Best Foot Forward

Richmond Ballet celebrates 35 years of innovation.

Lift the Fallen, 2014

When Brett Bonda was 21, he tried out for the Richmond Ballet. His audition performance concluded with a double tour—a jump into the air followed by two full rotations before landing. He fell. 

“I landed on the ground,” says Bonda, “But I quickly popped up, put my arm high in the air, and took a huge bow like I meant to do that.” He got the job.

Later, artistic director Stoner Winslett told Bonda that one of the reasons she selected him was that she could see he was a true performer. Her judgment has been validated many times over. Bonda danced with the company for 10 years, served in a variety of administrative positions with the organization and is now the company’s managing director. This month, the Richmond Ballet, a new professional company just a year old at the time of Bonda’s audition, celebrates its 35th anniversary with the kick off of its 2018-2019 season.

Swan Lake, 1998; Bow Out, 1995; The Moor’s Pavane, 1994.

Formed as a small civic company in 1957, the Richmond Ballet grew to include a school and pre-professional dance company by 1980. Winslett was hired as the company’s artistic director that year, and helped take it professional four years later. 

In 1984, the annual budget was $164,000. Thirty-five years later, that budget is more than $6 million. The group has 138 employees, including 27 professional dancers. More than 800 students take classes in its studios every year, and its Minds in Motion outreach program takes ballet education to 1,500 area public school students. 

Under Winslett’s guidance, the Ballet has built a reputation in the dance world as an institution that puts dancers and choreographers first, placing a special emphasis on commissioning new works (each year, it commissions three new pieces). This practice is unusual for a company its size; most of its counterparts focus on established ballets. This approach provides precious chances for upcoming choreographers to have their works performed and is also attractive to dancers—it’s considered an opportunity, even an honor, to perform a new work created just for you.

The company rarely wavers from this commitment. In 2001, the ballet faced financial headwinds that were forcing other companies around the country to close, or limit themselves to crowd-pleasing performances like Sleeping Beauty and Dracula—not daring, creative choices, but instantly recognizable to a large audience.

Winslett wanted to remain true to the mission of the ballet, and its commitment to Richmond. That didn’t mean performing only crowd-pleasers (though of course, as the annual iconic production of The Nutcracker can attest, there are plenty of those). It meant re-emphasizing what made the ballet special—bringing brand new works to the Richmond audience, while maintaining stable employment for its dancers and employees.

The company canceled one of the season’s large performances (Romeo and Juliet), and launched its Studio Series, a schedule of smaller performances presented inside its studio theater located on the top floor of the company’s Canal Street building. The highlight would be world premieres of new works, made to feel even more exclusive inside the intimate, stripped-down space. It was a risk, but a risk taken on the terms the company chose for itself. And it worked. The Studio Series is now popular enough that audience members subscribe to receive tickets a full year before the schedule is even announced. 

Richmond Ballet has also made a name for itself outside of the Commonwealth. In 2005, the company took its first major trip, debuting in New York at the legendary Joyce Theater. “When we hit New York,” says Winslett, “people were stunned.” Word soon spread. In 2012, the company traveled to London to perform at the Royal Opera House, and in 2015 partnered with China’s National Ballet to host two of its dancers in Richmond and then conduct a four-city international tour, beginning in Beijing and culminating in Shanghai. “People have noticed that our company has a different kind of electricity,” says Winslett.

The 2018-2019 Richmond Ballet season begins Sept. 28-29 with a special 35th anniversary performance. First it will perform Jerome Robbins’ Circus Polka, a new piece with 48 dancers from the Richmond School of Ballet. Next will come excerpts from six ballets by different choreographers—all works originally commissioned by the company (“it’s a kind of a ‘greatest hits’ of the ballet,” says Bonda). The performance will conclude with Who Cares, a dance choreographed by George Balanchine and set to the music of George Gershwin. 

The Nutcracker will run during the holidayseason, this year followed by a Valentine’s Day opening of Cinderella. The Studio Series will again present three programs, each highlighted by the debut of a newly commissioned work—this year, from choreographers Nicole Haskins, Tom Mattingly and Rex Wheeler. 

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Lift the Fallen, 2014

Bonda often tells the story of his audition fall to young dancers. “My story is proof. Don’t ever give up,” he says. “Make the most of it.” In 35 years, the Richmond Ballet has made the most of it. And if it has looked easy, well, then that’s the way the company wanted it to look—just like the graceful movements of the dancers onstage are only made possible by tremendous athletic strength and years of hard practice. 

“The best ballets,” says Winslett, “look effortless. The dancer takes just what they came into this world with, the body and the spirit, and trains to push that instrument in every possible way. With each performance, we’re trying to uplift and awaken the human spirit.” RichmondBallet.com 


2018-2019 Season Preview

35th Anniversary Celebration Sept. 28-29, Carpenter Theatre, Richmond 

The Nutcracker with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, Dec. 7-9, Chrysler Hall, Norfolk

The Nutcracker Dec. 14-23, Carpenter Theatre, Richmond 

Cinderella with the Richmond Symphony, Feb. 14-17, 2019, Carpenter Theatre, Richmond

Studio One, Nov. 6-11

In the Night 

A World Premiere by Nicole Haskins 

Studio Two, March 26-31, 2019

Figure in the Distance 

The Moor’s Pavane 

Studio Three, May 7-12, 2019

Summerset 

Sweet Bitter Love 

A World Premiere by Rex Wheeler 

June 11, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
July 9, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
August 13, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum