'Thirty Something!' Marks Connecticut Ballet's 35th Anniversary

Special to the Courant

A self-described "dance evangelist" Brett Raphael will continue to crisscross the state of Connecticut this year with his Summer Dance Caravan, designed to promote classical dance with free, traveling, outdoor shows.

For 35 years as the founder of Connecticut Ballet, Raphael has been developing an audience for ballet. Today, he can sit back and see, with satisfaction, some of his adult audience members who were first exposed to dance through a Connecticut Ballet outreach program.

"It's exciting to be 35," said Raphael of his company's 35th season, which will be celebrated with performances of "Thirty Something!" April 29 at The Bushnell and May 6 at The Palace in Stamford.

"We do a lot of dance instruction and performances for young people. It's who we are and who we have become. After a while we have a generation of audiences who have seen us in some distant past," said Raphael of his company, founded in 1981. Outreach has run the gamut from schools to juvenile detention facilities and to places like the Elizabeth Park Rose Garden.

"It all adds up and brings a general enthusiasm from the state. We are really proud of carrying the state's name and having that as our moniker of representing professional dance in Connecticut," said Raphael.

Punctuating that sentiment is that he will be showcasing 22 dancers in "Thirty Something!" who are all Connecticut Ballet dancers, bringing in no guest dancers for the three ensemble pieces carefully selected to harness the strength and versatility of Connecticut Ballet. When reaching back into his repertoire, Raphael found 101 pieces, and out of those, he culled three to express his company's artistic breadth.

The program opens with Fokine's "Les Sylphides," a lyrical Romantic ballet that elevates the female form on pointe. Describing the ballet as a "poetic exposition of the music," Raphael observes that the ballet unfurls as a mood rather than being propelled by a story line. "It doesn't have to tell a story," he said of the ballet set to Chopin. "It's about a poet imagining these sylphs."

In selecting the piece, Raphael said he wanted to honor ballet's heritage. Created in 1907, "Les Sylphides" introduced the idea of a pure mood for ballet, a style known now as "ballet blanc." The ballet features a corps de ballet of female dancers in white, romantic length tutus and one male, as the poet. The ballet is lit by a glowing moon, bathing the atmosphere with a mysterious, transient longing.

Following this non-narrative work will be "Strays," a ballet choreographed by Lila York for the company in 1990. Raphael is notably proud of this commission, as it was the first ballet commission for York, a Paul Taylor dancer. After setting the ballet on the company, York would go on to have the piece premiere in New York the same year.

"At that time she was an emerging choreographer and female. Think back 27 years ago when things weren't as out there as women in the ballet world," said Raphael, noting that its strength and its appeal, as it went on to be performed at places like Juilliard and Memphis Ballet. "We are bringing it back, we want this generation to see it."

Raphael describes "Strays" as being a lush work, one that is both technically challenging as well as beautifully structured. Set to Aaron Copland's Clarinet Concerto, "Strays" is at times boisterous and full-blown, and at others possesses lonely and quiet passages. "It's an expressive, abstract piece," Raphael said of the ballet, which is contemplative, and ends in ambiguity.

'Best Of Fosse'

The program reaches its crescendo with "Steam Heat: The Best of Bob Fosse." Pure energy is stirred up in this work that features the sixties and seventies social dances that articulates a new American generation. "I think it will connect a lot with our audiences. Even if you didn't grow up in the 1960's you can get into the rhythm and American statements," said Raphael. The company debuted this work in 2008 with a "Tribute to Broadway" program.

For Connecticut Ballet, their 35 year mark is as much about celebrating its past as it is embracing the future. Raphael has managed to survive tough times, and continues to look forward, stating he would like to be able to perform more often and hire dancers for longer contracts to keep them gainfully employed in Connecticut.

Funding ballet is the hardest part of the business, as it is the most costly and least portable art form, noted Raphael. Giving Raphael full credit for the longevity of his company that is based in Hartford and maintains a studio in Stamford is David E. A. Carson, of Bloomfield. A former president of People's United Bank, Carson is also on Raphael's board of advisers. From time to time he can be seen portraying character roles in the ballets, a tradition that goes back to 1988 with his very first appearance as the Duke of Courland in "Giselle." At the time, he was president of the bank, and this proved to be a savvy public relations move that captured media attention. Carson in full regalia appeared on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, with papers nation-wide following suit.

Raphael's cleverness with publicity is matched with his ability for vision, leadership, and financial stewardship, said Carson. "The biggest thing going for him in fundraising is he doesn't run a deficit. You can't run a deficit in the arts. People don't want to fund last year's failure."

Failure doesn't seem to be a part of Raphael's lexicon. As a 10-year-old dancer, Raphael was chosen by George Balanchine to receive a Ford Foundation scholarship to the School of the American Ballet. He has toured with Stars of the American Ballet and has choreographed for other companies, including Boston Ballet, Netherlands Dans Theater and Joffrey II Dancers.

But it is here in Connecticut where he has made his imprimatur, forming the company, performing leading roles, and then going on to be a mentor and teacher to many — estimating he has had over a thousand professional dancers come through his doors.

"My sense is the young people who come to work on the performances just love him. He is an outstanding teacher, he gets the best out of everybody. I've never heard him raise his voice, he does it with gentle persuasion and demonstration, and knowing what a dancer's body can do, he is a great resource for Connecticut and the world of dance," said Carson.

And Raphael, himself, doesn't appear to have lost any enthusiasm as a dance evangelist who appears to be in his element when making dance accessible, either in his touring Summer Dance Caravan, or outreach efforts at places like libraries, or during his 1999-2004 tenure as the president of Connecticut Dance Alliance.

"We can't be complacent," said Raphael of building the audience for dance. "We are fighting for every ticket sold, dance is accessible. Ballet isn't an ivory tower art form, it is full of feeling and movement and we want to share it."

THIRTY SOMETHING! will be performed 7:30 p.m. April 29 at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford, and 7:30 p.m. May 6 at the Palace, Stamford Center for the Arts, 61 Atlantic St., Stamford. Tickets are $35 plus a theater surcharge. To purchase tickets, visit bushnell.org or palacestamford.org, or call 860-987-5900, or 203-325-4466. For more information, connecticutballet.org.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correctly state that Connecticut Ballet is based in Hartford and has a studio in Stamford.

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