By Douglas McDaniel
What began as an after-school program in the West Valley for wannabe elementary school ballet tykes has become a leading educational program for the fine points of pirouettes, especially the kind found at such major venues as Gammage Auditorium in Tempe during November, when the Conservatory Ballet graces the stage for its rendition of the Nutcracker.
The Conservatory Ballet, now running on the shady side of a strip mall in the community of Arrowhead, has in nine years managed to hatch itself out of the basic desire to offer something more to children and parents who are really serious about the art form of ballet, as well as exploring the tangible professional possibilities that such training might bring.
"This is the best Russian technique," says Carlee Blass, who with co-director and co-owner, Rodney Jenkins, has built a local ballet powerhouse drawing the talented kids from the around state and turning them into professionals. "We are one of the few full-stage youth productions ... This is a serious training ground, a very disciplined school."
From the outset, Blass, who had trained and performed in ballet in the Washington D.C. area, was working toward "a school philosophy versus a studio philosophy." And rather than being a competitive, trophy-driven machine for the students interested in all kinds of dance, the emphasis is on "pure ballet."
The emphasis is also on family and community building. As one of the prerequisites for a child receiving the training provided by the growing network of talented and experienced teachers (including Katherine Frey, who left Ballet Arizona three years ago to eventually teach at the Conservatory), all parents must volunteer to help market, support, and especially, perform. For example, members of one family, including Arrowhead mother Ursula Olinski, are dancing in the production with their three children.
"It is the product itself that keeps my children and my family supporting," Olinski says. "When it comes down to showtime, she (Blass) is a real perfectionist."
Arrowhead mom Susan Lovelace shares publicity duties with Heather Gassert. Lovelace's daughter, Sidney, is rehearsing for her performance just as her father, a fighter pilot, has been called to duty to Qatar.
"What ballet instill in these kids is such a discipline," she says. "It really helps Sidney in her everyday life ... to focus more."
The greater Conservatory Ballet that Blass became involved with on the East Coast has been in existence for nearly 30 years. As artistic director and founder, Blass moved out of the classroom environment into high school educational offerings, taking her recruits, as they have matured, along the way. Many of them are boys, sons of supportive fathers who have overcome the masculine stigmas against ballet, instead seeing the benefit to athletic skills, especially balance. At one point prior to coming to Arizona, Blass taught members of the Washington Bullets basketball team in the art, including Elvin Hayes and Phil Chenier.
"One of the things I noticed when I looked at Ballet Arizona's program was that they didn't have a lot of boys," she says. "I had always had a lot of boys in the schools before. I decided to go to Greenbrier Elementary School and create an after-school program for my sons. So Brandon (and her daughter, Dacia) started there as an alternative to the outside sports. Then, more boys started coming. We had a class with six or seven boys with any given time. Fathers saw that it helped with their balance."
The Conservatory Ballet currently has 16 boys enrolled to be taught by Rodney Jenkins, who has developed the program with agility in mind. The Conservatory also offers classes in other kids of dancing, such as jazz movement techniques and those required to become "The Lord of the Dance," but aside from an Irish jig or two, the emphasis is on pure, Balanchine-style, classic ballet. The skills obtained are wide open.
"People are always surprised the children can do the whole thing," Olinski says of the Nutcracker production, which was in the Orpheum Theater last year, attracting 500 to 700 audience members per night, now moving to the Gammage on the ASU Campus. Blass, as one of the leading lights of a broad, community-based effort drawing students from Arrowhead and points beyond (all over the Valley, actually), views each growing seasonal event as an opportunity to shine.
As Blass says, "We want parents and kids to know they are the best around."