Charlottesville Ballet puts a new twist on the art of dance

The Charlottesville Ballet strives to promote health and well-being in the professional ballet world. The company will perform The Nutcracker Suite this weekend. Photo: Martyn Kyle. The Charlottesville Ballet strives to promote health and well-being in the professional ballet world. The company will perform The Nutcracker Suite this weekend. Photo: Martyn Kyle.

“When I was 3, my parents took me to see The Nutcracker, and I remember telling them, ‘I want to be the Sugar Plum Fairy,’” said Caitlin Lennon. “They were like ‘O.K., sure, we’ll sign you up for ballet classes.’ But in my mind I thought, ‘No, I’m gonna do that. I’ll take classes for a year and then I’ll be the Sugar Plum Fairy.’”

Lennon laughed as she remembered her childhood “obsession” with the role, perhaps because she now knows how much work it takes to land it. With a cast that includes the company’s professional dancers, trainees, and nearly 50 local children, Charlottesville Ballet’s December 21 and 22 performances of The Nutcracker Suite mark Lennon’s sixth turn in the role of her childhood dreams. The first time she donned the classic ballerina costume, she was in high school.

“At age 14, I moved to Helena [in Montana, her home state] to join the Queen City Ballet. I was homeschooled and lived with my dance teacher,” she said. “It was not your average high school life for sure. But if I hadn’t done such a drastic thing, I never would have made it as a professional.”

If Lennon’s single-mindedness sounds extreme, Emily Mott, Charlottesville Ballet’s co-director, knows such choices are common in the ballet world. “Traditionally in the U.S., you start your professional career at 16,” Mott said. “You move away from home [to study at an academy or join a company] and pretend you know how to live in New York City by yourself. By the time you’re 30 you’re not going to be dancing for much longer.”

Mott, who graduated from UVA in 2010 with an interdisciplinary degree in arts administration, sociology, and dance, loved ballet as a child but never considered the professional lifestyle for herself. Until age 17, when her ballet teacher changed her life.

“She sat me down and said ‘You either do it now or never.’ It sucks but it’s reality,” Mott said. “So I went to boarding school for dance at Virginia School of the Arts in Lychburg. Then I became a trainee at the Richmond Ballet, then I had a stress fracture and couldn’t walk for a year, then I had a realization: This is so much investment, and this isn’t a happy place, you’re told terrible things about your body…” She paused. “For me it was a wake up call.”

At that point, Mott effectively hung up her pointe shoes. “I really do love ballet—the art form has so much beauty. But there’s just no balance.” She began undergraduate studies and kept in touch with fellow Richmond trainees Sara Clayborne and Ariadne Conner. In 2007, they hatched an idea: to start a company that promoted the health and well-being of the dancers. Mott championed Charlottesville as a location, and the young women designed a grassroots project that committed dancers to 25 hours per week instead of the 50-plus required by most companies. “We wanted to start something where you could make rent,” Mott said. A lighter schedule would allow company members to take second jobs, like waitressing and dance instruction.

In the summer of 2007, Charlottesville Ballet premiered with a small ensemble of dancers, including Caitlin Lennon.

“I was a part of that crazy world where your whole world is ballet and that’s all you care about,” Lennon said. “I think a lot of companies encourage that.” But her inclusion as a founding member in Charlottesville Ballet changed that. “I follow different pursuits here. I have lots of friends who aren’t dancers. Without that balance, I easily get sucked into the crazy bunhead world of it.”

The company grew as Mott and her peers learned in action. “I worked in the field and in the classroom at the same time,” Mott said. Today, she and Claire Clayborne share administrative and artistic directorial duties, a two-person staff that runs the only full-time professional ballet company in the Charlottesville.

“It’s amazing how fast we’ve grown over the last five years,” Lennon said. Since the company’s July 2013 move to a new location on Route 29, the Academy—a studio of dance classes in modern, hip-hop, and ballet open to community members of all levels—has more than doubled in size. A brand-new trainee program includes seven pre-professional dancers who receive artistic mentoring onstage and off. And last year, 95 people from all over the world auditioned for one spot in the company.

“We have such strong and varying dancers now,” Lennon said. “We all encourage and push each other.” The professional roster includes seven women and one man, Ballet Master Vadim Burciu. A former member of the Moscow Ballet, he instructs and performs alongside the company and will appear in The Nutcracker as the Cavalier. In addition to dancing onstage with local children, he and the Sugar Plum Fairy will be part of Class with Clara workshops before each one-hour performance.

For Mott, Charlottesville Ballet’s fourth annual production of The Nutcracker Suite is a reminder of just how far they’ve come. “Avery Snider is a member of our student ensemble who is here every day,” she said. “She was a little girl in 2010, and now she’s grown from a gingerbread dancer who came out of her little house, to a solider on the battlefield.”

Lennon relives childhood magic. “I still get so caught up in the excitement of the fight scene, the drama of the Sugar Plum pas de deux. Having bruised toenails and pushing through the tough times to get to the polished final product, it’s all part of the holidays to me.”