Albany Berkshire Ballet Looks Ahead — And Back — in 50th Anniversary Year
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The five dancers glided around the room, its purple-and-mirrored walls enclosing a faintly muggy space, either from powerful bodies working hard or a late-winter heating system still cranked up, or maybe a combination of both.
The three women and two men were rehearsing a dance for an upcoming showcase at Williams College, but on this day, their ballet slipper-clad feet pounded the dance floor in the second-floor studio of the Albany Berkshire Ballet headquarters on Fenn Street.
In the past, on a weekday afternoon, that studio might very well have been silent. That's because it's only recently that the ballet company — officially celebrating 50 years this year — actually hired these five adults as full-time dancers and pay them a salary to form the base of the company. That company will continue the tradition of staging "The Nutcracker" in December — but also will branch out before then with a full-length production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in the fall.
In between, the dancers participate in many collaborations with local colleges likes Williams and other organizations like Norman Rockwell Museum, and touch the lives of countless local students through ABB's educational outreach programs.
It's all part of the grand plan — kind of.
The original plan, 65 years ago, was a "little ballet school," according to artistic director and founder Madeline Cantarella Culpo. Cantarella's School of Dance was housed in a downtown Pittsfield space, where passers-by could look up on a Saturday morning and see through the windows overlooking North Street the heads of children practicing their rond de jambes and pirouettes.
That was a lot of for a woman to accomplish on her own in 1955, but Culpo didn't know the meaning of the word "no." One year, about 45 years ago, she made a suggestion to her team: "Let's do The Nutcracker." This was in the fall. "The Nutcracker" is a Christmas tradition. That didn't leave much time.
"Everybody thought I was crazy," Culpo said during a media preview of the upcoming anniversary season in the Pittsfield studio on March 20. "I didn't know it was not possible."
It was possible, and the tradition of "The Nutcracker" was born, continuing through multiple generations of students now.
"Now I have children of children who are in it," she said.
That was just the beginning of the growth of her dream to spread her passion for dance — a dream that shifted and evolved to open the Berkshire Ballet Guild in 1960. That evolved into "Berkshire Civic Ballet" and then, with expansion into the Albany, N.Y.-area 50 years ago, into Albany Berkshire Ballet, a professional company that aims to be a real force in a community of myriad cultural institutions. Through it all, the little Cantarella School of Dance has continued to flourish and is now the official dance school of the ABB, whose studio space it shares.
Culpo didn't do it alone, of course, and as she enters this new chapter of ABB's history, the 50th anniversary year also marks the accomplishments of associate artistic director Mary Giannone Talmi.
"I hope this year can really be a celebration of their leadership," said Alison LaRocca, president of ABB's board of directors.
Even before Talmi's arrival, ABB was a cultural force, presenting not only "The Nutcracker" but also many other classical ballets. However, this year's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" will be the first full-length ballet staged since a 2009 "Midsummer" production had to be canceled as a result of the economic collapse, which hit performing arts companies particularly hard. Since 2009, Culpo said, she took "a little break" to re-imagine Albany Berkshire Ballet's future after a past that included opening for national and international companies at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival and performing in places like New York City.
"Now we're back, and that's what's exciting," Culpo said.
Culpo hopes to have found the perfect potion for the company's rebirth: talented and experienced artistic directors like Talmi, a strong board of director led by people like LaRocca who were dance students themselves, and a dedicated — if small — staff of people supporting the mission. They also have those five dancers to form the base of their upcoming programs: the May 3 and 4 performances with the Williams College dance team; a "Process and Performance" show May 26 in Chatham, N.Y., that celebrates the development of new repertory with partners like Williams College, SUNY Purchase and Skidmore College; the 50th anniversary gala on Aug.17; "A Midsummer Night's Dream" from the end of August into the beginning of September at three venues; and, of course, "The Nutcracker" performed over four weeks in four cities.
"We're going to be doing some incredible things," said Joe Durwin, the ABB's director of communications and partnerships, one of the small and dedicated staff Culpo credited with helping grow the mission and reputation of the ballet company. "It's going to be a great year."
Talmi agreed with that assessment, especially in regards to "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which she said was "quite a coup and a feather" in Culpo's cap.
"It's time to show the Berkshires … these beautiful productions," she said. "We're the company to do this for this region."
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