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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