Madison Ballet's History

In 2011, Madison Ballet proudly celebrated its thirtieth anniversary. That milestone offered a moment to reflect upon Madison Ballet’s beginnings, its artistic and educational successes to date, and its future direction. Just as importantly, it marked a time to recognize and thank all who have made this anniversary possible: young dancers and their teachers, volunteers, donors, community partners, and audiences of all ages. Without their passion for dance, Madison Ballet would not be where it is today.

Now the second-largest dance organization in Wisconsin, Madison Ballet stages professional-caliber public performances, operates a bustling dance school on Madison’s west side, and offers outreach programs in area schools, libraries and community centers.

The Ballet’s history began well before its incorporation in 1981 as the Wisconsin Dance Ensemble (the current name was adopted in 2000). In the 1960s, Tibor Zana founded the Wisconsin Ballet Company and the Madison School of Ballet. In 1968, he staged the community’s first production of The Nutcracker at Madison West High School.

“Tibor started a great tradition,” says W. Earle Smith, Madison Ballet’s artistic director since 1999. “He brought dance to the forefront of the Madison arts community.”

As artistic director of the Wisconsin Ballet Company, Zana sparked interest in dance by attracting international stars to perform with his company, including Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, Edward Villella and Desmond Kelly. Zana also reached thousands statewide through lecture/demonstrations in schools, clubs and even the Waupun prison.

Wisconsin Ballet Company’s roughly eighteen annual Nutcracker performances took place in Wisconsin communities from Rhinelander to Beloit. The production boasted about 70 local performers and many more contributors behind the scenes.

Zana’s zest for dance led to national awards for choreography and the Governor’s Award in Support of the Arts. His enthusiasm also fostered community involvement in dance productions, a tradition JoJean Retrum continued for 22 years, after she co-founded the Madison Youth Ballet (later named the Wisconsin Dance Ensemble) in 1977 with Charmaine Ristow and Vivian Tomlinson.

Gretchen Bourg, Madison Ballet’s general manager, says, “Our rich history and the community’s unwavering support form the foundation of today’s Madison Ballet.”

As artistic director, Smith dubs The Nutcracker a “full-blown community event” made possible by the professional company, those who rehearse the youth performers, production staff and stagehands, and roughly 300 volunteers who help mount the production.

“It's not just about one person, it's about the community,” Smith said. “Many people have been involved in moving the organization forward, and today an entire community continues to make things happen for us.” Smith’s background includes over thirty years of professional experience as a choreographer, teacher and performer.

During his tenure, Smith has added over fifteen new works to Madison Ballet’s repertoire, including Cinderella, Peter Pan and Peter Anastos’ clever adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which local dance critic Katie Reiser proclaimed “frothy and fun.” Smith’s repertoire works, such as Night Dances, Expressions, and Le Luce de Amore, have delighted audiences with their athleticism and roots in the Balanchine style.

In 2004, with a generous gift from the American Girl Fund for Children, Madison Ballet premiered Smith’s adaptation of The Nutcracker for the opening of the spectacular new Overture Center for the Arts. The Ballet is proud to be one of Overture’s ten resident arts organizations.

Over the last three decades, over 250,000 people have attended Madison Ballet’s Nutcracker. During the 2013-2014 season, over 25,000 residents saw a performance, participated in an educational or outreach program, or studied at the School of Madison Ballet. While The Nutcracker remains the linchpin of Madison Ballet’s schedule each year, performances such as Pure Ballet and An Evening of Romance show audiences a different side of the art form.

Madison Ballet opened its School of Madison Ballet in September 2005 with seventy students. Today, enrollment is at 500 and growing each year. Alumni of the school and studio company have gone on to a number of prestigious companies and schools, such as Sacramento Ballet, Miami City Ballet, School of American Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet School, and Ballet Chicago.

Dance education also reaches Head Start preschool classrooms around the city through Madison Ballet’s “Movement in Your World,” a seven-week creative movement program. Head Start boosts school readiness for economically disadvantaged children, and “Movement in Your World” ensures that children have valuable opportunities for self-expression and exposure to the arts.

Other community outreach programs such as “Madison Ballet: Offstage & Personal” and “Behind the Curtains” bring the magic of Madison Ballet to both the young and young-at-heart, providing new perspectives on this timeless art form.

“Our role is to promote dance throughout the community by providing performing opportunities for dancers and quality productions for audiences,” Smith said. "We want to continue those important traditions and, at the same time, strengthen the organization both artistically and financially.” In 2012, Madison Ballet and Madison Youth Choirs embarked on a “shared service” project  designed to streamline operations and costs for both. The two organizations currently share programming space, office space and a Program Service Coordinator.

With both smart planning and high artistic ambitions, Madison Ballet is poised for many more years of bringing dance to south-central Wisconsin. As Susan Kepecs wrote in the January 2005 issue of Dance Magazine, “[T]he organization is charting new ground.” With thirty years of fertile ground now below its feet, Madison Ballet promises to keep on its toes and delight audiences for years to come.