BWW Interview: Kristina Kambalov of FIRST STATE BALLET THEATRE at Grand Opera House
With no performing arts to review, Aisle Say has taken to interviewing arts professionals. Here is a conversation with Kristina Kambalov, co-founder and ED of First State Ballet Theatre. (Go the bottom of the column for previous chats).
In March Aisle Say celebrated' his 63rd year in Delaware performing arts as actor, producer, director, playwright and theatre critic. An organization that has a sweet spot in my hard heart is First State Ballet Theatre. They began with a dream, a drive and determination to become one of the most impressive arts organizations in the state and have garnered international praise and rewards.
In the mid 90's a troupe of Russian dancers were stranded in Philadelphia. A doyenne of the arts, Marsha Borin, adopted them and brought them here to create the then Russian Ballet Theatre. The dancers had no money, no roofs over their heads and sorely in need of dental hygiene. (Mrs. Borin enlisted the aid of dentists who performed 31 root canals pro bono over a years' time).
One of the first performances was Romeo and Juliet at The Playhouse with Prokofiev's exhilarating score shining light on the darkest corners of the human psyche. Coincidentally, that same show was to be performed this April 2020 before...it all went topsy turvy. (Note: Sheltering in, I rented "Shakespeare In Love", a stunning film one falls in love with as deeply as did Will with Viola. The story, co-written by Tom Stoppard, revolves around the Bard creating R & J).
In this first R & J I was asked to dance as a swashbuckling Capulet swordsman under the aegis of the regal Lord Capulet, Robert Grenfell. Pasha Kambalov danced Romeo. The Capulet and Montague swordsmen were trained in a tightly choreographed routine. Each performance I derived indescribable glee in readily dispatching those miscreant Montagues (led by chief miscreant Ken Wesler, then ED of The Grand).
For two years son Grant - age 8 and 9 - portrayed Fritz in NUTCRACKER, giving a mesmerizing performance still talked about to this day. In drama and dance someone must be the villain and yes, Fritz is the rowdy character who fractures Clara's nutcracker to commence the fantasy. After stern admonitions, his mother eventually forgave him.
RBT closed in 1999 and Pasha and eventual wife Kristina founded First State Ballet Theatre and opened a studio in Newport. They were aided by volunteer Grenfell, who would become the first Board President. His selfless devotion and vision - and downright stubbornness - helped the fledgling group become what they are today. (For years Grenfell had danced with ballet icon Jamie Jamieson and had major local corporate connections).
They chose the name First State Ballet Theatre to signal that they intended to be a ballet company for the entire state and they adopted a family-friendly pricing policy to enable families to enjoy the beauty and excitement of their art form.
In early 2003, the company was invited to relocate to Wilmington's Grand Opera House. With funding from the City of Wilmington, the Longwood and Welfare Foundations and individuals, they designed and built beautiful, state-of-the-art studios.
In September 2008 they launched Delaware's only professional ballet company. They began the 2008-09 season with 10 dancers and have grown the roster every year to the current 24 dancers.
Under the Kambalovs' compassionate, passionate but demanding leadership, dancers from around the world were applying. The instruction was rigorous. FSBT offered dedicated dancers the opportunity to be in different productions and in various roles that would enhance resumes as they moved forward in this demanding and competitive art.
Lessons were available for those from 3 on up. As they reached their late teens some students became paid professionals. Adult lessons were well received and constitutes a wonderful opportunity to stay limber.
Added to the productions were long time volunteer dancers Stan Markwalder and Frank Obara. When they were really hurting for warm bodies they enlisted me. The stunning costumes are built in Moldova, but without volunteer costumer Joanne Epstein and her merry band altering, stitching and repairing, there would have been some embarrassing moments onstage. Epstein retired in last year but she set a high barre bar of excellence. Added to that list of creative crew is photographer Tisa Della Volpe; she with the impeccable eye for capturing physical action at the apex of effort.
Throughout the years of covering FSBT, the culture of caring for one another has continually impressed me. With all athletes there is competition for primo roles. This spirit has never bended the camaraderie of the dancers. All wish their comrades to succeed. During rehearsals there are smiles, huzzahs and applause for individual dancers as they perform solo routines. They are all in this together. The vast majority will be friends for life.
The leadership provided by the Kambalovs allied with the esprit de corps of the lead dancers and the core de ballet prepared them well for the uncertainty after March 13.
I chatted with Kristina last week. In early March they had begun rehearsals for R & J. Knowing how dedicated the dancers are to their art, my first question focused on emotion: "Were there tears"?
"No. Actually we were a day ahead of the shutdown. On March 12 one of our dancers received an email saying a friend was to be quarantined. That person had been in close contact with our dancer. We immediately shut down rehearsal and told everyone it may be two weeks before we get together. I called Mark Fields (The Grand ED) and told him the same".
'Of course, Romeo and Juliet was cancelled as was our Gala at The DuPont CC. We make about $25,000 from that. We have asked our patrons to either donate their paid tickets or, in the case of R & J, just hold on to them when we eventually stage it next year".
(We all know a raincheck reduces new revenue for next year).
Some of the dancers are faculty members of the company. Ballet demands flexible schedules. Many are servers. So now both jobs are lost.
Short term issues for revenue is the hope for summer classes. As with every arts group, FSBT must rethink everything. Rescheduling is a nightmare when pilots are flying blind. You do one model, then another and another and keep all options open. One can only imagine the amount of time, energy and brainstorming - most of it wasted - to create contingency Plan B, C and D!
As we have seen throughout the arts community, people get creative and are forced to think sideways and standing on your head. And so it is with the FSBT. "We cleaned out our dining room and are now giving virtual lessons. We offer 16 classes per week. We see the students. They see us. We offer the age-related classes (toddler to adult). Our 'open' class has people dancing with us from all over the world. So, that has been an interesting alternative to live classes",
I can well imagine parents are more than tickled seeing their kids dancing at home under 2 sets of experienced eyes. A hoot!
FSBT presently offers 3 summer programs; a 4-week instructional Summer Intensive, a 1-week Children's Workshop and a Choreography Workshop. Longtime friend and professional choreographer Viktor Plotnikov creates a piece. (Plotnikov's premiere of DRACULA was staged here in October). The students practice under his watchful eye, preparing to compete in a Philadelphia-based festival, The Youth America Gran Prix. The first 3 finalists go onto to NYC to battle international groups. FSBT has been invited to the latter for the past 4 years and in 2017 and 18, they were in the top 12 in the world.
So, parents and grandparents...remember these achievements should you entertain enrolling your children in dance. All great dancers begin with the disciplined study of ballet. It's the foundation. Trust me. If I had had Grant G Fire and Grace G Fire take ballet lessons, they would have better, even more fluid athletes than they eventually became.