Giving, with a dancer’s grace

Ice-skaters Sara Sheehan, Rebecca Scales, Logan Mims and Amanda Koll dance in unison.

Published: Thursday, December 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 30, 2005 at 4:05 p.m.

Even an organization on a non-profit budget can have a treasure to share with others — that is the underlying principle of The Gainesville Ballet Theatre.

Founded by Joni Messler in 1973, the Gainesville Ballet Theatre, or GBT, has “shaped the lives of hundreds of dancers while providing truly magical gifts to the community,” according the GBT’s vision statement. Its dancers are artists from the community who have trained for years and, in many cases, hope to transition into prestigious ballet schools and companies. Many of them are youngsters.

“We have always considered our community service and involvement to be an important and vital responsibility,” says GBT board president, Denise Bouton. “Each season we are proud to offer numerous free performances, lectures and demonstrations for many of our community’s events, as well as being able to offer and present dance to many different groups, including the under-served and differently- abled — those who may not otherwise have the opportunity to experience the art of dance.”

Some of the agencies to which the GBT donates tickets are the Ronald McDonald House, SPARC, Boys and Girls Clubs of Alachua County, Sidney Lanier School, Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Gainesville, Winn-Dixie Hope Lodge, Girl Scouts, and the Department of Children and Families. Rent, labor, tech, lights: all of it is pro bono.

This holiday season, GBT performs for the 28th time Messler’s original three-act ballet, “The Little Match Girl,” with performances on

December 2 and 3, during which they will entertain at no cost students from low-income schools in Alachua, Union and Marion counties. Based on the Hans Christian Andersen story, Messler’s ballet tells the story of a sweet, but poor, little girl who is ignored by everyone around her during the busy Christmas season. It is filled predominately with youth dancers and a few “actors.”

Benton says that actors in the first act’s community scene — blocked to depict the “hustle and bustle of Christmastime” — are traditionally real members of the Gainesville community, who give up an hour each Wednesday night for eight weeks of rehearsal prior to the performances. At rehearsal several weeks out, Chad Reed directs as dancers in tights share the floor with dads in tube socks and little giggling girls with hair clips mostly undone.

A lot of these volunteers are really old pros. Richard Condit, for example, has played the police officer for 15 years; and Bob Noebel has filled Santa’s shoes for over two decades.

,/em>The message at the heart of “The Little Match Girl” is the same one at the heart of the GBT: Keep your eyes open for the opportunity to help those around you. The GBT encourages the Gainesville community not to be as selfabsorbed as the townspeople in the show; attendees are asked to bring a new, unwrapped toy to whatever performance they attend.

“The toys are donated to Gainesville Community Ministries for distribution to families in our community,” explains Bouton. “The amount of toys collected varies from year to year, ranging from 80 to over 200.”

According to artistic director Judy Benton, “People keep coming back to me every year after the show saying, ‘I never knew this story was this beautiful.’”

Three dancers from the prestigious Joffrey School of Ballet in New York also travel down every winter to perform in the show.

“We want the community to know we’re doing our part, so come out and do your part,” Benton adds.

At press time this fall, the GBT board was debating whether to do a different drive this year to benefit the victims of Hurricane Katrina. In the interest of diversifying, the GBT also reached out to the Interfaith Hospitality Network and Danny Wuerffel’s Desire Street Academy, the college preparatory boarding academy Wuerffel and his wife initially opened in New Orleans and recently moved to the Florida Panhandle, as a result of Hurricane Katrina.

Bouton says that the performances put on for differentlyabled patrons are mutually benefi- cial to the GBT’s young performers, giving them “the opportunity to refine their artistic expression and providing them with increased self-confidence and measurable success.”

In conjunction with the Phillips Center for Performing Arts, the GBT also hosts a year-round “Performance Series for Children and Youth,” through which the theater provides free performances to children in the Head Start program as well as children from lower-income public schools.

“Through the years, we’ve been doing our school shows and targeting those audiences who otherwise wouldn’t get to come to an event like this,” says Benton, who the students who often write ‘thank you’ letters beginning: “I really didn’t think I was going to like this, but...”

“I’ve also heard responses from teachers afterwards about how very surprised they were that the boys were mesmerized by the show, by the costumes and the dancing,” Benton says.

“These audiences are some of our most excited and enthusiastic. They are very vocal, very reactive. If something’s funny, you hear them laugh. They are the most responsive audience we have, and that’s inspiring for the dancers.”

Benton adds that she has seen that inspiration go both ways when the young audiences leave the theater.

“When they’re going back out to their buses, they’re twirling, they’re jumping, they’re dancing,” she says.


You can attend their shows, make an individual donation, or even contribute a dancer or corporate sponsorship. If you’re interested, please contact the GBT by phone (372-9898).

  • The Gainesville Ballet Theatre (GBT), now in its 32nd season, will present : “The Romance of Ballet: Beauty in Dance” on Sunday, February 26, 2006, 2 p.m., at the Alachua County Headquarters Library. “Dance into springtime with this vibrant program featuring a variety of works in classical, contemporary and lyrical ballet, along with modern dance, in a celebration of the beauty and romanticism of dance. This program is a part of the GBT’s ‘Tales & Tutus’ Performance Series, now in its 14th year in conjunction with the Alachua County Library District.” The performance is FREE and is appropriate for all ages. For more information, contact Joni Messler Studio of Dance, (372- 9898).

  • “Danse Fantasque 2006”, on Friday, April 28, 8 p.m., and on Saturday, April 29, 2:30 p.m., at the Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. “The program will feature a variety of diverse works, ranging from classical and contemporary ballet, modern dance and jazz, and including the premier of a new work by guest choreographer, Keith Cross — formerly with Alvin Ailey.” Performances by guest artists from the Joffrey Ballet School, New York City, will also be featured. For more information, contact Joni Messler Studio of Dance (372- 9898), or visit their Website at (This program is funded in part by the City of Gainesville, Cultural Affairs Department, and the Alachua County Tourist Development Tax,

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