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There’s room for everybody

Rochester’s two largest ballet companies, Rochester City Ballet and New York State Ballet, provide opportunities for local dancers to perform for local audiences while also offering dance classes for all ages. Children as young as three, aspiring professional dancers, and adults looking to reconnect with ballet—or try it for the first time in their lives—can all find classes that will inspire them. Both companies have unique attributes that make them strong assets to our area, and the interplay between these dance companies and other Rochester creatives and entrepreneurs has sparked some very exciting collaborations. 

Rochester City Ballet 

“I love RCB,” says Shannon Rodriguez, company dancer and social media manager at Rochester City Ballet. She grew up dancing at Draper Center, the training school for Rochester City Ballet (RCB). Rodriguez knew that after she finished college at the University of Arizona she wanted to come back to Rochester—both because she loves her hometown and because she “wanted to be one of those company dancers who I grew up watching.” The growth that RCB has experienced since its founding in 1987 is remarkable, she says. In the beginning there were no paid dancers, and now there are ten to twelve paid dancers on the roster, depending on the year. “And that’s a hard thing to accomplish in a nonprofit arts organization.” 

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RCB dancer Megan Kamler also loves “doing what we do at such a high caliber.” Kamler points out that there are many Rochester natives in the company, and “I think it’s really impressive that we can do such high-quality repertoire with dancers that grew up in Rochester.” RCB has been performing a lot of world-renowned material in recent years and working with prominent choreographers. “So that’s been great, to see the national recognition.” RCB is a “family-style” company, they say, and they do not rank dancers—everyone gets a chance to get out on stage in roles that they are proud of. “The company really gives you an opportunity to shine, in a way that you are really comfortable and portray a role well,” Kamler says. They love making ballet accessible to everyone. 

The company puts on performances at local schools, aware that some young students will not see ballet performances otherwise. The Draper Center recently received a $5,000 grant from Rochester Area Community Foundation for its Ballet Jump–start! programming. Through this program, Draper provides free dance classes to three and four-year-olds in Monroe County and the surrounding areas, opening the world of ballet to many small children who wouldn’t otherwise get the chance. One of the dancers’ favorite days of the year, says Rodriguez, is the sensory-friendly ballet performance. Geared toward individuals with autism or other special needs, these performances feature lower sound levels, elimination of loud or jarring sounds or special effects, and no flashing lights. Rules are relaxed—all audience members are free to get up, move around, and leave whenever they need to, and there are designated quiet, safe areas outside of the main theater. 

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This year, RCB dancers are excited to perform in some new locations such as Geneva and Batavia, incorporating children from those localities into the performances. RCB also recently hosted a Booze N’ Ballet fundraiser with Roc Dance Collective on August 26. This event celebrated local creatives in Rochester and featured tastings from local breweries, wineries, and distilleries as well as farm-to-table hors d’oeuvres. 

When asked what advice they would give young dancers, “Don’t give yourself a ceiling,” Kamler says. “There’s room for everybody in the dance world.” If you want to dance, you can find a way to do it. Rodriguez says not to let one person’s opinion quash your dreams. Dancers sometimes get negative feedback. “Remember why you’re doing what you’re doing . . . it’s how much you love to dance that’s important.”

New York State Ballet 

Katie Johnson, founder and artistic director at New York State Ballet (NYSB) in East Rochester, has operated a ballet school for about twelve years, and NYSB as a nonprofit was formed in 2014. Owning a ballet school is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for Johnson. She was trained professionally at Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and the teacher training program is “pretty extensive,” she says. She was there for four years with world-class teachers and coaches. Johnson takes pride in bringing excellent dancers together. Before the pandemic, there were twelve paid dancers, but since then have had to downsize. “This year we’ve had three, but we’ve supplemented with many guests, so we’ve had some stars from Dance Theatre of Harlem, Derek Brockington, and Kamala Saara.” The three company dancers, Anna Ackerman, Rena Bernardini, and Angela Wentling “are here all year round, so they’re always onstage. It’s really nice to see.” Professional ballet dancer Keith Justin Reeves is often their principal dancer, and he is “a world-class superstar, essentially.” 

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This year they are planning to do The Nutcracker and The Great Gatsby and close the season with Beauty and the Beast. Johnson is assisted by instructors including Robert Gardner and Janet Wentling. “Janet is like my right-hand man,” Johnson says. The choreography for the Beauty and the Beast production will be done by the original choreographer for Beauty and the Beast on Broadway. “So, he’ll be creating one specific to this company, which we are just excited to announce. It’s huge,” she says. Johnson loves classical ballet, and that is what she mostly aims to perform. 

When asked what makes the NYSB program special, she says “I think it’s really that our teachers are accredited.” She explained that Europe and Canada are very different from the U. S.—in this country, anyone can teach ballet without any sort of credentials. That is not true in the rest of the world. “You need legitimate instruction and training. Janet is like a treasure chest of knowledge, so she’s got more experience than all of us.” NYSB specializes in ballet, rather than trying to teach every discipline of dance, and it provides students with unique opportunities. “Young aspiring artists can perform alongside professional dancers, so that’s not your typical scenario for most dance studios,” Johnson says. 

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During the pandemic, NYSB started offering virtual tickets to their performances, and they do plan to keep offering that. “But of course, our heartbeat is to actually have our audience in front of us. With live art, you really need that reciprocity with the audience to rejuvenate your own soul.” They’ve worked with the Lyric Opera and different choirs such as the Amadeus Chorale Youth Singers. They also work with Jared Chase at Nazareth College to bring in live musicians and singers such as Jessica Ann Best. 

Johnson advises aspiring dancers to “find an environment that’s nurturing and supportive.” It’s hard to stick with anything if you’re not happy, she says. “You’ve got to find something that you can really jive with and find that spark.” Ballet can be a very elitist art form, she says, but at NYSB “we try to give you the best instruction but make it accessible to everyone.” 

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