Interviews and photos: Oklahoma City Ballet shares art experiences through community outreach programs

Oklahoma City Ballet dancers perform "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" for hundreds of schoolchildren from across the state April 24 at the Civic Center Music Hall as part of the ArtsReach program. Photo by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman
Students enter the Civic Center to watch an Oklahoma City Ballet ArtsReach performance of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" April 24 at the Civic Center Music Hall. More than 3,000 Oklahoma schoolchildren got the chance to see the performance for free through OKC Ballet’s ArtsReach program. Photo by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman

A version of this story appears in Thursday’s Life & Style section of The Oklahoman.

Reaching out
OKC Ballet shares art experiences through community programs

The gasps of wonder swept through the Civic Center Music Hall like a breeze through an enchanted forest.

“Fairies!” children exclaimed as the Oklahoma City Ballet’s pack of pixies fluttered onto the stage to sweep the changeling child (Hannah White) off to their magical land.

The youngsters dominating the crowd of almost 2,000 people, most of them likely first-time ballet patrons, burst into riotous laughter as the inelegant actor Bottom (Ronnie Underwood) suddenly found himself with a donkey’s head. They used their newly learned grasp of audience etiquette to enthusiastically shout “bravo” when King Oberon (Alvin Tovstogray) crossed the stage in impressive leaps and bounds and “brava” when Queen Titania (Amanda Herd-Popejoy) seemed to float through a graceful series of turns.

Since the schoolchildren were watching “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” it’s no surprise that the rascally sprite Puck (Walker Martin) frequently had them giggling with his antics.

“Puck is fantastic in any rendition of ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ He seems like he had a lot of fun. He had a really good energy with it,” said Anabelle Weissinger, a Paoli High School senior. “I had never seen it as a ballet before. I really like the dialogue of ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ so I don’t think I liked it as much as the play. But it was a really fantastic rendition.”

The day after Oklahoma City Ballet officially closed its performance season, Anabelle was among the 3,100 schoolchildren from across the state who saw the professional dancers again perform Artistic Director Robert Mills’ new adaptation of William Shakespeare’s beloved romantic comedy. The two weekday performances were staged through OKC Ballet’s ArtsReach, one of several outreach programs the nonprofit arts organization offers throughout the year.

“It gives them the opportunity to go to the ballet when some of them may not ever have that opportunity,” said Paoli High School and Junior High English teacher and librarian Vicky Standridge.

“(They were) just in awe some of them just walking in the building.”

Oklahoma City Ballet soloist Amanda Herd-Popejoy performs “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for hundreds of schoolchildren from across the state April 24 at the Civic Center Music Hall as part of OKC Ballet’s ArtsReach program. Photos by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman
Oklahoma City Ballet soloist Walker Martin plays Puck, left, student dancer Hannah White plays the changeling child, principal dancer Yui Sato plays Lysander and DaYoung Jung plays Hermia in an ArtsReach performance of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" for hundreds of schoolchildren from across the state April 24 at the Civic Center Music Hall. Photo by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman

Important mission

Watching the crowds of field-tripping schoolchildren filing into the Civic Center on the recent spring morning, Mills said he thought back to his own boyhood.

“For the dancers, I think it’s fun. They hear the energy of the kids. They hear the laughter, they hear the oohs and the ahhs. That’s always a great thing for a performer to feel the energy from the audience,” Mills said.

“Just being at a different point in my life and in my career, for me, it is always about opening doors for the youth. I always go back to myself and my own life. … I’m the youngest of nine children, I came from a very modest blue-collar family in the suburbs of Chicago, and it was ballet that really opened a whole other world of possibilities for myself.

“Those worlds of possibilities for these kids is not always that they’re going to become a performer, but it is going to see downtown Oklahoma City for the first time, it’s stepping into a cavernous, incredible theater for the first time, just experiencing a theatrical production. Of course, there are those segments of youth that it does light a lightbulb above their head, and it does pique an interest. Whether it’s music or dance or theater, acting, singing, they understand that there’s another avenue … to them that in their day-to-day education with public schools may not be as clearly drawn out to them.”

Support from both local and national foundations enables Oklahoma City Ballet to offer ArtsReach performances free of charge to the schools and students. In existence for more than two decades, the program has been recognized by the Business Committee for the Arts in New York City and featured on A&E and Bravo. In 1997, ArtsReach received the prestigious Governor’s Arts Award.

But ArtsReach is just one of several outreach programs OKC Ballet offers. An initiative largely inspired by American Ballet Theatre star Misty Copeland, Project Plie takes an OKC Ballet instructor to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Oklahoma County Memorial Park location to teach free lessons. Similarly, BalletReach takes OKC Ballet teachers into public schools, many of them Title I locations, to offer free dance and movement classes.

“I think it’s safe to say in spending a lifetime in dance that I was a very kinetic person. I learned through physically doing, and some people learn best audibly, some people learn best visually. So, we’re taking movement into public schools and … some children’s brains respond better to kinetic environments,” Mills said.

“With the lack of money, the first thing to go is the arts. Quite frankly, unlike visual arts and music, which were much more readily available in public school systems across the country, dance was not. Even though those cuts are happening, to me, it was important to get the dance into public schools because it just wasn’t there.”

Started at The Fountains at Canterbury assistant living center, the new Golden Swans program also dispatches an OKC Ballet instructor to teach free movement classes, in this case to senior citizens.

“Clearly, it’s arts education and it’s culture … and it’s opening up the area of the mind for a kinetic thinker. But it’s exercise. Dance is just simply exercise,” Mills said.

With BalletKids Club, the company works with nonprofit organizations like Boys and Girls Clubs and Positive Tomorrows to give underserved youth a chance to see an OKC Ballet performance for free.

Oklahoma City Ballet dancers perform "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" for hundreds of schoolchildren from across the state April 24 at the Civic Center Music Hall as part of the ArtsReach program. Photo by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman
Students raise their hands to answer a question posed to the audience before the ballet began as to whether they had heard of a man named William Shakespeare. Oklahoma City Ballet dancers performed "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" for hundreds of schoolchildren from across the state April 24 the Civic Center Music Hall as part of the ArtsReach program. Photo by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman

Arts exposure

Dressed in matching, color-coded T-shirts, the entire first-grade class of Weatherford’s Burcham Elementary – about 170 students strong – chattered enthusiastically as they lined up on the way out of the Civic Center. They were following up an ArtsReach performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with a picnic.

“It was great. The kids like it. They’ve never been to anything like this before, like in the Civic Center. This is a whole new thing for us,” said first-grade teacher Robyn Randol, who said she was attending the ArtsReach performance for the second year. “A lot of them have never even been to downtown Oklahoma City.”

Fellow first-grade teacher Judy Zehr said Burcham Elementary has been bringing its first-graders to the OKC Ballet field trip for the past several years to give them exposure to the arts.

“It’s just so great for them to be able to come to the Civic Center and experience this. Some of them never would,” Zehr said.

The ArtsReach performances are about an hour long, meaning students got to see Mills’ new adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in its entirety. In past years, the youth shows included just one act of productions like “Cinderella” or “Mowgli, The Jungle Book Ballet.” He said he hopes that children who come to the performances have a positive experience with an art form that many are experiencing for the first time.

At Standridge’s behest, the entire student body of Paoli Public Schools – about 270 students – turned out to see Mills’ neoclassical take on the enchanted Shakespearean favorite, and she said she hoped they were caught up in the color and magic of the balletic retelling of The Bard’s Fairy Story.

“I had several students who told me that they felt that they knew the storyline a little bit better by watching it performed for dance,” she said.

“I would rather see plays performed, but I like reading them as well,” added her student, Anabelle. “It’s definitely more fun and it’s more enjoyable to see it. It’s more dimensional.”

TO KNOW MORE

For more information on Oklahoma City Ballet’s outreach programs, go to www.okcballet.org/outreach or call 843-9898.

Oklahoma City Ballet dancers perform "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" for hundreds of schoolchildren from across the state April 24 at the Civic Center Music Hall as part of the ArtsReach program. Photo by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman
Oklahoma City Ballet dancers perform "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" for hundreds of schoolchildren from across the state April 24 at the Civic Center Music Hall as part of the ArtsReach program. Photo by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman

-BAM

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