Ballet performances are not designed for children. They start late, last long and, after the glamour of the tutus and leaping wears off, the dancing fails to hold the attention of a child used to a storyline carried by dialogue and action.
That's why I love Ballet Tuesdays at Landmark Center. The program was conceived by the Saint Paul City Ballet as a way to introduce classical ballet in an informal setting. Dancers demonstrate ballet movements and perform excerpts from their current repertoire every second Tuesday of the month in first-floor atrium. Now in its third year, the program has been attracting a steadily growing crowd.
On the second Tuesday in January, when I took my 6-year-old daughter, tables in front were filled with chatting mothers and young children eating snacks, a handful of them dressed in tutus. We slipped into chairs toward the back, surrounded by adults who had come to enjoy ballet on their lunch hour.
Saint Paul City Ballet's executive director Georgia Finnegan Amdahl said she was surprised at first to see how many parents with young children started showing up for the free performances. She originally envisioned a showcase similar to the Schubert Club's successful noontime concerts, which draw a mostly adult crowd once a month to hear classical music.
But ballet is alluring to children, especially girls.
"There are always the younger girls who dream about being a ballerina," said Finnegan Amdahl, who wanted to study ballet
My daughter and I watched as
"Now, we're going to do a plie and a jump," explained company member Ted Sothern, who returned to the Twin Cities after a long career with professional companies in other cities, including as a soloist with the Washington Ballet in Washington, D.C. He stood with his heels touching and his toes pointed outward. He told us to look for the diamond shape formed by his legs as he bent his knees into a plie. Then he pushed up and into the air.
"Push...land. Push...land," he said in time to his jumps. One of the male dancers stood behind one of the women and lifted her high as she jumped. Then they invited the kids to come up and try it. Sothern also taught a short character dance, a stylized folk or national dance that's often inserted into a classical ballet. Three brave moms and a few kids came up to learn a Polonaise in three-quarter time. I tried to coax my daughter to the front, but she shook her head and looked down. She'll dance with abandon in the living room, but not in front of strangers.
"When are they going to come out in costumes?" she whispered.
Costumes were saved for the second half, when the dancers performed an excerpt from Raymonda, a classical Russian ballet the company had started rehearsing only the week before. (They performed it at the end of January at the Ordway McKnight Theatre, along with several more contemporary pieces.)
The male lead was dressed in gold tights and a tight red jacket with long gold sleeves. The female lead wore a stiff gold tutu that stood straight out from her waist like bristles on a bottlebrush. Completing her outfit were a glittery faux diamond necklace, earrings and, much to my daughter's delight, a tiara on her upswept hair.
"They're like royal costumes," my daughter whispered. As the two danced, a toddler in winter boots and a jeans skirt dashed onto the floor. Her mother tried to lure the child back, hissing instructions and beckoning with a bent finger. But the toddler was oblivious, and mom eventually had to run out to fetch her. The dancers didn't miss a step.
Ballerina Jennifer Rockwell danced to the very edge of the dance floor. Then she slowly unfolded her long leg from under her gold tutu until her pointed toe hovered just a couple of feet away from the upturned faces of preschool girls seated on the floor. They were enthralled.
She smiled down at the girls before twirling away in her partner's arms.
After the performance, girls flocked onto the dance floor to get their photos taken with Rockwell. One girl showed her a video she had taken on her mom's camera.
"Oh, beautiful," said Rockwell, crouching to look into the screen. "Did you take that?"
Rockwell said she looks forward to the Tuesday performances, which are so different from performing on stage, when she looks into the darkness of the auditorium.
"Here, you can make eye contact with the kids, and their faces light up when you do that, you can see their wonder," said Rockwell. "They can see I'm looking right at them."
Among her fans were 4-year-old Abby Heil, who had come to several Tuesday performances with her mother, Sheila Heil, and their friend Sally Rafowicz and her 4-year-old daughter Rachel Rafowicz.
"They look forward to coming all month and wear their ballet clothes under their school clothes," said Heil, who took ballet classes in college and is thrilled to share her love of dance with her daughter. As the dance floor cleared, little Abby and Rachel started doing pirouettes.
"The show of Cinderella is about to begin!" Abby announced. "Take your seats, everyone."
In coming years, Amdahl hopes to build Saint Paul City Ballet into a larger company capable of staging classic full-length ballets like Swan Lake, with all professional dancers. It will be a challenge, given the Twin Cities' strong tradition of support for contemporary dance. If and when it happens, kids like Abby and Rachel who have been raised on Ballet Tuesdays may form the core of an educated and enthusiastic new audience.
Maja Beckstrom can be reached at 651-228-5295.
What: Ballet Tuesdays with Saint Paul City Ballet
Where: Landmark Center, 75 W. Fifth St., St. Paul
Information: 651-292-3225 or landmarkcenter.org.
Hours: Second Tuesdays of the month, September through May
Target audience: Adults and children who want a casual, interactive ballet performance
Crowd pleaser: Getting to stand up mid-performance to try a jete.
Avoid: Bad sightlines. Arrive early to snag a table in front.
Tip: Bring your own food or buy takeout at Anita's Cafe in the Landmark Center.
Special event: The Saint Paul City Ballet also presents a free program today at 1 p.m. in the F. K. Weyerhaueuser Auditorium in the Landmark Center. The narrated 1-1/2-hour show includes highlights from the company repertoire. Kids are encouraged to wear their favorite dance clothes and will learn a short piece of choreography.
More: Read previously published Family Outings at MinnMoms.com/outings.