The Springfield Ballet Company:
How one of the oldest civic ballet companies in Illinois continues to thrive
By Gina DeCroix Russell, SBC Ballet Mistress
The Springfield Ballet Company was formed in 1975 by the merger of two local dance companies – Copper Coin Ballet and Ballet Concert Group. Founded by Mildred Caskey in 1959, Copper Coin Ballet was the first regional ballet company in the Midwest. Dorothy Irvine, the original ballet mistress of Copper Coin Ballet, started her own company, Ballet Concert Group, about six years later. But, the Springfield community was hard pressed to viably support two ballet companies; and shortly after Grace Luttrell Nanavati assumed the role of artistic director of Copper Coin Ballet in 1973, discussions about a merger of the two groups began.
Three women – Mildred Caskey, Dorothy Irvine and Grace Luttrell Nanavati – and their love of dance, paved the way for what is now one of the strongest and oldest civic ballet companies in the Midwest, and provided a foundation for cultivating the educational and performance environment of many now professional dancers, choreographers and teachers.
Little details are known about the exact biographical information of Mildred Caskey. According to Nanavati, Caskey danced at Jacob’s Pillow and spent time dancing professionally on the East coast, most notably as a Ted Shawn dancer. Her Springfield roots began, though, years before her professional career. Mildred Caskey began teaching dance lessons out of her home. Dorothy Irvine, having been one of Caskey’s very first students worked for Caskey as a student-teacher and then instructor. Caskey then left Springfield to pursue her professional career.
A few year’s later, when she was 20, Dorothy Irvine’s father built her a small bungalow on South College (where she still lives to this very day, at the age of 91), complete with a dance studio in the basement. It was from there that she cultivated her dancers. Several years later, after Irvine already had two children and had opened her own studio – Dorothy Irvine’s School of Dancing – Caskey (who had returned to Springfield and also had a studio in town, Caskey Dance Studio) contacted her about plans to create a regional ballet company in Springfield, and asked if Irvine would serve as her ballet mistress. Irvine agreed.
And thus, in the fall of 1959, the Copper Coin Ballet was born.
According to the summarized history of the Copper Coin Ballet in its 1968 program booklet for “Shadows of Glory” (a ballet about Abraham Lincoln), Caskey felt that an area “so far removed from the urban advantages of a metropolitan city needed an outlet for their abilities and should have a source of information and training through contacts with nationally and internationally known and artistically accepted dancers and teachers – and advantage that might not be available to them as individuals." This program also acknowledged that the Copper Coin Ballet was modeled after the Atlantic Civic Ballet, originally known as the Dorothy Alexander Concert Group, which was organized in 1929 by Dorothy Alexander and was the nation’s first regional ballet company.
Shortly after the creation of the Copper Coin Ballet, Stanley Herbert, who danced under Anthony Tudor and Agnes DeMille, came to work with company dancers for a brief training session. Herbert was just one of the first of hundreds of guest artists who have come through Springfield to share their knowledge and passion for dance. The company even brought in Ruth Page, Richard Arve and Fred Hensey in 1967. The original mission of the company was “to establish a civic project which fosters dancing as a fine art, to encourage excellence in ballet through awards of scholarship, and to provide a medium of expression for regional choreographers, dancers, musicians and designers." This was a mission that Copper Coin excelled in, and Grace Luttrell Nanavati was one of the first recipients of a dance scholarship.
After beginning her training at the age of four, with Bettie Jo Mack, to strengthen “weak ankles,” Nanavati transitioned to Caskey Dance Studio and became an assistant teacher. At the age of 10, she joined the Copper Coin Ballet. By this time, Dorothy Irvine had split from the company and created her own performance group, Ballet Concert Group. And, for a short time, Springfield was the home of two competing ballet companies. Nanavati danced with Copper Coin Ballet throughout high school, and attended Gulf Park College where the American Dance Theatre hosted their training. But the college was devastated by Hurricane Camille in 1969; and Nanavati returned to Springfield. She briefly attended Springfield College in Illinois, majoring in math and science, but was ultimately unhappy. She then attended Butler University, which was one of the handful of universities offering a degree program in dance at that time.
One of Nanavati’s instructors was George Verdak, then artistic director of the Indianapolis Ballet Theater and head of the dance department at Butler University, as well as a former Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo dancer. Nanavati’s relationship with Verdak would prove to be beneficial to the future Springfield Ballet Company and the community at large.
Nanavati completed her degree; and although she had several offers to teach at the university level, Nanavati chose to come back to Springfield. At this time, Caskey Dance Studio and the Copper Coin Ballet were going through some changes, and Caskey had moved to Florida. The timing couldn’t have been better for Nanavati; she bought the studio and assumed the role of artistic director of the Copper Coin Ballet in 1973.
But, the talented dancers in Springfield were split between Dorothy Irvine’s Ballet Concert Group and the Copper Coin Ballet. According to an article by Virginia Riser Scott, “By the early 70s the sibling rivalry between Copper Coin and Ballet Concert Group was clearly a problem. Neither group could grow or remain solvent so long as it had to struggle for a share of a limited pool of talent and money." And, Dorothy, who had danced with Grace’s mother as a young girls, recalls it was “very hard” to sustain two companies in a community the size of Springfield.
So, Nanavati contacted Irvine. In a 1989 interview she said, “I didn’t know Dorothy. But I knew one thing. She’s got nice dancers. She teaches good, solid technique. And, I thought, with a city of this size, why should we try to support two groups?” And so, after months of negotiations, and with an interim board of directors in place, the Springfield Ballet Company (SBC) was formed in summer of 1975. Dorothy Irvine and Grace Luttrell Nanavati (then Grace Luttrell) served as co-directors.
Soon thereafter, the newly formed SBC shifted from offering scholarships to one or two of its dancers, and instead began using the money to bring in acclaimed teachers for master workshops that the entire company, and community, could attend. In October of 1975, the SBC brought Gus Giordano, George Verdak, Larry Long of the Ruth Page Foundation School of Dance, and Lou Conte to Springfield. This served as a way to better prepare the dancers for the coming season, and exposed them to various techniques in dance, making them more well rounded – a practice that is still in effect today with the SBC.
SBC’s first production as a company was “The Nutcracker.” Dorothy Irvine saw the company through its first full year, and retired after the following season’s Nutcracker performance. Deborah Hadley, a former charter member of Joffrey II, moved to Springfield and joined the SBC as co-director in 1977. In 1978, Elaine Thomas, who had an extensive resume including the Royal Academy of Dance, and had previously worked with Nureyev, Fonteyn, Cranko and Nijinska, came to the SBC to assist in the staging of “Giselle.” Hadley performed the title role, and wore a costume worn by Margot Fonteyn for the local production. Unfortunately, Hadley left after two short years in Springfield to join the Pacific Northwest Ballet Company as a principal dancer, and master teacher.
In 1981, the Springfield Ballet Company staged its annual production of “The Nutcracker,” which by now was an annual holiday classic, and the bread and butter of the SBC, in a brand-new performing arts venue suitable for dance, a first for the Springfield community. Sangamon State University’s (now the University of Illinois at Springfield) Sangamon Auditorium seats more than 2,000 audience members; and the SBC sold out both of their matinee performances that first year, and again for many years to come.. But, a bigger space meant a desperate need for new sets and scenery, and a couple years later George Verdak returned to Springfield again – this time as an artist.
In addition to his extensive dance background, Verdak also studied painting at the Art Institute in Chicago. He, with the help of more than 50 people, designed and painted backdrops for the SBC’s productions of “The Nutcracker” and “Coppelia.” While in Springfield, Verdak was asked why he was in the Midwest and not out in New York. His response was that he believed the ballet “situation” in the United States had decentralized and that the exceptional or first-rate work in dance was no longer limited to New York or the West Coast.
Verdak was right.
Because of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Illinois Arts Council, the SBC was able to survive and thrive. According to Reynolds and McCormick, “The effect of the government’s entry into the world of performing arts was a dramatic proliferation of dance events and a greatly increased catchment area, both geographically and demographically." Without some of this funding, the SBC may not have had the fiscal success that it did. And, without the hard work and dedication of Nanavati, who served as artistic director without pay until the company was in the black, the SBC may not have even existed today.
The SBC has changed and adapted many times based on financial considerations. It initially tried to hold three productions annually at Sangamon Auditorium, but poor attendance caused the company to reevaluate its repertoire. The fall performance was soon taken back to a smaller venue, and the company began performing storybook ballets in the spring. But, rotating between “The Sleeping Beauty,” “Cinderella” and “Coppelia” proved to be challenging, so Nanavati created, choreographed and compiled music for SBC’s very own “Snow White,” and later, “Pinocchio."
In 1994, the SBC brought its fall show back to the Sangamon Auditorium stage with “U2SBC,” created by then ballet mistress and now artistic director Julie Ratz, and modeled after Joffrey Ballet’s successful “Billboards” production. U2SBC transformed into “Rockballet” the following season, and has become a staple of the SBC season each year. The production proved to be a growth experience for the dancers as well as the audience, many of whom would not have previously ventured to a dance performance. Themes for the annual production have ranged from the 80s, to the Top Ten Greatest Artists of All Time, to Queen, to One Hit Wonders, and Motown. Through the varying themes, and by hiring world-renowned choreographers and performers such as Hernan Justo, Harrison McEldowney, Julie Tice, Margi Cole, Adam Sage, Krenley Guzman, Paul Cipponeri, Wilfredo Rivera, Tony Peyla, Anthony Orrico, and Todd Kiech – and this list includes just a handful of those who have collaborated with the SBC over the past few years.
Collaborations and professional “friendships” have proven to be vital to the success of the SBC, as nearly all of the male performers in SBC productions have to be hired in, often working for little to no money. Company dancers have been fortunate to have, as their partners, professional and former professionals dancers, which in return propels the dancers forward to a new level of professionalism, worthy of the community’s respect and support. Nanavati’s original hopes for the SBC were that it would in time develop into a semi-professional ballet company, a goal that has not yet been reached.
However, one of the original goals of Copper Coin Ballet – “to provide the opportunity to work with other dancers having similar ambitions, to be able to discuss problems, exchange ideas, and at the same time gain a working knowledge of the discipline and dedication demanded of a professional dancers” – HAS.
The Springfield Ballet Company has provided a springboard that has propelled dancers into professional careers in dance. Julie Tice, recently retired Paul Taylor Dance Company member, grew up dancing with the Springfield Ballet Company. Tice was first exposed to modern dance through the summer intensive workshops the SBC provided to its dancers. Tice said, “They were great. It was fun to dance barefoot.” When she was 15, she attended a summer workshop in modern dance at Jacob’s Pillow dance festival in Massachusetts, which is where she was first introduced Taylor choreography.
Tice danced with the SBC through high school, dancing the role of Clara in “The Nutcracker,” as well as many other featured roles. She attended the University of Michigan, majoring in dance. Julie said, “At Michigan, I took modern every day. I also took ballet every day. It was required. Ballet is central to modern dance. You need solid ballet technique to do all those crazy modern moves." And, the Springfield Ballet Company had given Tice the strong foundation needed to exceed in her ambitions.
Tice is just one of the dozens and dozens of dancers who have gone on to successful professional careers as dancers, choreographers, teachers and studio-owners. And, Nanavati, who since retiring as artistic director in 1996 has remained on the SBC board of directors as director emeritus, is pleased with the progress and direction the SBC has taken.
The company is in constant need of finding ways to reinvent itself, to bring in new sources of funding and financial support, to reach new audiences, and to secure its future as a viable interest in the Springfield community. By looking at its roots, its original mission, its successes, and most importantly, its mistakes, the SBC – with the constant guidance and support of its founders, Grace Luttrell Nanavati and Dorothy Irvine – will undoubtedly continue to thrive, even in an economy that has odds stacked against it. Said Irvine, who turned 90 in August 2010, “I have survived one depression, and we will survive yet another. I believe that.”
Irvine passed away in August 2012 at the age of 92. SBC dedicated their 2012-2013 production season in loving memory of Dorothy Irvine. She will be greatly missed.