be with us for a while longer, we have programmed Sleeping Beauty for the spring.” Miele’s choice of repertoire is governed by her own and, to a large extent, the audience’s preference for ballets that have happy endings. “We often have very small children in our audience, and we don’t want to do Romeo and Juliet with all the killings, for example. I am not a big fan of death,” she smiles.

 

“The availability of musical scores is also an issue,” Davis continues. If we create a new ballet we have to put together the music for it or hire a composer and a librettist, so that is a consideration. Not that it is undoable, but it has to be factored into to the programming decisions.”

 

MSB produces each of their full-scale works in-house. Gail Csoboth, who studied classical dance at ABT, and who has choreographed and worked nationally as a Photo9costumecrscenic and costume designer in opera and dance, designs and builds all the company costumes, as well as designing (and then contracting out to a New York scenic company because of space constraints at the Maine facility) all the drops and scenery. Frederick Bernier acts as technical director, creating the lighting and sound, supervising all the in-house productions, and working with the union personnel for the Christmas Nutcracker at Merrill. Glenn and his wife Janet take care of the school, workshops, teaching and performance schedules. These five are bolstered by a faculty of about a dozen instructors, two secretaries, and some seventy-five volunteers, all of whom pool their talents to bring classical dance to Maine.

 

The MSB school and company play an artistic role in the greater cultural and civic community, but they also sometimes serve more fundamental needs for their young members. “Sometimes the classes and the productions are a means to help save some kids,” Davis confides.  “It gives them a purpose, an avenue of expression, and we work with them to help them achieve their full potentials not only as dancers, but as human beings.”

 

“The theatre can bring more to a community than just performances,” Bernier asserts.

 

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Miele again stresses the family ambiance of MSB and the continuity she and her colleagues are trying to achieve. “We try not to let people leave,” she jokes. “We had one teacher who was with us for almost fifty years. Some of our students come back to work here as teachers. Glenn and Janet know how to run this operation, so I know I could leave at any moment and it would continue without me. I just see MSB going on and on. We have built into our school and company its own future.”

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Scene4 Magazine - Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold | www.scene4.com

Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold's new book is Bookends (Weiala Press). Her reviews, interviews, and features have appeared in numerous international publications. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4. Read her Blog.
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