With a new executive director, an invitation to perform in Cuba and 15 principal dancers giving it their all, Gainesville’s very own Dance Alive National Ballet is ready to kick off its 53rd season in grand style.
Just when you thought Dance Alive National Ballet couldn’t get any better, Gainesville’s professional ballet company is stepping it up a few notches as it prepares for its 2018-19 season.
The fun begins on Friday night with the annual Meet the Dancers season-opening preview at the Cade Museum of Creativity & Invention. Attendees will be treated to a program that includes scenes from upcoming performances and old favorites. There will also be opportunities to mingle with the company’s 15 principal dancers from all over the globe.
The event begins at 6:30 p.m. and includes wine and champagne, hors d’oeuvres by Sweetwater Catering Co. and decor by Unforgettable Events. Also, Ben Campen will auction off a number of unique experiences, including trips to a Masters practice round and Churchill Downs as well as tickets to see Hamilton on Broadway. Tickets to Meet the Dancers are $75 per person and available through eventbrite.com.
“We’re going to show a little bit of everything during the evening,” said Kim Tuttle, artistic director for Dance Alive National Ballet. “There will be an excerpt from The Nutcracker and an excerpt from our season-opening Wonderment. Ani Collier’s going to choreograph a piece for two of our dancers, and we’re going to close with L’Amour! that we love to do and is so personal and so intimate.”
Dance Alive’s 2018-19 season includes four main productions at the Curtis M. Phillips Center on the UF campus. The lineup includes Wonderment (Oct. 24-25), The Nutcracker (Dec. 12-16), Tango Mucho Madness (Feb. 2) and Land of La Chua (March 1), a celebration of Gainesville’s 150th birthday in 2019.
A few days after performing Wonderment, seven of Dance Alive’s principal dancers will travel to Cuba and perform during the International Ballet Festival of Havana.
“It’s a big deal,” Tuttle said. “We’ve toured Costa Rica, Brazil and Russia. We’ve also had some dancers representing us in Bulgaria because of Ani Collier. But this is the first time we’ve been invited to Cuba.”
On Oct. 29, Dance Alive’s Gretel Batista and Sergii Sydorskyi will perform “La Bayadère” pas de deux. Batista is a native of Cuba.
“I think that Cuba, being a classical place, what they want to see is the classical,” Tuttle said. “And I think it would be really good to showcase two classical dancers doing a classical piece — to show Cuba what we have.”
Two days later, DANB will perform three pas de deux — “Romeo and Juliet” (with Carla Amancio and Fhilipe Teixeira), “Rivers of Belief” (Batista and Teixeira) and “Follia” (Amancio and Andre Valladon) — along with “Latin American Symphonette,” featuring all seven company dancers, including Ashley Brooke Lynn and Cuba native Roberto Vega. The final piece was created by Judy Skinner, Dance Alive’s resident choreographer.
The invitation to perform in Cuba was the result of months of efforts by DANB principal dancer and Cuba native Jessie Dominguez along with Gainesville resident and Cuban-raised photographer Randy Batista. Dominguez, a former principal dancer with the National Ballet of Cuba, used her connections with artistic director Alicia Alonso to help get Dance Alive invited to the prestigious festival.
Sadly, Dominguez and her boyfriend, fellow Cuban dancer and DANB principal Aaron Gomez, will be unable to showcase their skills in Cuba because of delays regarding their green card applications.
“Jessie’s pretty sad,” Tuttle said. “She told me, ‘I wanted them to see how much freer I am dancing.'”
Meanwhile, Vega will be returning to perform in his homeland for the first time since defecting a few years ago. He was once first soloist with the Cuban National Ballet. Vega’s wife, DANB principal Yulia Pivotskaya, will not be joining the company in Cuba because she recently gave birth to the couple’s first child.
The other Dance Alive National Ballet principal dancers for the 2018-19 season are Julia Ponomareva, Aleksey Kuznetsov, Beatrix Povoas, Rachel Ridley and newcomer Thais Rocha from Brazil. Ridley is in her first season on contract although she has been involved with Pofahl Studios, the official school of DANB, since she was 6.
The two dancers who left Dance Alive after last season were Barbara Varady (Brazil) and Buse Babadag (Turkey), but Tuttle said all of her other principal dancers are quite familiar with each other.
“It’s so nice to have basically the same group,” she said. “I think it’s cohesive. People know each other. There’s enough newness that makes things interesting. And they love to dance, they love to perform and they love living in an environment like Gainesville. It’s a nice place to live.”
There is another new face at Dance Alive National Ballet, but don’t expect to see any dance moves from her. Lee May is the company’s new executive director. She took over from Tuttle on July 1.
May previously served as chairperson and executive director of the non-profit Gainesville Area Innovation Network (GAIN), where she was instrumental in developing community partnerships and sponsorships for key programs and for successfully growing GAIN membership from 200 to more 3,600 statewide members.
“It was truly rewarding,” May said. “I think of so many of those startup companies as my children. So when I committed to this position with Dance Alive, I came with the vision that I was going to approach it as a startup because my expertise is in business development.”
Before her work with GAIN, May was a successful real-estate broker in Gainesville and past chairman of Emergent Growth Fund LLC, a Florida-based angel fund. She also owns Sigma Consulting and Management, LLC.
After leaving GAIN two years ago, May said she needed to take a break. She embarked on a seven-month solo journey of self-discovery that included trekking in Nepal, Southeast Asia, New Zealand, Patagonia and many other faraway lands.
“Lee May is a pretty extraordinary person,” Tuttle said. “We’re just really fortunate that she was at a point in her life where she said ‘I’m not sure what I’m going to do next,’ so we said ‘Why don’t you do this?'”
Tuttle said that May’s primary responsibilities involve raising funds and taking Dance Alive National Ballet to the next level. That includes getting the ballet company its own building for rehearsals and performances rather than continuing to share precious space with Pofahl Studios.
“Lee is the person who can negotiate all this and make it move forward,” Tuttle said. “I think of her as a fixer — in the best of ways. She really has the knowledge and she has a way about her. She’s like a magician. She can ask people for things and they just give. She’s trustworthy that way. You know that if you give money, she’s going to do the right thing by you.”
In turn, May said she is in awe of what sisters Tuttle, 70, and Skinner, 74, have done with Dance Alive National Ballet in the three decades since taking over the company started by their mother, Mary Ellen Pofahl, in 1966.
“It’s amazing what they’ve accomplished — I’m in disbelief!” May said. “They have put their hearts and souls into this company all these years.”
May said it is critical for her to develop a sustainability plan so that Dance Alive National Ballet thrives long after Tuttle and Skinner have stepped aside. An important part of that goal is to make the community aware of what a cultural gem DANB is for Gainesville and North Central Florida.
“I’d love for our state and community to fully appreciate Dance Alive,” she said. “You do that through marketing and making people aware of the performances, and you engage the business community, especially with the decimation of state funding.”
Dance Alive qualified for $78,000 in state funding this year but received only $5,000 of that amount. Part of the solution, according to May, is working with local governments to make up the deficit.
“We’re currently working with the City of Gainesville and Mayor [Lauren] Poe,” May said. “They’re cognizant of the plight the professional cultural organizations in this town are experiencing. They’re trying help us come up with a plan to create a public/private collaboration that will assist in the sustainability of these companies.”
May said she is just getting started.
“I’m very enthusiastic,” she said. “I’ve been accused of being like the Energizer Bunny.”
Tuttle said that she is confident May and the Dance Alive National Ballet Board of Trustees, headed by Gary Ascani, will make the right decisions.
“We’re going into the next stage so that when Judy and I do retire, it will be an institution that can continue on its own,” Tuttle said. “We both know we have to bring fresh blood in here, people who are younger and have a contemporary point of view. It’s good for the dancers, it’s good for the company — and it’s good for us.”
— Noel Leroux
For further info, visit the new Dance Alive National Ballet website (designed by Duncan Kabinu of Gainesville Dev Academy).
Holbrook Travel and Bulla Cubana are organizing a special tour to coincide with Dance Alive National Ballet’s trip to Cuba. For further information, contact Dr. Mercy Quiroga at 305.968.3882 or through firstname.lastname@example.org.