Friday, January 02, 2015

Welcome Home: Dance Beyond the Stage

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Welcome Home magazine
Winter 2014 Issue

Winter 2014 Issue, page 12

It’s hard to say which topic infuses Cathy Huling with more passion: talking about the Ballet Arts Ensemble (BAE), where she has been co-owner since 1991 and artistic director since 2001, or talking about BAE’s community outreach in collaboration with many greater Kalamazoo (Michigan) organizations.

Ballet Arts Ensemble at 2018 Rambling Road in Kalamazoo is an all-volunteer, nonprofit youth ballet organization, founded in 1982 by Jerre Locke James, owner of Ballet Arts School of Dance. Performances include mixed repertoire concerts and full-length story ballets such as Cinderella, Peter and the Wolf, The Magical Toy Shop, Red Shoes, Aladdin’s Magic Lamp, and many others, often featuring guest dancers and musicians. Every other year, BAE collaborates with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra to present a fully-staged production of Nutcracker featuring professional dancers in principal roles.

For Cathy Huling, BAE is her home away from home. “I’ve been dancing since I was 4 or 5 years old,” she says. “My father was a professional musician, a classical pianist and composer. My mother sang in the church choir, and my father was the organist there. I grew up in a musical environment.”

A Grand Rapids native, Huling recalls her father bringing home ballet classics such as Swan Lake and playing the records on the record player. She was mesmerized. She wanted to dance.

“I was one of six, maybe eight girls who studied with Sally Seven, soloist with Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and founder of the Grand Rapids Civic Ballet,” she says. “You could say we were pioneers of the Grand Rapids Civic Ballet.”

Although Huling dabbled with other dance forms, classic ballet remained her love. She attended Marietta College in Ohio, where she earned a degree in speech and excelled in debate competitions. In Grand Rapids, she was involved in civic theatre, learning what happens back stage to bring a successful production on stage. And she danced.

“These were the skills I was able to bring to BAE,” Huling says. “At 5’10”, I was too tall to be a professional dancer, but I wanted to pass my love of classical dance on to others.”

BAE works with dancers of both genders, beginning at age 4 for classes, auditioning at age 12 for productions. At present, the company has 20 dancers, representing all area schools, Huling says, including home schools. Dancers commit to two classical ballet classes per week in addition to a weekly 3-hour class and rehearsal block.

“Many of our dancers were brought by their parents to see a production when they were small,” Huling says. “We do a meet-and-greet with audience members, and the children idolize the dancers and look up to them. We talk about this all the time—that our dancers are role models and mentors to the next generation of dancers.”

BAE takes that responsibility seriously. Community outreach is as important a part of the organization’s mission as the presentation of classical ballet. Tickets are priced at affordable rates (usually ranging between $8 to $18), with complimentary tickets provided to a variety of community organizations, agencies and groups that might not otherwise be able to attend performances. 

Recipients of complimentary tickets include Big Brothers and Big Sisters, YWCA, Black Arts and Cultural Center, Hispanic American Organization, Boys and Girls Club, Family and Children Services, Bronson Pediatric Oncology, Alzheimer's Society, Autism Society, Senior Low-Income and Assisted Living Facilities, senior centers in Kalamazoo and Portage, and others.

“We had a young lady, oh, maybe age 8, attend our Nutcracker performance,” Huling recalls. “She had cancer and was undergoing harsh chemo treatments, but she dressed up in her taffeta dress that night and we gave her a tiara to wear. A couple years later...

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