Gamm Theatre’s Tony Estrella on bringing Shakespeare to life in words and movement

Tony Estrella
Dramaturgist, “Romeo & Juliet”
Artistic Director, Gamm Theatre

When you’re an actor, there are many, many great plays and then there is Shakespeare. The rich, poetic verse, the twisting plots, the masterful characterization and fathomless psychological depth makes the Bard’s work stand out in the wonderfully diverse history of the theater.

That’s why the last few months have been such an adventure for me, both as an artist and a lover of Shakespeare. I have been working alongside choreographer Ilya Kozadayev and the dancers of Festival Ballet to bring to life a brand new adaptation of Romeo & Juliet which pays homage to both the spirit and the text of Shakespeare’s most famous story.

The idea came from Misha Djuric, who wanted to bring actors into the production, speaking live on stage, to become part of the story. The result is a multisensory experience blending movement, music, and words. It is truly remarkable.

Jeanine Kane (left) and Richard Noble

I enlisted two wonderful actors Jeanine Kane and Richard Noble, both experienced Shakespeareans and familiar faces in the local theater scene. Throughout the course of the ballet each of them play multiple roles, from the Chorus (narrators) to Friar Laurence and Juliet’s Nurse. Weaving in and out of the action for much of the ballet, they bring the music of Shakespeare’s verse to bear on Prokofiev’s gorgeous, powerful score. In one powerful tableau, Jeanine delivers Lady Capulet’s impassioned plea for vengeance as the raw agony of a kinsman’s death consumes her. It is a stunning, breathtaking, synthesis of three languages, Shakespeare’s words, Prokofiev’s music, and Kozadayev’s transcendent choreography. 

Jeanine Kane (behind), Marissa Parmenter (center), Alex Lantz (front)

The greatest gift of Shakespeare is, of course, the poetic verse that flows through his tangled stories, showing us the true power and beauty of the English language. When performed live, Shakespeare is a delicious combination of phrasing and melody; his words do not just sing, they also dance.

I can’t wait for you to experience this beautiful new work of dance and theater. It truly is a remarkable accomplishment and I feel humbled and privileged to have helped bring it to life. Don’t miss it!

Tony Estrella is Artistic Director of Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre

See Romeo & Juliet at The Vets Feburary 10-12, 2017. Click here for tickets.

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Choreographer Ilya Kozadayev on creating a new Romeo & Juliet

Ilya Kozadayev Choreographer, Romeo & Juliet

Romeo & Juliet! One of the great ballets of our time and one of the most iconic stories in all of literature.

When you’re a dancer there’s something special about performing Romeo & Juliet. The sword fighting, the passion and romance, and, yes, the death and despair, combine to tell a story that is unlike anything else in the canon of classical ballet. I performed this ballet many times and every time you step on stage, a fresh sense of energy washes over you.

With my performing career (mostly) behind me, I have the privilege to approach this ballet as a choreographer and director, bringing this complex and tragic story to life with a new perspective. Misha Djuric approached me almost a year ago with a creative vision for a new, collaborative production of Romeo & Juliet. He wanted to bring actors into the production to be part of the story and to perform Shakespeare’s magnificent text live.

I was immediately intrigued.

Misha connected me with a lion in the local theater scene: Tony Estrella, artistic director of the Gamm Theatre, whose experience with Shakespeare is downright impressive. It has been a fascinating process for both of us working on this project, learning from each other, and bringing this story to life.

This ballet is hard. The pas de deux scenes are long and passionate, overflowing with power and romance. The fight scenes are a complex balance of swordsmanship and showmanship. But ultimately storytelling and characterization are the most important challenges and I enjoy tackling them. The characters are complex and deep, each flawed in their own ways. Bringing that out in the dancers in an authentic way has been one of the great privileges of working on this new ballet.

I hope you will join us Valentine’s Day Weekend February 10-12 for an evening of passion, romance, and Shakespeare! I am sure you will agree this ballet is a powerful retelling of a truly iconic story.

See you at the theater!

P.S. Check out my interview for the FBP Series “Locker Room Talk” below!

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In the Spotlight: Jennifer Ricci

With more than 25 seasons at Festival Ballet Providence under her belt, Jennifer Ricci is the company’s most tenured dancer. She will be dancing the role of Juliet in one cast of Romeo & Juliet at The Vets, Feb. 10-12, but first we’re finding out where she started, how things have changed, and how the iconic Arabian costume in The Nutcracker got its signature shimmer and sparkle.

Jennifer Ricci and Boyko Dossev in rehearsal for Romeo & Juliet

Hi Jennifer! Tell us a bit about your background. You have lived in Rhode Island your entire life.  When did you start dancing? 

I have been involved with FBP for 38 years. I started taking lessons with the founders, Christine Hennessey and Winthrop Corey, when I was 4 years old. I had this problem with my elbow – the joint kept dislocating – and my doctor suggested I try ballet to strengthen the muscles around it. My mother had always wanted to dance as a child, so she signed me up, and I loved it from the beginning!

Jennifer (left) and sister Jaclyn

Your sister Jaclyn followed quickly after, right?  What was it like growing up dancing alongside each other?

Jaclyn was three years younger than me.  She started taking lessons at FBP as soon as she turned 4, but she progressed even more quickly than I did.  Soon we were both in the advanced level, taking class together.

You both joined the company at a young age as well.  What was that like?  Were you ever competitive?

Dancing with Jaclyn was an all around awesome experience. We are so different style-wise; I am more dramatic and mellow, and she was the dynamic jumper and turner. Because of our different strengths, we were rarely cast in the same roles.  Our work relationship was much more supportive than competitive.

Jennifer as Tatiana and Jaclyn as Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream

That’s so lovely.  Are there any experiences in particular that you treasure from the time when your careers overlapped?

I think the highlight for both of us was sharing lead roles in Christine Hennessey’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was the only time we were both cast as principals in the same ballet- as Puck and Titania- so that was a really pivotal moment for us.

Jennifer with sister Jaclyn

Jennifer (left) with sister Jaclyn

So cool that you were able to learn from the founders of FBP.  What was working with Christine Hennessy like?

Awesome! She was the most inspirational person, director, and mother figure.  Every aspect of her class was fantastic, you never wanted it to be over.  She was very upbeat and constantly leading you in a new direction.  Her criticism was constructive and positive- nothing to ever make you feel bad about yourself as an artist.

What was the actual transition from student to company dancer like for you?

Since I had already been taking class with the company, the transition into company life felt very smooth.  When I graduated from high school, I immediately joined the company. I was given an entry contract, meaning my shoes and costumes were paid for. I was 17 at the time, and since then I’ve kept every contract FBP has ever given me. That’s 27 years of contracts!

Your Arabian in The Nutcracker is exquisite.  Can you tell us a bit about what this role means to you?

Arabian was always my dream role as a child.  I would watch the company dancers perform it with my jaw wide open. Tall dancers were always chosen for the role and being petite, I wasn’t sure I’d ever be given the chance to do it. When I was 16, I decided to start learning it myself in the back of the studio, using the barre as a partner.

One day, Christine said to me, “I see you, little one, keep up the good work, you keep practicing!”  One of the company men volunteered to learn it with me, and we actually ended up performing in one of the Discover Dance performance!  It went extremely well, and that’s how I became the Arabian dancer.

Jennifer Ricci as Arabian in Nutcracker. Photo by Thomas Nola-Rion.

What an amazing story!  So how do you keep the role fresh, doing it year after year?

Well, I’ve danced the piece with 17 partners now, so I try to make it different for each person based on their personality. That way it’s never boring. It’s such a different dynamic with everyone!

Can you tell us a bit about that iconic costume?

Well, the first costume was made for me when I was 16 and it never fit very well. A few years later, my sister Jaclyn remade the costume with a smaller cut out on the top and used a few pieces of my grandmother’s costume jewelry to decorate it.  There’s her brooch on the top and a few necklaces on the pants. The costume is very special to me.

So you’ve lent your sparkle to Arabian in more ways than one!  Speaking of that sparkle, you are known for your acting skills. You have even had to do a few death scenes in ballets such as Scheherazade and Lady of the Camellias.  How do you prepare for a character role that involves a great deal of acting?

I find you need to know a little more about the character to take it to the next level.   Every character is different. For example, as Juliet, I’m supposed to be a young girl.  She’s not very experienced and has not yet been exposed to the pitfalls of life. What it really comes down to is experiencing a wide range of different roles, and really learning about the character before you begin.

Jennifer as Zobeide in Scheherazade

You’ve been with the company for quite some time.   How has the company changed over the years?

It’s changed drastically! When I joined, we were a much smaller company, primarily focused on classical ballets. I like the fact that these days we work with more modern and contemporary choreographers. It makes things a little more edgy and real. Sexy, sassy, you name it, bring it on! It’s a new age, and this kind of choreography is what the audience wants: something raw that they can relate to.

What are some of your favorite roles to dance?  What would you love do again?

Scheherazade, I love Scheherazade!  Oh, and I love Carmen!  I can’t wait to perform that again in a few months.

Jennifer Ricci & Mark Harootian, VIktor Plotnikov’s Carmen, 2005, photo by Thomas Nola-Rion

Jennifer Ricci & Eivar Martinez, VIktor Plotnikov’s Carmen, 2005, photo by Thomas Nola-Rion

Jennifer will alternate with Vilia Putrius as Juliet in Ilya Kozadayev’s Romeo and Juliet, February 10-12 at The Vets. Casting is subject to change without notice.

In the Spotlight series is edited by Kirsten Evans and Dylan Giles.

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A Magical Performance

Article by Ruth Davis. Video by Ty Parmenter. Photos by Jonathan D’Amico and Mary Ann Mayer.

There’s been a lot written about the how music, dance and theater have a powerful and therapeutic impact on people with disabilities. If there was ever a great example of this it was during a recent performance of an adaption of Mozart’s The Magic Flute performed on the stage of Trinity Repertory Company. This production included children with Down Syndrome who are part of FBP’s Adaptive Dance program together with children and adults from the Rhode Island chapter of Seven Hills Foundation. The production was written by Seven Hills’ Jonathan D’Amico with choreography by Mary Ann Mayer, FBP’s School Director. It was directed Trinity Rep’s education director Jordan Butterfield.

Photo by Mary Ann Mayer

Both FBP’s Adaptive Dance Program and Seven Hills RI have been recipients of grants by the John E. Fogarty Foundation. The Foundation, founded by Congressman Fogarty in 1964, grants organizations which improve the quality of life for Rhode Islanders with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Mary Ann and Jonathan met at the Fogarty awards presentation last spring, and began discussing the possibility of collaborating.

FBP’s Adaptive Dance Program was established 10 years ago in partnership with Meeting Street. “The primary goal is for the children to experience the joy of dance and music,” said Mary Ann Mayer, the program’s director, adding, “but it also offers other important benefits. We see children who have improved their coordination, overall fitness, balance, self-esteem, self-expression, teamwork, rhythm, and musicality.” The success of the program is demonstrated by these children every Saturday morning during their weekly classes, and some have even been mainstreamed into other FBP School classes and even into the children’s cast of The Nutcracker and other FPB productions.

Seven Hills Rhode Island is an organization that supports more than 1,000 infants, children and their families, adults, and seniors with various disabilities and life challenges throughout the state. Jonathan began writing theater pieces for Seven Hills about five years ago. He said, “Most of our participants have significant challenges–social, developmental, intellectual or psychological–and we find that this program definitely helps them build social skills, self advocacy, self esteem, and interpersonal skills.” The program challenges the participants to do things they don’t necessarily know how to do or out of their comfort zone.

In The Magic Flute, the younger Adaptive Dance students played young birds of the forest and the older ones played temple guards. They charmed the audiences with their composure and precision. On stage, some participants are accompanied by other student “helpers,” their peers, who coach them and provide them with a sense of confidence. During one of the scenes in the show, one of the children faltered. Her helper entered the stage and gently knelt down next to her, reassured her, and brought her to join the other dancers during the curtain call. They got a resounding round of applause.

Jonathan D’Amico said, “I hope we can continue this wonderful collaboration. The level of preparation, the exquisite choreography and the final execution of by the dancers was extraordinary.”  He added, “Our parents and staff were so impressed. I hope they are inspired to see some of FBP’s performances–our goal has been to expose them to the arts.”

Ruth Davis manages Public Relations for Festival Ballet Providence.
ruthdavisassociates.com

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A Look Back at a Busy Outreach Season

Valerie Cookson-Botto
Educational Outreach Coordinator

I truly love what I do.

As Outreach Coordinator, I connect schools and the community with the art of ballet and bring it into places where it would be almost nonexistent otherwise. I can’t think of another job that would give me more satisfaction.

I work with artists and educators to spread the work of FBP and the power of dance into the community, as well as bring young audience members to see a ballet for the first time. In 2016 we brought over 3,000 students to main-stage ballet performances, presented lecture demonstrations to 1185 students and engaged 368 children at local libraries.

Nutcracker season is by far our busiest time of year, even though we have programs running year-round. The annual Nutcracker performance in December is accompanied by a wide variety of outreach events. We are able to connect with literacy standards in the school and community library story hours. As a classical ballet, The Nutcracker opens discussions about pointe shoes, tutus, pantomime, pas de deux, to name a few.

Library outreach workshop

Library outreach workshop

Our Library Workshops reach some of the youngest and neediest students in Rhode Island. For many children, this is the first time they get a chance to turn movement into storytelling and see ballet dancers. As we pass around pointe shoes for the children to touch and FBP ballerinas appear in their tutus en pointe, the wonder in their eyes fill us all with joy.

We also hit the road to visit schools, preparing students for their field trip to see The Nutcracker. For many of these students, this field trip is often their first time in a grand theater and their first time to see a ballet. While presenting a lecture demonstration at a kindergarten in Central Falls, one of the students gasps and called out, “Wow. I have never seen a real ballerina before. She is beautiful!” As we capture the attention and imagination of the students, we also teach them about theater etiquette and the history of ballet. We connect the performance they are going to see with their academic work in the classroom.

Outreach event at St. Pius V school

Outreach event at St. Pius V school

Ultimately, the most exciting outreach event is the actual performance at PPAC, where you can feel the energy from the moment the kids arrive. I have the privilege of seeing the excitement as they come off the bus and watch children’s faces come alive and their eyes widen as they experience the breathtaking size and ornate embellishments of the theater. When the students take their seats and the curtain goes up, these students are engaged for two hours in the magic of the ballet.

Their letters back to the company tell us that they are watching, listening, and relating to what they see on stage. They tell us that they are amazed a ballet can tell a whole story without any words and that dance can express emotion. They are inspired by the athleticism of the dancers and special theatrical effects of the production.

Every encounter I have with young audience members reinforces the importance of what our outreach does for the community. There is a need for dance in our schools, and school students need to experience the performing arts at the highest level.

Many years ago our FBP’s Artistic Director, Mihailo Djuric said to me that kids are the hardest audience to perform for because they are so honest. If you aren’t performing at a high level, they will become disinterested and let you know. If you are keeping them engaged, you know you are doing well. By the responses we receive from our young audience members, I think we are making quite an impact.

Valerie Cookson-Botto is Educational Outreach Coordinator for Festival Ballet Providence. To learn more about out Discover Dance programs, click here or email discover@festivalballetprovidence.org

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In the Spotlight: Tegan Rich

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Tegan Rich dancing Spanish in The Nutcracker

Tegan Rich is in her sixth season with FBP, having started as a Trainee and risen through the ranks to become a company dancer. She has recently performed leading roles in ballets like Viktor Plotnikov’s Sharps & Flats and Andrea Dawn Shelley’s For Saskia. We sat down with Tegan to learn a bit about her background, some of her memorable roles, and more…

Hey Tegan!  Let’s jump right in.  You grew up in Florida and moved from home to train at the Miami City Ballet School.  What was that like?

Yes! My mom and I moved down to Miami for my sophomore year of high school. We had spent the second half of my freshman year driving two hours each way every Saturday for classes at the Miami City Ballet School. The training totally opened my eyes up to what the professional world of ballet is like. Like FBP, Miami City Ballet uses the same studios as the students do. Being that close to professionals was very inspiring for a young ballet student. I idolized the company and was able to watch them work, sweat, rehearse, cry and anything else that comes with a life of  professional dance.

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The Miami City Ballet is a Balanchine based company, and in that technique the steps are quicker, the musicality is different, the arms move differently, and the way you work your feet is much different than a Russian based training. I really loved this training, however. I like to jump and move quickly, both of which are often highlighted in Balanchine’s choreography.

The training and the teachers were very intense and demanded a certain level of professionalism, even as a student. I learned serious classroom etiquette and a sense of professionalism that I don’t think I would have learned if I had not made the move. I loved every minute of my time at MCBS and am so grateful for all of my teachers that I had while I was there.

You’ve been exposed to so many different dance environments!  After graduating from Miami City Ballet School, you were accepted into Fordham University.  Can you tell us about your time there and your decision to leave to focus on a more classical training?

While my time at the  Ailey/Fordham BFA program was very short, I truly believe that the classes I took, the choreography I learned, and the dancers I shared classes with really opened my eyes to a different aspect of the dance world and changed many of the ways I approached my dancing.While I totally loved living in New York City, going to college, and dancing at the Ailey School, as I got further into the semester, I started to realize that it wasn’t the best fit for me. I just felt that the ballet world was where I wanted to be.

And we are so glad you did!  Now, what brought you to Festival Ballet?

I actually had a teacher at MCB,, Alexandra Koltun (you might know her from those two giant pictures of her behind the front desk at FBP) who had guested with FBP for a few seasons and a massage therapist who used to dance with FBP as well. They both had mentioned Festival to me. When I left Ailey, I went back to Miami City to continue to train and get my ballet legs back underneath me.

I auditioned in Orlando for FBP’s Summer Intensive, and I was accepted on full scholarship. At the end of the program, Misha hired me as a trainee.

What was that transition into company life like?

The transition into company life was relatively seamless for me. I moved in with Kirsten Evans (hey, Kirsten!) we became fast friends and everyone else in the company was very warm and welcoming. It definitely took some time for me to find my own stride… I was injured the first three months of my first season so I didn’t feel like I was diving in head first with, but rather slowly easing in from the shallow end. As a trainee at Festival, you are required to take additional classes and it was these classes taught by Mindaugus that really helped me to better understand the technique that Festival was going for. Mindaugas allowed me to feel like I was still receiving training and guidance while also figuring out how to be my own teacher and critic, both of which are important things to learn in this line of work.

It must have been a pretty huge change to move from Florida to Rhode Island.  Did you have to adapt to a new culture here in Providence? 

Providence definitely has a different culture than South Florida. But I have never felt home sick since moving here. I think I was meant to be a New Englander. The only time I have second thoughts about that is mid-March while shoveling snow off of my car before work. The biggest difference I’ve noticed is how much less I sweat through the majority of the season. I’ve always been a “sweater,” ask my barre-mates, or anyone else, for that matter, but in the middle of the winter I find it is MUCH harder to get my body as warm and sweaty as I was used to feeling in South Florida. I found that socks, and heavy warm ups were not just a studio fashion, but a huge necessity for my muscles to feel as warm as I like them to feel.

Did the big move have any affect on your artistry as a dancer?

I’m not sure Providence alone changed any artistic aspects of my dancing, but with Misha’s direction and the inspiration of my colleagues, my dancing has definitely changed in a way that I can’t really put into words.

In terms of technique, did you have to make any major changes in your style coming from the Balanchine-based school at MCB to the FBP company?

The best part about this job is that there is no end to your technique or training. Yes, at some point, you can worry less about your technique and focus more on your artistry, but I don’t think you can find a professional dancer anywhere in the world that will say they have stopped working to improve their technique.

There is no settling or finality in ballet and I think that’s one of my favorite parts about it. The slower, more controlled, aspect of the Russian based training at Festival was definitely a shock to my system when I first joined the company, but I am so grateful for what it has taught me. I believe that it made me much stronger, and gave me a different way of approaching steps that proved to be very beneficial for me in the long run. But getting to do things like perform Allegro Brillante, are really special moments for me. It’s almost indulgent. I get to revisit some of my old “bad-habits,” and boy, does it feel good for a second.

 

And done! Cheers to a fabulous run, FBP! #AllegroBrillante

A photo posted by teganrich (@teganrich) on

Speaking of special moments, what has been a memorable role or career highlight for you so far?

I would have to say that Mother Goose was a very memorable role for me. I thought I was just dancing a goofy, bird, storybook character, but it turned out that I was taking on an acting role that I was completely unprepared for. I finally realized that I was going to have to be more “over the top” than any other role I’d danced before.

Also, getting to perform the role of Adela in Viktor Plotnikov’s The House of Bernarda Alba was a definite highlight. I had never performed a lead role in a contemporary ballet before, and one of the most challenging parts of Viktor’s work is to not indulge in the character aspect of the role and instead let the movement tell the story. Bernarda was such a different ballet than anything else I have ever done, I felt very honored to get to dance that role.

You were so fabulous in both of those roles!  In general, what sort of work do you enjoy doing most?

I really love contemporary work. It’s always fun to learn new choreography and learn how far you can push your body and explore movement that you didn’t know your body was capable of doing. I love more character based roles that challenge my acting ability. It’s always fun to become someone else on stage for a night! But I also love the classical work. Swan Lake gets me every time, the music is so beautiful and the corps work is so gratifying. And like I said earlier, anytime I get to do some Balanchine is a great day in my book!

Looking ahead now, what are you looking forward to in the 39th Season?

This season I was really looking forward to Allegro Brillante, and now I can happily cross that one off my bucket list! And now, I am really excited for Carmen choreographed by Viktor Plotnikov. Carmen is a ballet that I have always wanted to perform, and I have only heard wonderful things about Viktor’s interpretation of it, so all I can really is say, Ole!

When you’re not dancing, what are you doing?

When I am not dancing, I am usually whipping up something yummy in my kitchen, nannying for a couple of cuties, or exploring the wonderful little local shops at restaurants that providence has to offer.

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Tegan Rich and David DuBois dancing Spanish in The Nutcracker

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Artists on both sides of the lens

By Ruth Davis

At each of Festival Ballet Providence’s performances patrons are given a copy of the season’s Playbill, a beautiful, glossy overview of the company, and its Thirty-Ninth 2016-2017 Season. The booklet contains information audiences would expect to find in a Playbill: a welcome message from the artistic director, Misha Djuric, details about the company’s history, biographies of the dancers, and information about other parts of the organization.

But the images in this year’s edition are anything but expected, starting with its arresting cover photo–a beautiful image of a dancer, who seems to be in rehearsal, her foot en pointe and her arm arced as it moves around her body, her skirt in motion swooping around her. This photograph and others throughout the program are the work of Shawn Guo, a junior at RISD, who participated in an ongoing partnership between FBP and RISD, a photography workshop, “Photo/Graphic,” taught by Franz Werner, a professor at RISD for more than 30 years.

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Professor Werner approached FBP 2 years ago, believing that photographing dancers would be a wonderful for inexperienced photography students to experiment and learn new ways to observe. “I thought it would be exciting for the students to see professional dancers and to use their cameras to explore the world of ballet.” He added that this idea was well calculated. “It’s truly profound the way that this program stimulates all kinds of creative interpretation, Shawn’s work being a good example.”

Shawn was impressed by watching the way the dancers rehearsed. “I tried to be subtle and not disturb the dancers, and I was aware of a little uneasiness they may have been feeling.” He took some head shots to find an angle that would be interesting, and then began to experiment with long exposures and motion photography. During the class, students walk around the studio, sit on the floor, or stand on the sidelines.

RISD students photograph FBP dancers

RISD students photograph FBP dancers in rehearsal

Shawn said that the figures in the photographs themselves express the motion and energy of the dancers. “I didn’t want color to take away the energy and dynamic aspect the figures carried when they were moving, jumping, etc.”

“At the end of the session,” said Shawn, “I processed the photos and really liked the way they turned out.” He assembled them into a portfolio of the best work from the class and presented it to Misha and Dylan Giles, FBP’s marketing director. Dylan and Misha immediately understood the artistic quality and thought they would be a wonderful way to illustrate this season’s Playbill.

An unanticipated benefit of participating in this workshop was that Shawn appreciated how hard the dancers work and how physical and mentally demanding their job is. “I was so impressed by how they have to constantly train, going over and over routines over again, trying to get to absolute perfection.” He said he could relate their practicing to his own work and how he tries to do the best he can do.

For many of the students, this was their first exposure to ballet.  Shawn, however, had an inside-look at the San Francisco Ballet this past summer, where a family friend has been a guest choreographer for 40 years. Shawn said, “Overall I am really happy I took the class and where it led, in terms of the work I produced.  It was a great experience.”

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Shawn Guo is a Graphic Design major at RISD, class of 2018. shawnguo.com

Ruth Davis manages public relations for Festival Ballet Providence. ruthdavisassociates.com

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