Rochester City Ballet has created its own style

05:00 AM, Jan 26, 2014

Lisa Ushino, Misson Viejo, CA, dances across the back of Christopher Collins, Avon, during a special In Studio performance of excerpts from Rochester City Ballet's upcoming concert, Ballet: RCB Style, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014 at their Rochester headquarters. The performance will be will be Jan. 31, Feb. 1 at Nazareth College Arts Center. (SHAWN DOWD / staff photographer)/


Written By Robin L. Flanigan

If you go

What: Rochester City Ballet’s “Ballet: RCB Style,” which includes the debut of Jamey Leverett’s new piece, InCantation, a collaboration with double bassist James VanDemark and composer Adrienne Elisha.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday; 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Nazareth College Arts Center, 4245 East Ave., Pittsford.
Cost: $25 to $40.
For tickets: (585) 389-2170 or artscenter.naz.edu.
Click on this story at WhatsUpRoc.com to see a photo gallery of the Rochester City Ballet’s InCantation.

When Jamey Leverett got her first chance to choreograph a piece for the Rochester City Ballet, at age 18, she used several songs by Pink Floyd.

Shine on You Crazy Diamond” is a long way from Swan Lake, but Rochester City Ballet would end up being far more than a traditional company.

It began as a pre-professional performance group, with no money to pay dancers at the start. But people like Leverett, who was 15 when she joined, wanted to dance and kept it going. Then several years later, when the company had gained a fairly good following in the community, it was able to pay small honorariums to some of its dancers.

By staying true to its classical roots but continuing to dive into lyrical, free-flowing choreography, RCB (known as Timothy Draper Dance Theatre originally) grew significantly in the quality and size of its productions. Eventually, it collaborated with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra on its annual production of The Nutcracker — this past Thanksgiving marked the 15th year of the partnership — and began earning recognition from other artistic groups in the area.

RCB now has 18 dancers under contract, including eight apprentices, and is in its 26th season — a history that will be celebrated next weekend in the company’s “Ballet: RCB Style” concert.

The show will include a new piece by Leverett, now RCB’s artistic director, that mixes in a great deal of modern dance. In fact, Leverett says she had to create a new vocabulary to describe the moves to the dancers.

That exemplifies what the company has become, often blending classical training with cutting-edge, contemporary choreography. RCB has performed for international audiences and collaborated with some of the dance world’s most highly regarded choreographers. Yet an ongoing challenge is to expand what people think of when they hear the word “ballet.”

People sometimes limit ballet to just tutus and pointe shoes and tiaras and fairy tale stories, but it can be so much more,” Leverett says. “It can push boundaries. You can create something new and inventive and maybe reach somebody in a different way.”

Growing repertoire

Leverett, after learning dance and then choreography with Draper, left Rochester for an apprenticeship with a professional company in Pennsylvania, then spent time in Toronto, where she studied different dance genres. In a year, she saw 26 companies perform.

During that time, though, she stayed connected with Draper and his company. She would come back as a guest artist. She choreographed pieces and trained dancers, staying up to a week or a month, depending on the project.

When she was 22, Leverett began performing again with the company. She eventually became assistant artistic director and was in that role when Draper passed away unexpectedly from cardiac arrest in February 2003. After a lengthy search for a new artistic director, Leverett, one of 25 applicants from around the country, landed the job in September 2003.

Leverett has introduced more than 20 works to the company’s repertoire over the past decade, including 4Play, LumaVoce and the full-length ballet The Blood Countess. Collaborations with other artists have also become the norm, from the Ying Quartet to composer Stephen Kennedy and Leverett’s husband, Tim, who has accompanied dancers onstage with a single drum set.

Last season, Leverett collaborated for a second time with Jeff Tyzik, a composer and the RPO’s principal pops conductor, for New York Cityscape. She also worked with College at Brockport professor and renowned dancer Bill Evans, who choreographed a piece for the company.

The concert next weekend includes the second collaboration with James VanDemark, a double bassist and professor at Eastman School of Music.

Meanwhile, Rochester City Ballet continues to pursue additional masterworks, a prolonged process that requires companies to prove a certain level of professionalism before being granted the right to perform a piece of work. It has already performed George Ballantine’s Serenade and Gerald Arpino’s Valentine.

Going pro

The growth in repertoire contributes to and benefits from the growth in the number of professional dancers and staff members.

The ambitions of the company as a whole are the same as on Day 1 of the organization 26 years ago.

Says board chair Katherine Rogala: “We aspire to have our dancers on the clock year-round to keep them busy and to keep exposing audiences in Rochester and beyond to dance.”

In 2007, in the boardroom at the Rochester City Ballet, Leverett set 28-week contracts on the table for the dance company’s first four professional dancers.

I’m even getting a little teary-eyed thinking about it right now,” she recalls. “It was such an important, iconic moment. I remember thinking, ‘Yes, this is the dream and it’s really happening.’ And from there, we’ve continued to build, build, build.”

In 2006, the company hired ballet master Fidel Orillo and his wife, ballet mistress Beth Bartholomew.

Those efforts to support and expand the company take money, and the organization presses on in that arena.

We’re constantly getting offers to do shows at other places, but trying to make it all work financially with a smaller company has been tough,” says 31-year-old Adam Kittelberger, who started dancing with the company at 18 and was the company’s only male dancer until 2009.

He works part time as a physical therapy aide; most other dancers have second jobs as well.

Says Kittelberger, “The demand is there, but making it possible seems to be the issue right now.”

Extending beyond Rochester

As the RCB has grown in size and repertoire, it also has gained stature among regional ballet companies — and has started building a footprint outside of Rochester. Alumni include featured soloists at the American Ballet Theatre in New York City and the Houston Ballet.

The company has performed several times at Ballet Builders, an annual showcase of emerging ballet choreographers in New York City, and in 2013 held a weeklong residency at Syracuse University and appeared at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, the country’s oldest internationally acclaimed summer dance festival held in the summer arts haven of the Berkshires of Massachusetts.

Dancer Jessica Tretter, 28, who grew up in Rochester and joined the company six years ago, appreciates the self-confidence check that comes with performing outside of her comfort zone.

When we’re in Rochester, people often come because they know us and want to see us grow, and that’s fantastic. But when we go somewhere else, it’s a first-impression kind of thing,” she says. “They have just this one night to get what you’re about, so it puts you on edge and pushes you a bit more to make sure you’re the best version of yourself out there.

And it’s good exposure,” Tretter adds. “It helps us know that we can stand up against other, bigger companies that are more well-known. We can still make an impact.”

RCB’s next steps

Looking ahead, Rochester City Ballet will be working on more educational and other programs to develop a new generation of dance lovers — a necessary step for any arts organization.

We’re thinking of the next generation,” says board member Arlene Schenker. “We want to get them excited about the creativity and musicality of this cornerstone of the arts scene in Rochester.”

And Leverett? She still dances — “If you can call it dancing anymore,” she says — but away from the crowds.

I move in the studio when I’m creating,” she says. “Certainly, I miss it like crazy. I absolutely loved being on the stage. … But because I know how much joy that can bring to an artist, I’m able to put that love into the dancers and the product we bring to the audience.”