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‘Art that Moves’

Peoria Ballet is expanding its outreach to the community
by Laurie Pillman | Photos by Ron Johnson |
Ballet dancers practicing

Wendy Thomasson, executive director of Peoria Ballet, has a clear vision when it comes to her studio’s purpose. The ballet has a joint mission of providing outstanding dance instruction and quality performances, but for Thomasson it boils down to one thing: using dance to impact the whole community.

“It’s not just that we have this school, Thomasson stated. “That’s great, but that only impacts a few people. How do we share that with everybody in the Peoria area?”

She has been working diligently to make Peoria Ballet as budget friendly and family friendly as possible. Part of that effort meant reducing prices for balcony seats to their annual performance of the Nutcracker. Another piece was working with schools in the city’s poorest neighborhoods to provide children access to performances. Combine these efforts with the organization’s goal of producing shows that are exciting and understandable to children as young as three, and it can be a winning combination.

Peoria Ballet has been in existence for 55 years and currently offers about 50 classes a week to some 170 students, ages two and up. It brags four modern studios in a 14,000-square-foot facility at 809 W. Detweiller Drive in Peoria. Since its founding, more than 2,200 students have participated, some of whom graduated to major ballet companies in Kansas City, Atlanta, Memphis, etc.

Peoria Ballet offers two professional shows a year – its annual performance of The Nutcracker is seen by as many as 3,000 children — along with guest appearances for other Peoria organizations and a student recital. This season’s spring show, Coppelia, centered around a toymaker and magical dancing dolls. Artistic Director Ian Thatcher said the show is known to be a little silly but usually includes darker fairy tale themes, so the mission became to make it more approachable to younger audiences.

“We made it, I think, a little bit more fun and maybe a little bit more magic,” Thatcher said while warming up with his wife and new Ballet Mistress, Molly Daly.  The two accepted their roles last fall and are pleased with how the student dancers adapted to comedy on top of complex routines.

“Ian and Molly are great working with them,” said Thomasson. “I didn’t know that some of these girls could be so funny and really embody all the humor.”

Thatcher and Daly have taught dance for 12 years and carry impressive resumes. With appointments at the San Francisco Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera in New York being just two of his professional positions, Thatcher can draw upon that experience when deciding what is best for students and audiences. He also has the contacts to continue Peoria Ballet’s longstanding tradition of bringing in professional guest artists.

Thomasson explained that the Peoria Ballet has offered premiere roles to world-famous ballerinas, including from big companies like the Joffrey Ballet School. It’s an opportunity to bring talent to Peoria that usually could only be seen in cities such as New York or Chicago.

Members of Peoria Ballet troupe, rehearse at the Peoria Ballet studio.

When Thatcher first arrived, companies were restricting dancers from taking guest roles due to health and travel concerns. Tapping into his network of contacts, he brought in professional dancers that were freelancing.

“What happens is [professional dancers] have to get permission from their company to leave, and they ask for a weekend off.” Thomasson said. “He brought in some freelance dancers that he knew from [New York] … and they were phenomenal. I think it really says a lot, culturally, about our area that we can get these outstanding people that will come in.”

Thomasson stressed that it isn’t just the quality that these professionals bring to the performance, as the school has ballerinas who are more than capable of perfecting difficult routines. The guest artists give Peoria Ballet students a chance to interact with dancers at a much higher level.

“It’s cool to see these professionals coming in, because it’s a whole different thing,” Thomasson said. “Especially when you’re talking about the couple we brought in this year or the people from Joffrey. I mean, it’s not just like the next level. It’s like levels up. For our kids to see how they work, how they warm up, it’s  really inspiring.

‘It’s not just that we have this school … How do we share that with everybody?’

— Wendy Thomasson

The next step for the ballet is expanding offerings for studio students and their audiences. The dancers’ growth during Coppelia has led the studio to add musical theater classes to this year’s summer camp lineup. Meanwhile, the studio already offers a wide variety of classes, from jazz to tap.

Said Thomasson: “Peoria ballet does more than just ballet, you know?”

Thomasson’s goal is to bring ballet performances to smaller venues, such as dinner shows and intimate Q&A sessions. She also plans to continue the ballet’s outreach to local schools, retirement communities and organizations that work with adults with disabilities. The studio is applying for grants to help with the outreach programs, but also relies on individual donors and matching gift programs to help them offer “art that moves” to the Peoria area.

“We have a lot of fun ideas when we have that availability, but in the meantime we’re gonna still try and do a little bit more to outreach with the community,” Thomasson says. “You know, you want people to come. We want them to have a good time. We want them to walk away saying that was a great experience.”

To learn more about classes and shows, visit www.peoriaballet.com.

Laurie Pillman

Laurie Pillman

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