Forty years is a significant milestone for any company. But for an arts organization, it’s perhaps even more significant. It means the organization has been able to capture the imagination and devotion of the local arts community-and sustain that interest-for four decades. Peoria Ballet has accomplished just that, and it seems certain that many more decades are ahead.

Setting the Stage

The Peoria Ballet has been an important institution within the Peoria area arts community since its founding in 1965 by Shirley Pizer, said Development Director Amy Bearce. "The company began with 17 dancers; the premiere performance was presented April 30, 1966."

She said the ballet’s first artistic director, Jack Slater, established many important ties within the community. "These include ties with the Peoria Symphony Orchestra, the Peoria Civic Opera, Peoria Players, Corn Stock Theatre, and Illinois Central College, where the PBC was in residence from 1974 to 1989. Today, the Peoria Ballet continues to collaborate with many civic and educational groups in the Peoria area including Family House, Children’s Hospital, St. Jude’s, Easter Seals, Lakeview Museum, WTVP, Peoria Players, Corn Stock, Parc, Opera Illinois, Peoria Symphony Orchestra, District 150, and ArtsPartners, as well as local musicians, composers, and artists."

Many changes have occurred over the last 40 years, beginning with the addition of a dance school. "The Peoria Civic Ballet School began in 1976 under the direction of Marc Ligon," Bearce said. "It was located in a small studio in the basement of the Jefferson Bank building. In the early 1980s, the Peoria Ballet School moved to the landmark GAR Hall in Peoria, where it remained for 20 years."

The latest development has been the addition of Peoria Ballet Artistic Director Erich Yetter. "In August 2000, he came to the Peoria Ballet with ambitions to develop a professional company to present even more beautiful dance productions," she said. "His hard work has culminated in four successful seasons. Where there was once only two productions, there’s now a three-production season. Yetter has the backing of the staff, students, and board of directors as he broadens his plans for a larger professional company, grander productions, and creative growth for all facets of Peoria Ballet."

The three-production season includes one ballet in October, Nutcracker in December, and a final production in April, according to Yetter. "I like to present an evening of what’s called a ’mixed repertoire’ to showcase famous, as well as talented, new choreographers. We also present other full-length ballets or story ballets to broaden people’s awareness and enjoyment of dance as an art form."

The Big 4-0

Peoria Ballet’s 40th anniversary season begins with a new staging of Dracula, based on Bram Stoker’s 19th century thriller, Yetter said. "The curtain goes up at 8 p.m., October 30, amid the gothic splendor of Peoria’s historic Scottish Rite Cathedral and is guaranteed to give you goose bumps. The Count challenges you to experience ballet like you’ve never seen it before. The program also features a new work of mine; a world premiere by up-and-coming dancer/choreographer Joseph Jeffries; and special guest artists Atilla Joey Csiki, who will perform the solo, ’Breathe,’ by internationally renowned choreographer Jiri Kylian."

The annual production or Nutcracker takes place December 11 and 12 at the Peoria Civic Center, accompanied by members of the Peoria Symphony Orchestra. "Join Clara, the Sugerplum Fairy, and a host of scurrying mice on the magical journey to the Kingdom of Sweets," he said. "More than 150 dancers, actors, and gymnasts help bring this heart-warming story to life. This year, we have a brand new Christmas Tree that will astound you as it grows through the Civic Center roof right before your eyes. If you’ve never seen the Nutcracker before, you owe it to yourself to experience this holiday favorite."

The ballet presents an informal evening of daring and experimental choreography called Inscapes at 7:30 p.m., February 11 and 12, Yetter said. "The choreography features new pieces by our dancers plus a few surprises. The performance takes place at Peoria Ballet in our large studio at 8800 Industrial Road. This is a new event designed to appeal to those who are looking for ballet without tutus or tiaras."

The Peoria Ballet season finale, at 8 p.m., April 23, is also an anniversary celebration. "Our 40th Anniversary Gala Performance includes a restaging of Michel Fokine’s lyrical Les Sylphides ballet to the music of Frederic Chopin, a piece also performed in our inaugural concert in April 1965. Les Sylphides exemplifies the grace and beauty of timeless classic ballet," he said.

Yetter said the evening’s performance is special in that it will include a historic benchmark for Peoria Ballet. "George Balanchine was the 20th century’s greatest choreographer, and his ballets have set a standard of excellence in the dance world that few can achieve. This year, the George Balanchine Trust granted Peoria Ballet permission to join the elite group of 242 dance companies worldwide that perform this master’s works as we present the Peoria debut of Valse Fantasie, set to the music of Mikhail Glinka. We’re pleased and honored to bring Balanchine’s artistic genius to central Illinois. Also on the program will be a new work of mine, as well as the pas de deux from Balanchine’s Rubies, danced by returning dance favorites Jennifer Kronenberg and Carlos Guerra from Miami City Ballet."

Along with the special events marking its 40th year, the Peoria Ballet will continue with all of its programs, including its successful dance classes. "Since our move to our new facility in 2001, the student body has tripled-to more than 300 students ages three to adult," said Peoria Ballet Marketing/Advertising Director Rachel Hamilton. "There are now three studios, four offices, a dancers’ dressing room, faculty lounge, and room for all of our costumes and stage sets in the same building. Academy Director Rebekah von Rathonyi implemented a pre-professional program for the serious student who will one day strive for a career in dance. The Peoria Ballet Academy attracts some students who travel up to two hours each day, five days a week to avail themselves of the excellent training we provide."

The academy offers classes in ballet, pointe, tap, jazz, hip hop, ballroom, acting for children, Pilates, and more to students of all ages and levels, Hamilton said. "Three-year-olds begin with a class entitled ’Discover Dance,’ in which they learn ballet and tap. There are also classes for adults in tap, jazz, ballet, and ballroom. Whether they’ve had years of experience or are just curious, there’s a class to fit their needs. Classes for the 2004-2005 year begin August 30 and run through the end of May. The year concludes with a showcase recital, in which all students can perform in front of friends and relatives at Eastlight Theatre."

The Peoria Ballet contributes to the larger community with programs that assist disabled children, impoverished children, and other groups with special needs, she said. "Peoria Ballet’s Dance Therapy program provides a creative outlet for area adults and children afflicted with neurological and/or physical impairments, including a Dance Therapy class for adults at the Peoria Association of Retarded Citizens (Parc), a nationally recognized Autism and Asperger’s Dance Therapy class, and the newly formed Dance Therapy for children at Easter Seals, to begin in the fall."

Along with dance classes, another ongoing activity is fundraising. "Ticket prices only cover a small amount of the cost of creating Peoria Ballet productions," Hamilton said. "To provide the community with these shows, the ballet must raise funds through other avenues. A portion of the funding comes from both local and national grants and foundation donations and through donations from many area residents. Also, the ballet conducts a variety of fundraisers each year. For the 2004-2005 season, we’ve planned an array of events, including the second annual Festival of Bacchus, a wine tasting held at the Maxam building in downtown Peoria April 8, 2005. Peoria Ballet once again presents the Sugar Plum Fairy Party November 20 to young children and their parents as a way to kick off the holiday season and meet members of the cast while enjoying lunch and a reading of the Nutcracker story."

Following each performance this year, Hamilton said the ballet hosts complimentary Encore Events. "The first will be held directly after Dracula in the basement of the Scottish Rite Cathedral. This features a costume contest, silent auction, cash bar, and hors d’ouevers. The Nutcracker Encore Event takes place at Lindsay’s on Liberty directly across from the Civic Center. The Encore Event following the 40th Anniversary Gala Performance will be at the Pere Marquette. These events also include hors d’ouevers, a silent auction, and cash bar."

Perhaps the most anticipated fundraiser of the season is one celebrating the ballet’s anniversary. "We invite the community to a 40th Anniversary Gala celebration February 26 at the Hotel Pere Marquette. This festive event includes a cocktail hour with hors d’ouevers, followed by a sit-down dinner, silent auction, live music, and dancing."

Bearce noted the 2004-2005 season marks Peoria Ballet’s most integral production season. "With its 40th anniversary, it’s Peoria Ballet’s desire to improve upon and touch the Peoria area public with productions that stir the soul, a dance academy that inspires young art lovers, dance programs that specifically target underprivileged students and students with physical and mental disabilities, lecture demonstrations for several thousand schoolchildren, and more than 60 different dance classes provided each week to students of all ages and ability levels at the Peoria Ballet Academy."

For more information, call 690-7990 or visit www.peoriaballet.com. AA!