50 Years Strong

Our own Alyson Chavez, who has been with the company for 15 years, has spent the last year interviewing members of our family who were instrumental to our success over the past five decades.

She shares their stories in this heartfelt open letter she penned for the occasion:

If you know me, you know that I love ballet history. I’m cuckoo for King Louis XIV, the creator of ballet. I also love that ballet history seems to be small enough that dancers can trace their artistic lineage up to the very people you read about in the history books. For example, Michael Pink can tell you stories about working with Rudolf Nureyev and that’s thrilling to me. Having a whole year to revel in the history of our own company has been a fantastic excuse to pore over boxes of old photographs and dive deep into treasured memorabilia. (And yes, if you’re sorting through your storage rooms during quarantine – we do want your old dog-eared programs, your Tutu dinner invites and your yellowed articles about the ballet in 1982!) 

Since I arrived 15 years ago, I have felt the strong tie to this company’s history. Just to name a few of those who are in our hall of fame – Jodi Peck, Mary Belle Potter, Barney Brumm, Anne Finch, Peter SchetterDonna Baumgartner, Katie Heil, Nancy Einhorn, Kathryn Kersten, Ted Kivitt, Michelle Lucci, Basil Thompson, Bobby Ball, Yumelia Garcia, Amy Fote, Marc Petrocci… the list goes on and on. There are people who have worked here for so many years that you can show them any photo from the archives, and they’ll rattle off names and dates, and give you a story to boot. Costume Manager Mary Piering has been my fact-checker all season and has given me more of a reason to trek down to her shop to hear tales from the past. Over the years, I have worked with people who have been a part of the organization so much longer than I have – Rolando Yanes, Mireille Favarel, Karl von Rabenau, Jennifer Miller, Tracy Hibner, Renee Griswold, Nancy McCloud, Phyllis Coffey, Harlan Ferstl, Lori McNichols, Loretta Wilkes, Margaret Mathias, Anthony Mackie, Bernarda Supan, Dan Boudewyns there is a real family feel to this place.

I’ve been lucky enough to work for two ballet companies founded by women (which, in itself, feels historical and noteworthy). Colorado Ballet (founded by Freidann Parker and Lillian Covillo – which was directed for many years by Martin Fredmann, who was one of Michael Pink’s teachers in England. See? Small world!) and Milwaukee Ballet – founded by the fearless and fierce Roberta Boorse 

This extraordinary woman opened her own ballet school at age 18, and when she decided later that Milwaukee needed a ballet company, she did incredible things to make that happen. 

One of the first things I learned about Milwaukee Ballet was that in 1971, Roberta curated a show called Ballet Spectacular that featured some of the day’s biggest ballet stars – Natalia Makarova, John Prinz, Cynthia Gregory, Ivan Nagy, Lupe Serrano, Ted Kivitt and Eleanor D’Antuono! How did she get them to do it? She simply went to New York and camped out at American Ballet Theatre’s headquarters until they said yes. Now, that is spectacular! What a lady!

All season, I have been collecting stories as we geared up for some sort of big birthday bash. There are a few I must share with you… Carolyn Stephens (Executive Director from 1981-84) spent hours with me recounting the surprise performance of the Don Quixote Pas de Deux between Michelle Lucci and Patrick Bissell with such panache, I felt like I was there. Marlis Moldenhauer told me about the excitement of getting in her Carmen Ghia after class let out (she was still in high school!) and driving to ballet rehearsal – with a brand-new professional company. She still talks with wonder about the days of choreographers smoking in the studio, pushing the dancers to do things much harder than they ever had before. Mary Baum, Jan Collins, Linda Wolk and Pam Frautschi spent so much of their personal time and care helping us create a celebratory booklet for the 50th – they even brought the old Friends gavel and Nutcracker to call a meeting to order. Ted Kivitt (Artistic Director from 1980-86) flew in from New York to see Coppélia and tour our new headquarters. Gloria Gustafson (Artistic Director from 1972-74) told me about the first days at Century Hall – the building owners had the floors freshly waxed to welcome the new company, unknowingly making it so slippery that the dancers had to pour Coca-Cola on the floor (an old ballet trick). They nearly got evicted!

People in a ballet company wear the tough times like badges of honor. I’ve heard a lot of reminiscing about board members coming in with suitcases full of money to save the ballet, allnight sewing and laundry fests to get costumes ready for a show, the drama of ballet divas, rats in the old building and failed artistic experiments, both onstage and behind the scenes. But there’s a reason for this; working in a ballet company is hard. For the artists themselves, it’s tough on the body and the mind; for the staff, board and volunteers – it’s painstaking, problem-solving, putting-out-fires workIt’s never easy. But of course, the magic of ballet is that it should look effortless and ethereal. And when the curtain rises, and a dancer goes en pointe, everything is beautiful at the ballet.

To be in the midst of a pandemic seems like the stuff of a classical ballet in some ways – an unexpected, devastating blow that befalls the protagonist of the story. Nothing has been more heartbreaking. I saw the faces of our dear MBII dancers hearing that their biggest showMOMENTUM, was cancelled at Cardinal Stritch just two days before they would take the stage. I was there when the Company agreeto do eight shows of PUSH. at our studio instead of the Marcus Performing Arts Center (to avoid gatherings of 250 people) only to have the whole thing called off hours later. The graduating seniors from our School & Academy won’t get to take their final bow on stage after this year’s annual showcase, The Giant’s Garden.

But we’ve been through tough times before, the veterans will tell you, and we WILL get through this! Dancers and staff are banding together from home, keeping things running, remaining positive and hopeful. 

It is this strong core of people, the “corps de ballet” if you will – our dedicated fans, our Friends of Ballet, our school families, our musiciansour administrative staff, our donors and cheerleaders, our artists and our art-lovers who make this thing work, who are indeed essential. They are all why and how we are celebrating 50 years. And until the curtain rises again, we all are here, perhaps distanced or six feet apart, but standing together, doing our part to ensure that Roberta’s dream continues. We are 50 years strong and we look ahead to 50 more.  

Alyson Chavez
Director of Community Engagement