By RITA KUEBER
Once upon a time the Cleveland Ballet was likened to an exotic and open-hearted foreign exchange student who flew into our city garbed in colorful clothes, her arms filled with flowers and toe shoes, welcoming everyone she met with a ready smile and a kiss on both cheeks. Gray Cleveland could not believe its great fortune as it warmed to the affable newcomer, hardly believing its luck that such an exotic hot house flower would choose to root itself in the rusty manufacturing fields of Northeast Ohio. Accolades were showered on their performances as well as their school. Life was good. Until it wasn’t. When the money ran out, the student left for a sunnier and seemingly richer opportunity, until that too dissolved and the Cleveland Ballet, well known for its Nutcracker, its Coppélia, Romeo and Juliet and Swan Lake, among other innovative performances, danced no more. *
But that’s not the end of the story.
Rising from those ashes is a hopefully more permanent Cleveland Ballet with veteran dancer and instructor Gladisa Guadalupe at the artistic helm, and her husband, Russian émigré and businessman Michael Krasnyansky, Ph.D. on the administrative side. “When the ballet left for San Jose, I didn’t go,” says Guadalupe. “I opted to stay here – Cleveland is my home. “We brought in everybody who had been working at the school – teachers, accompanists, everybody, because we still had students here – we had an instant business. And nineteen years later, here we are, still teaching.”
Guadalupe was born in Puerto Rico and after studying with Ballet de San Juan, at 13 she was offered a scholarship with the School of American Ballet, the official training academy of the New York City Ballet. There she studied under George Balanchine, considered the father of American ballet. As a principal dancer, she worked with Ballet de San Juan, Ballet Nuevo Mundo de Caracas (Venezuela) and The Cleveland-San Jose Ballet. Retired from the stage, besides teaching she was a consultant for The Cleveland Orchestra, Playhouse Square Center, American Ballet Theater and many other artistic organizations. Guadalupe also serves on her alma mater’s Alumni Advisory Committee on Diversity and Inclusion.
By 2014 Guadalupe and her staff had been training young dancers to become professionals for years, and in fact the school has graduates working in troupes throughout Europe, the US and South America. It was Krasnyansky who voiced the opinion that if the school was busy training core members of far flung companies, why should a dancer have to leave town to work professionally? Why not open a company in Cleveland?
However the couple faced an uphill battle, financially speaking, since most funders still felt the pinch of the former iteration running into financial quicksand. Consequently, rather than wait for donations or grants, the couple funded the company themselves and the budget is now a modest $1 million annually, a budget they hope to move the needle on, perhaps up to $3 million in the near future.
“It’s very important to us to have people understand we bought the name but have nothing to do with the former organization,” Guadalupe says. “Artistically that was a phenomenal company, but now we have other talent. I was there, and this is not the previous company. All we need is goodwill; for people to understand we are fiscally responsible, with a different board and a different vision, and to come and see us.”
The distinction between the old and new thinking is that this Cleveland Ballet’s vision of artistic excellence is coupled with creative but lean production values. This season’s Carmen, for example, was a scant 65-minute performance with a minimal set and some recorded music (which saves money). However reviews went on to praise the show for its evocative choreography by Guadalupe, moody lighting, stunning costumes and live performances by mezzo-soprano Zoya Gramagin, tenor Mikhael Urusov and guitarist Yury Nugmanov. Additionally, the dancers themselves provided a musical background as they sang in chorus and banged on tables, in character as gypsies, factory workers and military officers.
“We use skeleton sets and props on stage, and rely on technique,” Guadalupe says. “You can tell a story with beautiful dancers on stage dressed in just leotards and tights – you can convey the story successfully. You don’t need a five-thousand-dollar tutu. My vision is that you show the artistry to the city by having quality dancers and musicians on stage. The layman will understand and enjoy the story even more because of the pure simplicity. And we are beginning to see people understanding and enjoying this.”
A 65-minute ballet? “I’m sure 90 percent want more, but attention spans have changed for everyone,” she says. “So, we invite them back to our next show. I’m retired, no longer a dancer. I don’t need to be onstage, but I see everything I need from sitting in the house [theater]. This is not a prototype. We work every day to make our performances appealing to anyone from four to 90 years old. Our next show doesn’t have to be two and a half hours, but closer to 40 minutes, and 40 minutes with a 20-minute intermission. While I don’t want to cut the score, I want to keep a child’s attention. I even ask our students to help me decide.”
That upcoming show is this Cleveland Ballet’s take on the classic holiday story “The Nutcracker”… but with a twist. The production is based on the classic story by Hoffman, but takes place in a setting evocative of Monte Carlo in the 1920s. Think the Grimaldi family and Grace Kelly. “I have a lot of children involved, even families on stage,” Guadalupe says. “I don’t follow what [previous company founder] Nahat did here. That was very special for all of us who performed that Nutcracker. This is different. This is something that Cleveland can call its own.” The Nutcracker will offer a limited run in December at the Hanna Theater, which the company believes will sell out. The 2019-20 season ends in May with Guadalupe’s production of “The Magic Flute,” set to Mozart’s immortal score.
There are about 50 professional ballet companies in the US, including those located in Cincinnati, Columbus and Dayton (the second oldest company in the country.) But the appeal of telling a story through movement is universal as companies dot the planet from Canada to Australia to Russia. Currently the new Cleveland Ballet is the largest it has been to date, with 25 professional members and four artists-in-residence. Among them is 16-year-old Marla Minadeo, Guadalupe’s daughter, who is believed to be perhaps the youngest professional dancer in the country. Cleveland Ballet dancers hail from Brazil Japan, China, Italy, Belgium, France, and yes, Cleveland.
The children appearing in staged productions are drawn from The School of Cleveland Ballet, a separate non-profit financial entity, and the Cleveland Ballet Youth Company. The School offers introductory and basic motor skills classes to children ages two to eight, dance movement for those ages six to eight, pre-professional classes for students ages eight to 18, as well as adult dance classes for those 21 and older.
In addition to children leaning into ballet training, the School of Cleveland Ballet also has a dance education outreach program for students in Warrensville Heights, Maple Heights and Bedford City Schools. Students receive an hour of class which offers not only ballet movement, but self-discipline, respect, and an appreciation for the arts. For one hour a week, children are treated like artists to see what they can do on stage. They also receive tickets to performances, as the ballet wants to include audience members of all backgrounds and ages.
Part of the company’s very busy schedule at the rehearsal studios in Bedford Heights are sessions for the Cleveland Ballet Youth Company. By audition only, CBYC works with classically trained dancers ages 14-18 in preparation of becoming part of Cleveland Ballet’s core. There is also a unique two-year professional program for dancers ages 18 – 22 that allows aspiring professionals to finish their training while performing.
“This is something we want,” Guadalupe says of the rigorous schedule of instruction and preparation. “We want people born in Cleveland to train in Cleveland, and we want to train students the right way. We take pride in what we are giving these students, in what we are doing,” she says, referring to the School. “We have pros from all over the world who call Cleveland home, and Clevelanders need to be proud of that. They can be very proud when the curtain goes up this ballet company belongs to them. We have put together an amazing group of people. Clevelanders really want this.”
*The Cleveland Ballet was founded by Dennis Nahat and Ian Horvath in 1972. The resident company at first trained dancers but then four years later started performing professional ballet pieces. By 1984 it was a resident company of the newly-renovated State Theatre. From 1985 to 2000 it operated as the Cleveland-San Jose Ballet, balancing its work between the two cities, but then left Ohio for California. It subsequently closed due to financial woes in 2016.