A! Magazine for the Arts

The Queen of Hearts (center) is Regina Blankenship, formerly Regina Rice, in the croquet match from Highlands Ballet's production of "Alice in Wonderland."

The Queen of Hearts (center) is Regina Blankenship, formerly Regina Rice, in the croquet match from Highlands Ballet's production of "Alice in Wonderland."

Highlands Ballet creates original full-length ballets for the region

March 30, 2015

Deanna Cole-Roberts, founder and artistic director, of Highlands Ballet Company, began her ballet training over a pool hall known as Babe's in Bristol, Virginia. The studio was The Hardinge School of Ballet. She went on to perform as a principal dancer for more than 25 years in major cities throughout the Southeast. She was a principal dancer in the Tennessee State Bicentennial Ballet Company, under the direction of Norbert Vesak, director of The Metropolitan Opera Ballet. Vesak created a pas de deux, "Windsong," for her.

More than 20 years ago, she started Highlands Ballet Company and its school, Highlands Center for Ballet Arts.

In 1994, the company began showcase performances with a small group of students who desired to perform in a more semi-professional atmosphere. Its productions evolved from these simple showcase productions to full-length classical and original ballets.

Highlands recently finished the final installment of an original three-year concept based on the legend of Robin Hood. The first ballet, "The Adventure Begins," was presented in 2010. The final installment, "Prince of Sherwood," played to a "sell out house" at Southwest Virginia Community College.

In December 2013 HBC presented "The Nutcracker" with original choreography and costumes by the HBC directors. "The Nutcracker" joined Highlands' "A Christmas Carol" as a holiday performance.

Original choreography and artistic vision are the hallmarks of the Highlands Ballet Company's directors, Deirdre Cole and Cole-Roberts. Other original choreographies include "In Celtic Days," "Coppelia," "Beauty and the Beast," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Appalachian Sunshine," "Casey at the Bat," "Gershwin by George," "Alice in Wonderland," "A Day in The Jungle Book" and "The Wizard of Oz." Highlands is gearing up for a new production, "Sleeping Beauty ... The Spell," to be performed in May.

These ballets use a combination of live and recorded music. "Appalachian Sunshine," "A Christmas Carol" and "Robin Hood" featured live music. Most of the time, the music is recorded or a combination of both. Recorded music is used in classes. "I grew up with a classroom pianist, it was fantastic," Cole-Roberts says. "Affordability is a problem now for the classroom."

Students who want to attend Highlands Center for Ballet Arts can start at age 4. "Classical ballet is our main focus during the primary years, but we supplement our curriculum with jazz/modern/contemporary dance around age 8," Cole-Roberts says. Children younger than 4 can attend Kindermusik classes, which offer developmentally- targeted music and movement classes for newborns to age 7. "Newborns to adults, we want movement to be a part of your and your child's lives," she says.

Young students typically attend class once a week. Classes become twice a week at approximately age 8. Students in the junior division of the Highlands Ballet Company attend classes four days a week followed by rehearsals during performance preparation. Senior company members attend class five days a week plus rehearsals.

Annual auditions are held for acceptance into the ballet companies and for productions. But all dancers, even the little ones, perform in the school's end of the year student recital production.

"Deciding which ballets to perform is tricky; inspiration and creativity play a major role," Cole-Roberts says. "Such artistic decisions are made by the directors, always keeping in mind what the dancers need in order to grow in their artistic and technical training. We work hard not to be a cookie cutter company. It is important to find a unique niche and be aware of what the public will like."

These productions sometimes require guest artists, generally male dancers. "Highlands is fortunate to have trained female dancers strong enough to fill the lead roles in our productions, but male dancers must be brought in. Finding a professional male dancer is not difficult, especially if you have a good networking relationship within the dance community. Students have the benefit of interacting with these professionals every day during classes, rehearsals and the production itself. It's important for young students to witness and experience their grace and professionalism. A really good production is enriched through the spectacular dancing and partnering of a professional male dancer. The downside is raising enough money to pay these dancers."

Cole-Roberts says that her dancers are prepared because of a good, strong curriculum. "Just as in our academic school systems, progression graduates from one level to the next. Age groups are generally separated into class levels. This is best for the student physically and mentally. Our method of teaching remains the same throughout, but expectations for each age and class level varies. During student performances, each class level performs together with their own group or class level. Each group in a student recital situation has their own time on the stage as a part of the whole production. Students up to age 8 will have a senior dancer on stage with them. This helps to support, calm and encourage youngsters so they can shine their brightest."

Training for a dance discipline has many similarities to academic and athletic training, according to Cole-Roberts. Skills must be built incrementally, and the more time devoted to study, the higher the level of learning. For instance, she says, "If a child devotes only one hour per week to learning mathematics, it will take far longer to reach Algebra I, than if that same child devotes one hour every day to studying mathematics. If the child studies year around instead of taking all summer off each year, they will be ready for Algebra I before most of their classmates. Children with a natural aptitude will also achieve a higher skill level faster and with greater ease than some others. And no child, no matter how great the natural aptitude and talent, can master long division until they have mastered addition, subtraction and multiplication.
The same holds true for dance; you must start at the beginning, attend classes faithfully and work to master the skills as they are introduced. Each skill builds muscle memory and the proper bodily strength to take a student to the next, more difficult dance movement. This is a constant process over a number of years."

She encourages parents to understand that each student progresses through dance education at his or her own pace. A student might not move to the next level each year. She places students in a level appropriate to age and physical strength, because too quick advancement causes them to miss valuable training, struggle and face an increased risk of injury.

Proper training helps prevent injuries. Cole-Roberts stresses that technique must be closely implemented and followed meticulously. "We are working with young growing bodies, and the criteria are high to encourage students to work properly. Ballet is perhaps the most intricate of disciplines in that it deals with the entire body and every muscle group." If an injury does occur, an orthopedist or physical therapist is recommended.

Many of HBC's dancers have gone to college to study dance. Ingrid Abeleda studied at London Contemporary Dance School, performed with the Elisa Monte Dance Company and works for Ralph Lauren. Emily Swan performed with Love Creek Productions, Hong Kong Disneyland and worked for Tibbits Opera House. Others work as administrators at dance schools, teach Pilates or became physical therapists.

Cole-Roberts says that her greatest challenges are funding and organization. "Perhaps one of the greatest challenges is scheduling around school time and working parents, as well as parents with more than one child in ballet, and each child's class is on a different day. Nothing can be done until the students are out of school. The youngest students' class times start at 3:45 p.m., followed by classes for the older student, which means that advanced dancers rarely can begin before 5 p.m. Highlands always strives to keep in mind that school work and family time are also important.

"The rewards are numerous: watching young dance students grow, gain strength, confidence, pride in their accomplishment, learning discipline and better listening and memorization skills. All these are factors that lead to better academics and will be appreciated by everyone who takes a ballet class and commits to it long term. For boys and young men, the strength and agility that ballet dancers develop can be applied to other field and court sports and can make boys and girls, men and women, better-conditioned athletes.

"What better reward than watching these students blossoming into beautiful young adults ready to face any challenge that is put in front of them. Above all of that, it is the bond of love and trust we develop with our students and their families. What they bring to our lives is immeasurable. We become family, and that is priceless," she says.