Pensacola, Florida
Monday December 22nd 2014

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A Look into Ballet Pensacola

By Jennifer Leigh

It’s been seven years since Richard Steinert first became the artistic director of Ballet Pensacola.

With the help of his wife, ballet mistress Christine Duhon, talented dancers and a supportive community, those seven years have yielded a full-time resident company complete with a touring program, ballet academy and season after season of original performances.

“It’s been a ride—a wonderful one. I wouldn’t change it for the world,” Steinert said.

Since taking the job at Ballet Pensacola, Steinert said his biggest challenge has been “to create a unique entity that would make a strong, credible artist want to come here other than other sister cities.” His first year, Steinert hired four professional dancers. Now, the company has 12 full-time dancers and receives hundreds of resumes each year.

Modern Ballet on a Light Budget
One of the factors that helps Ballet Pensacola draws in talent from the United States and beyond including Iceland, China and the Samoan Islands—to name a few—is the company’s passion for original choreography courtesy of Steinert and Duhon.

Creating their own choreography not only lends itself to well-received, modern ballets such as “Dracula,” “Clue” and “The Matrix,” but is cost effective.

“We have a healthy budget for an organization running on 65 percent earned and 35 percent contributed,” Steinert said. “One of the things that makes it work for us is we don’t spend money on other people’s ballets. If I can’t afford it, we don’t do it. I’d rather get smarter than pay interest.”

And in that same vein of originality, set design is just as important. The creative use of props, video installation and lighting is all thanks to one person: Lance Brannon, Production Designer.

“I’m not sure if he has made a pact with the devil,” Steinert joked. “He designs and builds just remarkable sets with an embarrassingly small amount of money.”

Even as the company continues to push the envelope on original, modern ballets—such as “Timeless,” in which Steinert and Duhon choreographed several small ballets inspired by local artwork—audiences can rest assured they will see classical pieces too.

“I believe in looking toward the future while keeping an eye on the past,” Steinert said.

A Training Ground
Ballet Pensacola is a training ground for local talent. Steinert credits his predecessors for creating an “amazing foundation,” he said.

There are three divisions in the Ballet Pensacola curriculum: Children’s, for ages 3-6; Training, for ages 7 and up; and Community, offered to anyone for recreation and exercise. In addition, the company accepts 35 students annually into the Ballet Pensacola Academy. On average, three graduate a year.

As Ballet Mistress, it is Duhon who “makes the academy happen,” Steinert said. Duhon teaches classes, runs rehearsals and almost single-handedly makes sure each dancer is trained.

“Whatever dream they have, I want them to have the tools to achieve it,” she said.

Feeding Dreams
The Ballet Pensacola Academy is not just rigorous training, but a step toward a professional dance career.

“About one-third of the company has trained in the academy,” Steinert said. “I feel very strongly that if I’m not training dancers that I want to hire, then I have a problem.”

Debi Janea is one of those dancers to have made the transition. She has been dancing with Ballet Pensacola since the age of 9. Now, she’s in her third season as a professional dancer.

“I really enjoy working with Richard and Christine,” she said. “Each and every performance with them is the opportunity to grow.”

When adding dancers to the academy, Steinert and Duhon look to find dancers with talent and passion.

“I want to be certain that I find people with dreams, and that I can be a major part in helping them create those dreams,” he said. “There’s so much reality in the world, we need dreamers.”

On top of a full calendar of performances, including the popular “Nutcracker,” Ballet Pensacola added The Outrageous Dance Project this year, a touring program in which the ballet collaborates with college theatre programs.

All in the Company
Contrary to pop culture belief, Ballet Pensacola dancers get along well and work together as a team, which contributes to the organization’s success. In a smaller company, it’s almost mandatory to have this kind of dynamic.

“Each individual is working toward the good of the organization,” Steinert said. “There’s a large responsibility on the individual dancer. I will carry the wounded, but not the stragglers.”

Dustin Simmons, a soloist in the company, trained with in the Ballet Pensacola Academy before making the big switch. While he is still learning, he notes that the more seasoned, company dancers have been there to help.

“In the studio, we’re a family,” he said. “I know they’re there for me, and they’ve given me a lot of helpful pointers.”

Coming from Milwaukee Ballet II and Ballet Austin’s trainee program, Principal Dancer Joey Mounce, said the biggest difference between Ballet Pensacola and companies in bigger cities is the “interpersonal relationships.”

“Going and talking to Steinert is easy and doable,” he said. “You don’t get to talk to the choreographer or the artistic director at other companies.”

As Steinert continues to choreograph, direct and dream, he realizes his work may never be done. But that’s OK.

“I like the animal we created,” he said. “I want this to be the best small company in the world. If we shoot for anything less than that it is less than the artist’s deserve.”

For more on Ballet Pensacola, including performance dates for the upcoming season, visitballetpensacola.com.