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Southwest Virginia Ballet Kicks Off 20th Season With “TIES”

A scene from the 2008 production of “The Nutcracker.”
A scene from the 2008 production of “The Nutcracker.”

Southwest Virginia Ballet will take part in the third annual Roanoke Arts Festival on Saturday, October 3 with two performances (3 and 7 p.m.) of the original piece, “TIES,” an ode to Roanoke’s railroad heritage.  SVB artistic director Pedro Szalay choreographed “TIES,” which made its debut several years ago.  The Virginia Museum of Transportation helped him with the original research; the piece strives to be a realistic reflection of those times and doesn’t shy away from some of the more dangerous aspects of Roanoke’s railroad past.

“TIES” helps kick off the 20th season for the Roanoke-based SVB, as does a Motown-inspired showcase at the Taubman Museum of Art this Saturday, Sept. 26 at 1 p.m. and the venerable “Nutcracker”  December 11-13 at the Roanoke Performing Arts Theater.  The comic ballet, [is] “quite rare,” says Szalay, a Hungarian native who was raised in Venezuela. Coppelia caps off the season on March 27, 2010 at William Fleming High School’s new auditorium.

The Taubman Museum will also host showcases in November, January and April. Szalay hosted public auditions for “The Nutcracker” on September 13 at Tanglewood Mall. More than 100 children auditioned, representing 19 different dance studios and 53 elementary, middle, and high schools across the region. Those selected will join Southwest Virginia Ballet’s corps of 46 company dancers and a number of adult performers for the holiday classic.

Terri Post, who founded the company in 1990, sold it several years ago when she moved out of the region. Mike Lawson, executive director for Southwest Virginia Ballet, has three daughters in the program. “There’s just so many benefits [for children],” said Lawson, “starting with discipline and structure.”

“We develop the youth of Southwest Virginia to be pre-professional and hopefully professional dancers,” said Lawson, who notes a “great heritage,” of former SVB dancers that have gone on to the professional ranks, or who teach and choreograph ballet. Some graduates are as far flung as Scotland and the Netherlands.

Szalay once danced for the National Ballet of Venezuela and then spent 10 years performing with the Richmond Ballet. Now his focus is on students (typically 11-18 at SVB), in part with the “Minds in Motion” program he takes into local schools.

“We’re trying to preserve the art [of ballet] here in the valley…and we’re trying to guide them in the right direction to professional companies or universities and colleges,” said Szalay.  Several children exposed to ballet through Minds in Motion have joined the troupe, which Szalay said is really all about teamwork.

Szalay grew up around trains and recalls that his parents used that form of transportation to leave Hungary. He agreed to reprise “TIES” for the Roanoke Arts Festival. “It brought me back to my immigrant experience. From childhood all little boys want to have a train.”

The small black box theater at the Taubman will host the SVB showcases, like the one on Saturday. “It’s a wonderful experience for the dancers and the audience,” said Lawson about that intimate space. Szalay tells his students they must have “the experience to dance in any space…they can hear you breathing [at the Taubman].”

It’s quite different at the cavernous Performing Arts Theatre, home every December for “The Nutcracker.” “It’s the most exciting time of the year,” said Lawson, “everybody loves the music and the dancing.”

The performance this weekend at the Taubman includes music by Groovatational, a Motown band made up of Patrick Henry High School students. Visit the SVB web site at svballet.org for more on the company, or jeffcenter.org for information on tickets for “TIES” on October 3.

By Gene Marrano
[email protected]

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