A quarter century of ballet is the gift that Eastern Connecticut Ballet School has given to the region, and as the anniversary celebrations begin, founder Lise Reardon reminisces.
“I started the school in my home, with just a few students. Soon, the numbers grew to about 60, but the space didn’t.” She laughs. “One day my husband came home and said, ‘I’m tired of tripping over pink legs. You’ve grown too big for this place.’ We decided that, if we built it, they would come.”
Reardon’s vision for the school has remained the same as back then: to create a first-class school right in her own corner of the world, and to make resources available that are somewhat removed from the region. She nods, thinking back. “I was slow about it. I’m a step-by-step person, but I gained confidence and eventually brought in stronger teachers like Debra Collins Ryder, Adam Miller and Krystin Baribault of The Hartford Ballet/Hartt School. And Gloria!”
Gloria Govrin, the school’s artistic director, danced with New York City Ballet for fifteen years, and was affiliated with both the Pennsylvania Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet School. Her enthusiasm for Eastern Connecticut Ballet is clear: “Things have changed so much,” she says. “The potential was always there. Not only have we grown in size, but in attitude. The students and the parents are interested in ballet.”
Reardon agrees. “In the old days, the parents were happy with a couple of classes a week. Now, I think the change is the willingness of the parents to come along for the ride and make the commitment. And it’s a big commitment for the families—there are a lot of dinners that aren’t shared together.”
But the investment is worth it, parents say. “There’s a snowball effect, because as the students become stronger and enjoy their accomplishments, the parents are confirming what we are doing.”
And the cycle continues—Rebecca McCue danced at ECB until age 14, and now, her 5-year-old daughter, Elena, is dancing there. Asked to share her favorite thing about dancing, Elena says, “Being in the Irish Dance and getting a ballet medal.”
Success stories are filled with glowing accolades from students who’ve danced at Eastern Connecticut Ballet. Larissa Higgins started her ballet career when the school was in Reardon’s basement, and stayed with ECB until transferring to the National Ballet School of Canada for her junior and senior years. After graduation, she danced professionally for six years in Germany, but remembers vividly her time at ECB.
“I think I was in the first group of students to perform at the Garde. I was about 12 years old and it was the first time I’d been in a real theater,” she says. “We had a packed audience, and I loved it.”
Both Reardon and Govrin are proud of the accomplishments of the students. Mariah Gravelin began ballet at age four, studied for 14 years, and is now a junior in the Ailey/Fordham BFA dance program.
“But I still call ECB my home,” she says. “It was there I knew I could be the dancer I wanted to be.”
Eastern Connecticut Ballet started out with two or three teachers, and now employs seven. From 60 students twenty-five years ago to around 350 now is impressive for a community this size. And even more exciting is the ability to draw renowned dancers to teach and dance with the school. Stars like New York City Ballet principal dancers, Sara Mearns and Jared Angle, have made a lasting impact on both the students and the community.
Tieren-Rose Mandelburg, who will graduate this spring, also began dancing at ECB at the age of about four.
“I cannot imagine the dancer and person I would be had I not trained there,” she says. “Being given the honor to learn the Arabian Dance from Ms. Govrin for Nutcracker was probably the greatest honor I’ll ever receive. It is one of my greatest memories.”
For Lise Reardon, the most heartening part of the journey has been the impact the school has made on the region, and how many people are touched by the beautiful performances that grace the stages at The Garde Arts Center and The Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center.
With all the successes also come the challenges, and the biggest seem to be managing the ever-growing programs, and fundraising. The ECB scholarship program is very important to both the school and the community. ECB awards over $70,000 a year in tuition assistance, provides about 500 "Nutcracker" tickets free of charge through social service agencies, and busses 2,700 school children to the Garde for free school children’s performances.
What’s on for the next 25 years? Reardon chuckles. “Well, there’s this beach in Florida with my name on it...” Then she gestures toward a file cabinet. “But first, I have files filled with ideas and things we’d like to do.” Her wish list includes updates to the "Nutcracker" scenery, a summer program with a residential component, a pianist to play for the ballet classes, and possibly another satellite studio across the Thames.
From modest beginnings to a school that produces the young women who will become the foundations of ballet, Eastern Connecticut Ballet has spent the past quarter century creating and nurturing this region’s cultural treasures.
For more information about classes, events, news and how to support the Eastern Connecticut Ballet, visit easternctballet.com.