The New Albany Ballet Company is presenting two performances of the “Nutcracker” this week, but it is a decision that did not come easily in the face of record COVID-19 numbers.
“We thought about it a lot,” director Justine Stewart said.
“It’s been a huge challenge,” she continued. “We did think a lot about not doing it. We lost so much revenue and the kids were so disappointed about not being able to do our May show, I thought that if we could give the kids a December show we could return to some sense of normality.”
“That’s the biggest thing and I think that most people are ready to get out and do something even if they have to social distance,” she said. “And it feels like Christmas is a good time to do that because it’s the holidays and we need something to feel good about because this year’s been so frustrating.”
COVID precautions will drastically reduce the size of audience space at the Magnolia Civic Center.
“We will be social distancing. We will sell a row and skip a row and also skip seats between families,” she said. That won’t be as necessary in the balcony because more space exists between seats. Of course masks will be required.
And COVID has played a role in the production.
“I got a surprise last week,” Stewart said. “Two out of three guest dancers got put on lockdown. Alabama dancers we had rehearsed with three times are on lockdown and can no longer come.”
“This past Saturday I had to hire two new dancers. They both are from Brazil. One dances with Nashville Ballet. I’ve known him couple of years. Another guy is from Columbia City Ballet in South Carolina,” she said.
Stewart has around 60 dancers, down some because of COVID. “Normally it’s closer to 100,” she said. The age range of the company is fairly diverse. “I have age three through college girls that are dancing and of course I have our guests artists that are coming back and performing and they are adults.”
She has beginners and intermediate dancers and some college girls that come back because “they enjoy being in the throe of things,” she said. “I have some volunteers for some of the acting that goes on during party scenes. Actors/dancers that will do party scenes.”
Her students come from Ripley, Pontotoc, Lee County, Prentiss County, Corinth, and of course New Albany and Union County.
Ballet in New Albany?
Is Stewart surprised ballet does as well in New Albany? No.
“It’s something that New Albany has needed and I think that over the last decade it has really started to take hold here,” she said. “Of course I’ve been teaching for 25 years. My studio has been open for 16. And over the past 10 years we have started doing not just recitals but full-length professional ballets.”
That has meant bringing in guest artists from all over the country, and even some from outside the country to dance on our stage and be part of the program.
“I feel like it’s giving our community things that it had not had before,” she said.
Most people are unaware of the work and logistics needed to mount such a ballet performance.
“I load in at least two days before the rehearsal starts because I have to bring in my floors, sweep the floors, roll out, tape down, allow the floor to settle because the temperature changes in the auditorium causes problems,” she said.
Dressing rooms have to be erected in the back because the theatre doesn’t have enough permanent dressing rooms for so many dancers. “We have to bring all of our props over. We have to bring over the costumes, the backdrops. I own two of the backdrops we are using this time. We are renting one. All of the ones I own have been painted so, yeah, there’s a lot of work that goes into this.”
She started early
“Mom put me in when I was two and a half and I cried,” she said. “I didn’t think I wanted to do it and so my mom took me back home. When I was a little after my third birthday she brought me back and I liked it and I stayed.”
“Mom played the piano and was involved in the arts in the community and felt like it was important,” she said.
Stewart started her ballet training in Tupelo and then studied with the Tupelo Ballet. “And then I got an opportunity to study and perform with Ballet Mississippi and study with Arkansas Ballet,” she said.
Her study opportunities grew. “I have gone and studied in New York, with (internationally-sought teachers) David Howard and Finis Jhung Young and the acclaimed Joffrey Ballet.”
“It’s important even now to better myself so I go to dance workshops and things of that nature and I try to once a year do those kind of things and I can bring back new fresh ideas,” she said. “I mean a plie’ is a plie’ but if you can put it together in a different combination in different ways than you have seen it before then it becomes something else.”
Performing more rewarding than competition
“I have not danced competitively at IBC (International Ballet Competition) but I have gone down and worked at IBC and I have helped and coached and done some of the inner workings down there,” she said. “Competition has never really been in my soul. I just like performing.”
“You can do it (compete) but a lot of people spend so much time getting ready to compete that to me it takes a lot of the joy out of it when all you are worried about is outscoring somebody else,” she said.
“To me, I want to be better than myself. I want to be better than I was yesterday. I want to be better than I was a year ago,” she continued. “I feel like it’s super important to worry about that and you know these girls to worry about bettering themselves to where they were yesterday or last semester or last year and they are always progressing. I tell the parents if you don’t see progression they’re not in the right spot. You know I’m not doing my job if you don’t see them progress.”
She prefers it classical
Classical ballet is her favorite form. “Now I also love modern. I teach modern and I teach lyrical and I teach jazz and you know all of that is fun,” she said. “I would say my second favorite thing after classical definitely would be lyrical because it is expressive and it kind of comes from the soul if that makes sense. And also lyrical to me if fun because it is not as dangerous and challenging so you can have a little more fun with it.”
“You don’t have to worry about your feet hurting and wrapping blisters and taping toes and with the classical end of things and all pointe work there’s another element to it that just beyond what your body physically can do.”
Plans for the future
Stewart has plenty of projects in mind for the future.
“I think I want to add ‘Coppelia.’ That was something I had planned to add a couple of years ago and the ballet in Tupelo was doing it the same year I planned to,” she said. “I felt it was just good etiquette to not do the same things so that people can all go to their ballet and my ballet both and enjoy going to them both and if you’re see the same things it ‘s not as interesting.”
“Swan Lake” is another she would like to do but she doesn’t want to be restricted to the obvious ones.
“Now I have done a lot of ballets that I have created,” she said. “There is what I called canned ballets like all your classical ballets. There’s a set musical score and you can vary the choreography but there are certain dances in the ballet that are ‘that’s the way you do them.’ And the ‘Nutcracker’ is that way.”
“There is a certain musical score and those types of things but I have also created ballets from scratch like ‘Wizard of Oz,’” she said. “I created that absolutely from scratch. I locked myself in my room for three days and listened to different music and pulled different classical music from different places and actually put that together start to finish kind of modeled it after the movie.”
She is going to do “Aladdin” in the spring and that’s not been done as a classical, she said. “I mean it’s been done by some people but there’s no set ‘this is the way it’s gonna be.’ ‘Little Mermaid’ is also one I would like to do. I do think storybook ballets go over better here.”
She has done “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” some others that are not storybook ballets but it’s a little harder for the audience to understand if they’ve not read it and they’re not familiar with Shakespeare and that way of doing things, she said.
The ballet company vs. the school
Stewart has both the ballet company and the school, and some people are not clear about the distinction.
“The ballet company itself is non-profit and we depend solely on grants and funds,” she said. “The boutique and certain things that we do throughout the year are to be able to pay for the guest artists.”
The ballet studio is for profit and the students pay tuition to come to the studio and learn to dance. “But when it comes to putting on shows like this the tuition they pay me monthly does not cover the extreme cost that goes into this,” she said. “Each guest artist makes roughly $1,500 to $2,500 a show to come dance and that’s a lot of money I have to fork out and I can’t exactly say to parents, hey I’m upping your tuition.”
Her students are not the same as the company, although there is overlap. “Students that have graduated out of the studio may come back to the company,” she said. “You have to be a certain level ability in order to audition for the company, have to be a certain age and dancing for so many years, that type of thing. You don’t sign up to be in the company, you have to audition.”
Her older dancers have proved their dedication.
There’s a drop-dead point around 11 or 12 when you say get pointe shoes and see it actually hurts,” she said. “You see it’s work and not just fun anymore and that people make decisions to move forward or just sit on their butts and watch TV rather than continue. If you’re gonna lose them it’s gonna be in the fifth, sixth or seventh grade.”
Community involvement is good but more is better
She said the company has good support but she would like to see interest spread.
“It is very important to have community involvement and I would like more people in the community to come give it a try,” she said. “I feel that a lot of people have a misconception about ballet, that it’s boring and it’s slow. When you really get into these ballets a lot of them have comedy and humor and a lot of personality, even though there’s no words in a ballet. There’s mime and there’s expression and there’s acting that goes along with the dance in being created to tell a story.”
She is working to make ballet more audience-friendly.
“One thing that I do differently than a lot of ballet companies do, and it’s because we are in an area that has not necessarily had a lot of experience with ballet, I will do a synopsis of the ballet prior to the ballet starting instead of their just reading it,” she said. “It’s there in the program but I actually pre-record a synopsis so people can hear it and listen to it and know what’s about to take place so they are not confused about what’s going on onstage.”
“It’s not something that’s a tradition to do but I made that decision years ago and I think it’s really helped my audience, and I feel like my audiences have grown,” she said. “I want it to be something special and feel like when people come in dressed up like that it’s inviting for the girls that are dancing because they feel it’s more important and the people that are out here enjoying it feel like it’s more important.”
“I’ve actually had people make comments like ‘I didn’t feel like I was in New Albany,’” she added. “It’s not derogatory toward New Albany. It means we’ve got more to offer here than people are used to. We have a greater degree of culture here than we have had in the past.”
She sends out a schedule and a list of dos and don’ts and that’s one of the things, do dress for an occasion. She doesn’t allow costumes in the audience. “From the time you walk through the door I want you to be surrounded by all the magic,” she said.” I don’t want it to be broken by little kids climbing over parents and going when it’s my time to get on stage and running up the stairs.”
Help from parents
“I wouldn’t make it without the parent volunteers and I have tons of parent volunteers that spend their week doing dress rehearsals,” she said. “I don’t allow people to work Friday and Saturday. That’s one of the reasons we started doing two performances so that the parents could work one and watch one and also there’s two chances to get it right. Someone bobbles Friday night and might be better Saturday. You get more opportunities to perform and feel more fulfilled. You’re not just doing a recital. You’re doing a performance.”
She does record performance and has one copy for each dancer’s family. “It’s good to have a record of what we do. I don’t sell it to the parents. It’s just part of their yearly fee,” she said. “They have a stage fee that includes two tickets to the show and the DVD. I don’t really make anything off the stage fee, it just help keeps parents from saying, hey, we really can’t afford this.”
No cell phones are allowed to be used. Anyone violating that will be asked to leave.
“It’s not just that I’m trying to be ugly,” she said. “It’s disrespectful.”
People with flash photography are absolutely not allowed. “It’s for the safety of all our dancers,” she said. “If somebody is doing six turns on stage trying to spot and that flash hits them or if they’re catching a girl in a lift who’s running at them and there’s a flash in their face so they can’t see to catch a girl you’ve got problems.”
“I think the biggest problem I have is because people think it’s cultured, I have a problem getting them going clapping,” she said. “Once somebody starts it’s oh, yeah, and everybody does. Normally Friday morning is a school day show and I usually come out and spend 15 minutes with them about what’s OK and not OK. We don’t like hooting and hollering but we do like applause, especially If someone does something amazing.”
“All things considered, it’s been a pretty good year,” she said. “I mean, it’s been a tough year financially and with everything. The arts world has been hit terribly because it’s the one thing people can say I don’t have to do this. But I am pleased with how it’s turned out, with a rushed schedule, especially with replacing guys.”
“It’ll be great. Some of these kids have been with me since they were three and they’re 15 or 16 or 18 now. They trust me and it will be great,” she said.
Performances of “Nutcracker” are this Friday and Saturday at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 but as of Monday only a few balcony seats were left, due to the reduced seating.
To check on ticket availability, call Stewart at 662-266-0500, the studio at 662-539-6010, or stop by the civic center each day.ballet, civic center, Justine Stewart, New Albany, New Albany Ballet Company, Northeast Mississippi, Nutcracker, Union County