The Amherst Ballet Theater Company is guided by a short but powerful principle: “ballet for all”.
Since the non-profit organization was founded nearly 50 years ago, Amherst Ballet has sought to provide dance instruction to people of all ages, body types and levels of experience.
The school offers classes at different skill levels throughout the year for children and adults and takes into account the bodily limitations that accompany age when teaching older people.
Amherst Ballet also aims to keep classes inexpensive to enable people from low-income families to participate and offers a scholarship to several students each year. In the past, the school offered free classes at the Boys & Girls Club in Springfield to reach people who would not usually have the opportunity to learn ballet.
Making ballet inclusive for everyone is a direct challenge to the elitism that has traditionally surrounded the dance style, according to Reiko Sono, treasurer of Amherst Ballet.
“Some girls feel like they need to be slim and have a good figure to perform ballet,” says Sono. “But you don’t have to have the perfect body to enjoy dancing. We have very talented dancers of many body types, and we really try to promote positive body images. “
According to Sono, the Amherst Ballet holds performances twice during the school year, with a larger show taking place each winter and shorter pieces performed in the spring. These performances are often inspired by different cultures, such as Chinese, Japanese and Middle Eastern cultures. The school has also collaborated with artists from the region in the past, including musicians, clothing designers and poets to tap into the region’s rich art, says Sono.
As a non-profit organization, Amherst Ballet has not been immune to funding difficulties. In the past, the school had strong ties to the community and received donations from businesses and organizations in the area and from members of the community. Recently, student enrollments and community funding have plummeted, forcing the Amherst Ballet board of directors to consider selling the building in which the school is located or even closing the school altogether.
A fundraising effort that included an online crowdfunding campaign and a community screening of past performances by the Amherst ballet saved the school from the brink of collapse. Despite tumultuous years, the school began to revitalize itself to improve the quality of its ballet teaching and strengthen its increasingly close links with the community.
A key driver behind these changes is the school’s new artistic director, Madeline Bonn, a professional ballet dancer from San Francisco who has danced with the Jose Mateo Ballet Theater for 15 years. Although she was only officially artistic director last month, Bonn hopes to use her vast experience in a variety of ballet styles to provide students with a versatile skill set in ballet.
“I want to give students the tools to be not only technically and physically strong dancers, but also confident artists who feel good about using their own voices,” Bonn said. “They can learn these skills anywhere in the world and doors will open for them.”
The school hopes to rebuild its connection to the community by working with area colleges and other ballet schools, says Sono. One of the school’s board members is an associate professor of modern dance at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Amherst Ballet plans to work with the college program to give Amherst Ballet students the opportunity to receive instruction in modern dance styles.
Sono says the Amherst Ballet also hopes to develop programs in which students can learn from artists in the area, whether through workshops that teach different cultural dances or by participating in artistic events.
Maya Sessions, a rising high school student who has attended Amherst Ballet for the past 10 years, is excited about the school’s recent transformations. She enjoyed growing up alongside her classmates and learning new skills and techniques from the school’s art directors and other students. Sessions hopes to learn as much as she can from Bonn and other instructors over the next two years before she begins college.
“I feel like things are really improving here right now,” Sessions said. “I really like the artistic director and the teachers we hired. I am really excited for the next two years. Things are going to be different, but I think it will be a positive change. “
Elizabeth Huang, another student at the school, is starting her freshman year at Mount Holyoke College. Huang has been taking classes at school since the age of 5 and is grateful for the opportunity the Amherst Ballet has given her to express herself through dance. For Huang, ballet was a formative part of her life that gave her experiences that she would never have found elsewhere.
“Ballet is the way I learned to make mistakes and grow from them,” says Huang. “Ballet is the closest I can get to flying. When you learn not to be afraid of falling, you learn that mistakes are the only way to improve yourself.