After an early-morning Saturday warm-up in the studios at the Mississippi Art Commission building, a group of young Ballet Mississippi dancers breaks off into small factions, transforming into chattery teenage girls. As they wait to begin rehearsing "Swan Lake," some of them stand at the barre talking as they transfer their weight from one pointed foot to the other. There isn't a single pair of worn-looking pointe shoes in the bunch; they all don shiny pink shoes with crisp ribbons. Performing "Swan Lake Act II" for a crowd at the city auditorium is a special occasion, which calls for special new shoes.
Artistic Director David Keary crouches over a waist-high stereo system cuing the music. His navy-blue sweatpants stretch as he squats, revealing his white Reeboks, which look as though he has taught many classes wearing them. After what seems like much toil, Keary abruptly hops up, clapping his hands, and instructs the dancers to take their places. The sound of an oboe radiates from the speakers, hushing all other noise in the small studio. Keary counts for the dancers as he perches on a stool in the front of the room patting his leg in coordination with the counts.
As dancers pour onto the stage one after the other and then as a group, Keary frequently gets up from the stool to show them where their heads should be in relation to their arms, and he demonstrates a pirouette alongside a dancer, saying, "You should be totally evolving around and (counting) 1 and 2, and arabesque, and off you go."
The corps of dancers exits the stage and re-enters, each time creating the sound of a heavy thunderstorm as pointe shoes collide with the floor. Some of them are no more than 12 years old. Many of them are high-school students. Keary pulled from the dance school's upper levels to cast the performance of "Swan Lake," and he believes that the experience is valuable to his students.
"We're training the youth in this city in a very high art form, and we're offering them incredible opportunities, even if they don't go and (dance professionally)," Keary says. "By training our youth … we're also trying to create an audience of people to support them."
Keary, who danced with the New York City Ballet under the great George Balanchine, says that he wants people in other parts of the nation to recognize that classical and contemporary dance can thrive in Mississippi, despite the notion that high art does not exist in the state. By investing in the talent of young Mississippians, he believes that we can dispel some of that negativity.
"We're creating ambassadors for the arts—all of us, any one that's involved in this—whether it be Ballet Magnificat!, Mississippi Metropolitan Ballet, myself, whomever," he says.
That ambassadorship extends not only to Ballet Mississippi students, but also to inner-city students through the U.S. International Ballet Competition's CityDance. Ballet Mississippi partnered with the program last year, and the students will perform a piece to the overture of "The Marriage of Figaro" in the spring performance program before "Swan Lake."
"To me, the logical thing to do was to put these children on the spring program so that they would have a chance to perform in the theater, and also to help build that program up," Keary says.
Twice during the rehearsal, Keary points out spacing, reminding the girls of where the other dancers will be. Those "other" dancers are husband and wife Eduard Smirnov and Tatiana Ledovskikh of the Alabama Ballet in Birmingham. Both danced with the Bolshoi Ballet in Russia, and migrated to the South in the late '90s. Ledovskikh and Smirnov will dance the principal roles of Odette and Prince Siegfried, respectively.
"They were trained and were brought up in this rich classical tradition," Keary says of the two dancers. "To do the ballet, I've always liked to try to bring in the highest caliber to get adjusted from the high end."
A new work, "Passages," which guest choreographer Diana Law, of West Richland, Wash., created, will also be performed at the May 4 performance. A ballet set to non-traditional rhythmic music written by a deaf composer, Law's piece plays with responsive movement and conceptual themes. Keary admits that every time he sees it, he walks away with a different interpretation.
"It's going to really be up to the viewer to look at this and come away with their own ideas, and that's what's so unique about it," Keary says.
As the rehearsal extends through lunchtime, the girls continue to give their attention to the work of the performance. Adjusting their black wrap-skirts and convertible pink tights between stage time, they watch the other dancers intently so as not to miss a cue. They seem almost ready for that ambassadorship.
Ballet Mississippi's performance of "Swan Lake Act II" and other pieces will take place Sunday, May 4, at 2 p.m. at Thalia Mara Hall. For ticket information, visit balletms.com, or call 601-960-1560.