For more than two decades, audiences have gathered among the sprawling trees of Woodland Park for a picturesque evening of outdoor dance. This weekend, the tradition continues, with Ballet Under the Stars celebrating its 25th edition.
For the occasion, Kentucky Ballet Theatre will perform a 90-minute selection of works designed to showcase the company's versatility and skill. And in order to commemorate the milestone, KBT artistic director Norbe Risco invited Kirt Hathaway, one of the event's founders, to choreograph The Holberg Suite, a neoclassical number that closes the show's first act.
"It is such an honor to know that a project I was a part of so many years ago is still having success," says Hathaway, who now operates the Hathaway Academy of Ballet in Plano, Texas.
"I remember so well the first year we produced the event," Hathaway says. "I saw that there was a stage already set up for the Shakespeare Festival and approached Kelly Sammons, who was working for Parks and Recreation at the time, and said, 'We can present a dance weekend as well.'"
The Lexington Shakespeare Festival, which has since been replaced by SummerFest and is now presented at the MoonDance at Midnight Pass amphitheater in Beaumont Circle, was presented in Woodland Park at that time.
"One of the fortunate aspects is that I have been asked to return at key points over the 25 years to choreograph a ballet for the performances," Hathaway says. "It truly shows that the city is in support of cultural enrichment for the community. Many other cities should use this model for their communities."
The Lexington Ballet launched the first Ballet Under the Stars in 1990. In ensuing years, it, Kentucky Ballet Theatre and independent groups have put the program together. Since 2010, Ballet Theatre has shared the stage with the Lexington Ballet Company. Each company took turns performing for one half of the evening during the show's run.
This year, however, only Kentucky Ballet Theatre will perform, because of a decision by Lexington Parks and Recreation to feature only one ballet troupe. An independent panel of jurors evaluated applications by area ballets and selected KBT as the featured dance company for the 25th anniversary season.
Risco says his application included his proposal for this year's program, which features three short works in the first act: The Merchant and the Slave, a pas de deux starring incoming powerhouse Jorge Barani and established KBT principal dancer Kelsey Van Tine; Saerpil, an ultra-contemporary dance that will be one of the last chances for audiences to see a pas de deux between outgoing KBT dancers Anna Patsfall and Roberto Sifontes; and the Holberg Suite, Hathaway's contribution featuring Orlando Viamontes, Van Tine, and a corps de ballet.
After intermission, the company returns with a 35-minute selection of Paquita, a classical ballet that debuted at the Imperial Ballet in Russia more than 150 years ago.
Risco says the program intentionally showcases the versatility and strengths of KBT's dancers, several of whom are brand-new to the company and to Kentucky.
"It also offers something a little bit different for audiences," Risco says. "We try to include a variety of styles so that something will appeal to everybody.
"They get to see some things that they won't often see during our regular season," he says, referring to the mix of styles, particularly the contemporary work Saerpil.
"We also try to make it challenging and rewarding for the dancers," Risco says.
With new company dancers arriving in the middle of July, the 15-member company faced the daunting task of doing twice the work in half the time.
"We normally have five to six weeks of rehearsal," says Brienne Lowry, a dancer who also is KBT's executive director. "We've been rehearsing pretty much nonstop for the past two weeks."
And because the troupe is performing for the entire evening and not just half of the time, there is even more work than usual to do.
The event also is a kind of trial-by-fire boot camp, as incoming dancers and KBT veterans begin the task of getting to know each other's processes, strengths and weaknesses, and develop relationships that will lay the foundation for the season ahead.
As new company members, including principal male dancer Jorge Balina, whom Brienne calls KBT's "superstar," are introduced to the group, retiring members Patsfall, Sifontes and Viamontes will give their last performances as KBT company dancers.
"This production showcases the best talent from last year's company as well as this season's company," Risco says.