LINCOLN — In 2020, the State Ballet of Rhode Island was supposed to celebrate its 60th anniversary.
Diamond Jubilee performances of “Giselle” were scheduled for April, and by February, company dancers, guest artists and young dancers from the Brae Crest School of Ballet, the official school of the state ballet, were well into rehearsals, overseen by the ballet’s founder, artistic director and choreographer, Herci Marsden, 83.
Then an uninvited guest showed up: COVID-19. By March 23, Gov. Gina Raimondo had ordered all public recreation and entertainment establishments to cease in-person operations.
“We thought, ‘Let’s get a new date,” recalls Ana Marsden Fox, the state ballet’s executive director.
That wouldn’t happen, nor would the 60th Anniversary Gala, planned for June at the Dunes Club in Narragansett. In-person classes at Brae Crest were suspended.
But the state ballet’s experience bears out the aphorism that the darkest time comes before the dawn, and 2020 brought its share of unexpected highlights.
Over one weekend, Marsden Fox learned how to teach classes via the internet to help dancers maintain training. “Giselle” rehearsals, however, came to a halt because continuing, Marsden Fox says, “was like poking a wound.”
Brainstorming sessions began, remotely, with the creative team from her board of directors, and she says, “We came to the idea that our biggest asset was a very small outside stage,” albeit one in disrepair and threatened by encroaching trees.
When they heard about the governor’s Take It Outside grants, the team wrote a proposal for $25,000, but when Rhode Island Commerce called with an offer, it was for $35,000.
“Could you repeat that whole thing over again?” she remembers asking in disbelief.
Project managers routinely reviewed all applications to ensure that grants met federal CARES Act guidelines and that requests were sufficient “to bring applicants’ visions to life,” according to Matthew Sheaff, spokesperson for R.I. Commerce.
“The application was in the spirit of what we were hoping for in this program,” he says. Later, applicants were notified of a final round of grants, and the State Ballet of Rhode Island received another $12,000; in total, the funds allowed the company to install a sprung dance floor designed for ballet and protective coverings.
The stage was named State Ballet of Rhode Island’s Secret Garden and Community Stage Venue, and the inaugural performance, on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, drew a socially distanced and masked audience of 90. The dancers performed Act II from the ballet “Coppelia”; the “community” guests were musicians from Cumberland’s Blackstone River Theatre and a cabaret performer from West Warwick’s Arctic Playhouse.
Meanwhile, the Gloria Gemma Breast Cancer Resource Foundation had been calling. For 10 years, Shana Fox Marceau, a dancer, teacher, choreographer and Marsden Fox’s daughter, had choreographed new works for the foundation’s “Flames of Hope: A Celebration of Life” at WaterFire Providence.
With no WaterFire this year, Marceau and Bryan Sawyer, the Gemma Foundation’s chief operating officer and a state ballet board member, devised a drive-through ballet at Pawtucket’s Slater Memorial Park.
Six stops featured Marceau’s original dances on themes of courage, faith, determination, strength, hope and happiness.
“There would be a solo dancer, or two dancers, and one with four dancers on each side [of the road],” Marsden Fox says. “They were all dancing with masks,” she adds. Lighting — even hanging chandeliers — provided ambience.
“What a successful event,” Marsden Fox says. “There were more than 500 cars. It was our first performance in months, and the dancers needed it like food.”
This, however, was just one year out of the state ballet’s history, which arguably began with the late Myles Marsden’s decision to leave Providence at age 16 to audition for Sir Anton Dolin in England, launching a career that made him a premier danseur with the Yugoslav National Ballet.
That’s where he fell in love with prima ballerina Herci Munitic, a soloist. They married, and when their daughter — Ana — was 6 months old, they came to his family’s property in Lincoln, starting Brae Crest School of Ballet in 1958.
A movement was afoot at the time for civic ballet companies, regional organizations offering professional and pre-professional dancers opportunities to perform and collaborate with other artists. It became the model for the State Ballet of Rhode Island, giving the Marsdens the opportunity to perform and teach. Dolin became an artistic adviser.
“It was our wish come true,” says Herci, who still dons tights and toe shoes to dance “every day.”
The Marsdens divorced in 1975, but Herci kept the school and the ballet company going through a second marriage, the birth of a son, and widowhood. The company is supported financially by sponsors, ticket sales and memberships; the school is a separate entity.
Ballet became a family affair. Ana, who studied at the Royal Ballet School in London, says, “I’ve done it all: danced, choreographed, done public relations.” She can’t pinpoint when she “officially” took the executive director title, but notes, “I’m fortunate I have a strong board of directors.”
Her brothers also danced. Richard Marsden is formerly a dancer with the New York City Ballet and now teaches at the Ballet Arts Center for Dance, in New York; Mark Marsden danced and coached at the State Ballet of Rhode Island; and Dujko Radovnikovic serves on its board of directors.
Over the years, the State Ballet of Rhode Island has performed more than 170 works and regularly collaborates with organizations such as the Providence Singers and the Rhode Island Civic Chorale and Orchestra, performing in schools and at civic events. The company has spawned careers, including those of Corey Bourbonniere, a soloist with the Pittsburgh Ballet; Joshua Thake of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, a drag ballet troupe that performs around the world; and Miki Ohlsen, who took her first ballet steps at age 6 with Myles and Herci Marsden and has been the artistic director at Island Moving Company in Newport since its beginnings in1982.
There is a lot to celebrate in this 60th-anniversary year, although not as expected.
“It was nonstop work,” Marsden Fox admits. “But fortunately, the work worked.”