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A Decade of Dance

At Central Illinois Ballet, it’s ‘not just a job … It’s a life’

by Laurie Pillman | Photo by Ron Johnson |
Dancers in rehearsal

Visitors entering the studios at 830 W. Main Street in Peoria are greeted by a display of used ballet slippers suspended from the ceiling. Each pair of shoes is beautiful but worn to holes in spots. It’s a striking reminder of just how hard the performers work to attain the seemingly effortless grace and athleticism they exhibit during every performance.

Having celebrated its 10th anniversary in May, the Central Illinois Ballet shows no signs of slowing down. It is the only professional ballet company in central Illinois and it draws dancers from all over the country. The rigorous rehearsal schedule begins at 10 a.m. every day and goes until at least 2 p.m., with evening rehearsals added as performances draw near. 

Ballet Mistress Jesse Williams says that’s standard for professional ballerinas. Each dancer works on a range of styles from ballet to contemporary, from jazz to Broadway. It’s necessary to be well-rounded in today’s professional dance world. 

That diversity and level of skill is one of the many benefits to having a company of professional ballerinas in Peoria. Audiences expect a higher level of artistry from professionals but may not consider how that translates into a wider variety of quality entertainment. Central Illinois Ballet tackles material with mature emotions and themes. Certain shows, like last fall’s tale of murderous barber Sweeney Todd, simply aren’t suited to a younger cast. 

That doesn’t mean that children aren’t an integral part of Central Illinois Ballet. The company shares space with the Central Illinois Ballet Academy, which has dance classes for students from age three all the way up to 80. Many of the company dancers teach at the academy. All of them spend time outside of rehearsals helping the studio with whatever is needed. Marketing, fundraising, and costuming are all handled in house by the non-profit. 

That dedication to the organization stems from the sense of family that Artistic Director Rebekah von Rathonyi has built into the studio. Williams says that in the sometimes cutthroat world of professional dance, von Rathonyi has curated a welcoming environment. 

“The biggest thing that sticks out about her audition process is that she truly wants to get to know you as an individual, as a person and not just as a dancer,” said Williams. “She wants a healthy environment for her dancers to get along and to support each other artistically and as human beings.” 

Auditions are held every year to fill spots for the 11 professional appointments. More than 30 dancers came to take ballet, contemporary and partner dance classes at Central Illinois Ballet during the last round of auditions, said Williams. Each one then had a chat session with the entire company to make sure they were a good fit.  

Dancers who are compatible personally but lack technical skill may be offered a trainee position, allowing them to hone their skills and potentially advance to a career in professional ballet.  

“Our trainee program would be a really good transition from high school to a professional company. We also have trainees that are doing college online,” Williams said.  

“They come every morning and take class with the company. They rehearse with the company. They’re in shows with the company. They get cast in equal parts with the company,” Williams added. “So they get a taste and feel of what it’s like to be in a professional company, which in turn, gets them ready to actually be in a professional company.

“It’s a wonderful program.” 

Meanwhile, company members dance at venues like retirement homes and libraries to bring ballet to people who might not get to see main stage performances. They also have a small theater built into the studio where they host performances for school groups.  

Each season, the Central Illinos Ballet has four main-stage shows. Darker, more gothic offerings such as Dracula or Phantom of the Opera are staples for their fall show. Holiday favorite The Nutcracker is the winter offering. Spring shows tend to be lighter themed selections, such as this season’s Wizard of Oz. Then there’s the 10-year Gala, a retrospective of all the dances the company has performed in the last decade. 

Williams says that show decisions are usually driven by the student enthusiasm for them. Sweeney Todd, for example, was a passion project curated by Williams herself.  

“This is not just a job for us. It’s a life for us. … We’re not just dancing together. We’re creating something together as a group of people who care about each other and want to uplift each other and want to see each other succeed. So, I really do think that that translates itself on stage when you see our productions.”

Laurie Pillman

Laurie Pillman

is an author and freelance writer/editor, based in Peoria
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