Cincinnati Ballet celebrates a new home with a view to the future.

Cincinnati Ballet building outdoors. Photo by Feinknopf.

Scott Altman, chief executive officer and president, Cincinnati Ballet talks enthusiastically about the organization, its new building at 1801 Gilbert Avenue, new programs, pivoting during COVID and a search committee to replace artistic director Victoria Morgan who has served the company for 25 years.

Formerly executive director of Ballet West in Salt Lake City, Altman has experience in managing ballet organizations as well as major construction projects. He joined the ballet six years ago and saw an enormous potential of the ballet to grow and expand. He was excited about building a new home. In addition, he said the Cincinnati Ballet offered financial stability with a large endowment considering the size of the organization and dedicated patrons who support the ballet.

He oversaw the building of a new facility and knew what to look for in a new building for the ballet. He said the $31.1 million building project was overfunded in 18 months. There is now a small reserve for potential ongoing capital improvements.

Michael and Margaret Valentine, patrons of the ballet for years, gave $10 million as a lead gift. The new building is named after them – the Cincinnati Ballet Margaret and Michael Valentine Center for Dance.

Discussion about a new building began several years before Altman arrived at the ballet. When he arrived, he worked to energize the conversation. A committee headed up a formal search process for a new building. One reason for the relocation was that the TQL stadium had identified a site near the ballet’s previous home at Central and Liberty.

Ballet leaders questioned what happens when there are game and sound issues. The search committee looked at other buildings with the need for open space as opposed to vertical stacking. They did not want to go into a high rise with all the education and rehearsal needs and the ballet had simply outgrown its space.

Over a three-year period, the committee visited several other sites, primarily in the downtown area, but also benchmarked with Kansas City Ballet, the Atlanta Ballet and the Houston Ballet. Access was important as students come from the Tri-State area and beyond. Altman suggested the Gilbert Avenue location.

The ballet put out an architectural request for qualification (RFQ) locally. GBBN Architects won the bid. Lead architect Marcene Kinney, a specialist in arts projects for 30 years, worked on the design. The firm conducted a space needs assessment to determine what elements should be included in the new building. She said the site was difficult to build because it is narrow and there is a grade change where visitors enter at different levels of the building. She added, however, that the building fit into the neighborhood and ballet leaders worked to establish good relationships. The front lobby, for instance, is a space where all are made to feel welcome.

The new building in Walnut Hills reflects the world of dance in many ways. Altman said as a visitor or resident drives down I-71, one of the first thing he or she sees is an iconic arts institution, in proximity to the Cincinnati Art Museum, ArtWorks and Cincinnati Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

Messer Construction created the building in 18 months. The architects wanted the building to tell a story about dance. Several unique features stand out. Even the wallpaper reflects the ballet. Designed by Phil Rowland, the wallpaper includes the names of every production the Cincinnati Ballet has performed. Lights in the ceiling of the main lobby have five wooden slats representing the five positions of ballet. The panels on the outside of the building are arranged in different sizes and lengths in a pattern representing Swan Lake’s musical suite.

In addition, the outside is made of blue glazed terra cotta tile which shimmers when the sun hits it, reflecting dance movement and bringing a warm color to the building. Inside a wide and open space of 57,000 square-feet, there are 26’ tall ceilings with six studios on the second floor, two on the first floor and one on the ground floor. Two studios are large enough to hold Music Hall’s stage. Dance studios are usually behind closed doors.

With this building, the public can look inside and see the dancers practicing and notice the diversity of the people. The dancers can look outside as well as most of the windows are floor to ceiling and transparent.

Cincinnati Ballet – interior view, Photo by Feinknopf.

The new structure opened in June 2021 and had a grand opening in September of this year.

Messer Construction built the edifice in 18 months using a sprung floor with marley among a number of other design elements in creating the structure, which is a once-in-a generation construction.

Carolyn Guido Clifford, director of education and community engagement, likes the new building with natural light and windows for people to see dancers practice. There is a lot of open space from the lobby to the sitting areas. GBBN designed the building with that in mind.

Clifford finds it essential to foster more diverse audiences. She served as a member of a Diversity Task Force which created Cincinnati Ballet’s DEIA (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility) statement, which can be found on Cincinnati Ballet’s website. It emphasizes hiring, productions and key community partners. She wants Cincinnati Ballet to leave a strong legacy.

During COVID, Cincinnati Ballet was a leader in the ballet world bringing live ballet back to the boards. Like other organizations, COVID affected the ballet, although the organization was flexible enough to pivot well. While offering digital programs and pieces from the archives, the ballet also offered an in-person performance called Cincinnati Made in Music Hall ballroom November 5 – 8, 2020. Altman said, “We filmed that, and it appeared on social media and Facebook.”

Because many people missed the arts during the pandemic, the ballet offered the                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Community Performance Series at the new building. It featured interactive and narrated ballets live. In October of 2021, Heroes and Villains was produced for a reasonable $10 admission charge. In January 2022, Aesop’s Fables will be performed. Masks will be required. The venue is the Sheakley Family Premier Studio which holds 150 people for three performances on a Sunday. The company does student performances on Monday.

Altman added that Cincinnati Ballet partnered with WLWT-TV in a one-hour reduced production, The Nutcracker at Home, viewed by 125,000 people last December.

By early last summer, Cincinnati Ballet returned to a full-time schedule. Altman said teaching dance with social distancing can be somewhat challenging. And, the ballet is not ready to bring online new programs, although one is already in place. Clifford gave me a tour and showed me the Otto M. Budig Community Studio where people of all ages with disabilities can take ballet classes using a lift and harness in a program called CB Moves, a program in existence for seven years.

Clifford said competition is tough to get into the Cincinnati Ballet. A former ballet dancer, she manages curriculum for CB Moves and CincyDance! A graduate of Northern Illinois University where she majored in theater studies, Clifford previously danced in New Orleans.

The Otto M. Budig Academy serves 600 families with pre-professional ballet training to all ages and abilities, children’s and youth dance programs, adult and fitness classes, dance education for K-12 schools and adaptive dance programs.

Classes begin in CincyDance! with second graders at Cincinnati Public Schools, area private schools and parochial schools. Cincinnati Ballet faculty hold basic ballet classes in gyms or classrooms usually for six weeks.

From this group students are invited to Ballet Foundations, a 15-week class which includes more advanced ballet classes. Ninety students may audition, but only approximately 40 are accepted. The program is free with dancewear provided.

Out of this program, Cincinnati Ballet offers five to six students a lifetime scholarship, dancewear, pointe shoes and dance attire. This has existed for 27 years.

Cincinnati Ballet training prepares dancers for additional roles and future careers, both as dancers, choreographers and teachers. The main company has 26 dancers, and the second company has 12 dancers. Main company, second company and professional dancers train full-day five days a week. Advanced level academy students also have classes five days a week, but not a full day.

The ballet mounted King Arthur’s Camelot November 5 to 7 and now is going into The Nutcracker season from December 16 to 26. In 2022, the ballet will perform Cinderella from February 17 to 27. Following that is a one-hour production, perfect for families and children, of Snow White from April 7 to 10. Closing the 2021-22 season is Bold Moves Festival from May 12 to 22. These productions continue the tradition of celebrating Victoria Morgan’s 25 years as artistic director.

Cincinnati Ballet traditionally performs at Music Hall and the Aronoff Center for the Arts. Cervilio Amador, who danced with the Cincinnati Ballet for fifteen years, is one of the ballet masters. Dale Shields is the other ballet master. Suzette Webb, director of the Second Company, runs the second company and student performances.

Also on the horizon is a search committee chaired by Debbie Brant using the resources of Management Consultant for the Arts, Stamford, Connecticut, looking for a replacement for Victoria Morgan, now 70, who has helmed the ballet for a quarter of the century. They have identified a handful of candidates. Altman expects that early in January the ballet will announce a new artistic designate so that the person can take over by July 31, 2022, when Morgan officially retires.

Another view of the ballet and the new building comes from dancer Melissa Gelfin De-Poli, 29, who traces her interest in dance to age three when she started taking lessons. Her family was musically inclined so she grew up surrounded by the arts. She liked the discipline and culture of the arts. “When I was 13, we had to decide what path I was going to take,” she said.

After dancing with the Orlando Ballet for four seasons, she joined the Cincinnati Ballet in the 2014-2015 season. She was promoted to Corps de Ballet in February 2015 and then to senior soloist in 2017. She became a principal in 2018 dancing both classical and contemporary work. She wasn’t expecting the promotion and decided to go slow and steady. “Before that, it scared me,” she added.

De-Poli has danced principal roles in such productions as Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz.  Recently, she appeared in King Arthur’s Camelot as Guinevere. One of her favorite roles is Juliet, a career defining moment, in the well-known story of Romeo and Juliet performed in the 2017 – 2018 season.

De-Poli as Odette and Odile in Swan Lake. Photo by Hiromi Platt. Choreographer: Kirk Peterson.

Of her rise through the ballet ranks, she said, “I’ve always wanted to see how much more I could do with my career.” She filmed a video and auditioned for fifteen companies. She talked to friends about the Cincinnati Ballet. “I was overwhelmed by the dancers,” De-Poli said. “It was an environment where I could push my limits.” Growing up, she always looked to principal dancers and wondered how she was going to get there. “I wanted to be a professional dancer,” De-Poli said.

“Artistic Director Victoria Morgan gave me directions. She held my hand and talked to me,” De-Poli said. “The next day I was offered a contract.” To see Morgan as a director was overwhelming to the dancer. “It’s all consuming. She managed with kindness. It’s something very special. Most people don’t have that at the top,” she added. “The company is hard to come by. Cincinnati family is a home for me,” De-Poli said, “There is no other director like her – kind, strong, commanding. She created a beautiful atmosphere. You won’t find that in other places. She will be missed.”

“My hard work paid off,” she said.

De-Poli said the new building is a dream. “It’s beautiful and filled with room for creativity. I feel motivated. There is so much light and studio space. It brought the company up to another level. Lots of other companies are interested in what the Cincinnati Ballet is doing.” It came out of the pandemic on a high note.

As Clifford said of the new building, “It has been an exciting change and open to the community. The expansion and growth are inspiring. The possibilities are endless.”

Cincinnati Ballet continues to grow and thrive in its new building.

–Laura Hobson

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