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Artistic Stimulus

A tight economy can be tough on anyone, but try being in a profession where jobs already are few and far between.

That was what ballet dancers, whose gig is tough anyway, faced this year.

"There are hardly any jobs this year because the economy's so bad," said Ashley Wilcock, 23, a dancer from Toronto.

Kayla Max agreed: "It's really hard to get jobs in the industry."

Fortunately, Lexington Ballet offered a little economic stimulus package for a few who make their livings in pointe shoes.

After nearly seven years, the company is forming a professional performing group again, hiring eight dancers to present performances and play leading roles in productions involving the school of the Lexington Ballet, including the annual Nutcracker production.

It will bring the number of professional ballet companies in Lexington back to two; the other is Kentucky Ballet Theatre.

Ballet Theatre formed from former Lexington Ballet dancers who were laid off after an economic crisis rocked the company in 1998. Since then, Lexington Ballet had made attempts to re-form a professional troupe, but in recent years it has relied primarily on the talents of senior dancers in the school and guest artists to carry its performances.

This new octet comes at a time when Lexington Ballet is trying to regain the footing it had before 1998, when it was the lead dance troupe in town and one of Lexington's flagship arts organizations.

A calculated plan

"It is a first step," says Joe Tackett, Lexington Ballet's new executive director and formerly education director of Lexington Philharmonic.

This year, Lexington Ballet will have a professional company with a budget of $419,000. The goal is to grow the budget to $766,000 by 2012 and have a full company of 32 dancers in six years, Tackett says.

"These may seem like big jumps, but they are very finely calculated, and there are very specific projects and funding that we have been planning for," Tackett says. "Our board has been taking into consideration a variety of factors, and these numbers are reachable."

Tackett credits ballet treasurer Allen Porter with getting the company free of debt before launching the growth initiative.

One signal of that effort was the hiring of Tackett as the company's first full-time, paid executive director since 1998. It's his job to set up the business structure that will allow artistic director Luis Dominguez to concentrate on creating dance. Before Tackett, the ballet had relied on volunteer and part-time financial chiefs.

"He has been tremendous to work with," Dominguez says of Tackett. "He brings a solid knowledge of this community and how to move this company forward."

Dominguez is happy to have a full-time crew of dancers to work with every day.

Role models

"I've been working with the kids in the school, and they dance at a high level," he says. "But it's been challenging, to say the least, because they have minimal rehearsal time."

Now, instead of waiting for his dancers to get out of school, Dominguez and the professional company come in at 10 a.m. each day and work into the afternoon. He is seeing that pay off. Getting pieces together that might have taken month to fully rehearse are taking days now.

For the students, Dominguez says, the new company "relieves the pressure because they have carried the ballet for years. It also creates role models for the kids in the school."

As thrilled as Dominguez is to have a corps of professional dancers, it would be hard to be more thrilled than the new dancers.

"When we saw that a new company was forming, it was really exciting," Wilcock said.

The company is drawn from across the country and overseas. Ayako Hasebe hails from Japan, and Wilcock and Megan Jacobs were dancing on the West Coast with Pacific Northwest Ballet before peeling off, Jacobs dancing in San Diego last year and Wilcock dancing with contemporary companies in London.

Two dancers are from closer to home: Meredith Dunlevy, 18, who attended the University of Louisville Dance Academy, and Kayla Max, who danced with Lexington Ballet as a student under Dominguez's direction before going to dance school in North Carolina.

The other dancers are EveMarie Bessenbach, 22, from Indianapolis, who studied at Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory in St. Petersburg, Russia; Tina Poe, 22, whose credits include the National Ballet; and Lauren Tenney, 21, who, like Max, has danced for Dominguez before, as an 8-year-old in the Toledo Ballet School. "He's always had this passion for dance," she says.

It's like family

Dominguez's choreography gets a thumbs-up from the dancers, as does his positive demeanor.

"A lot of directors put so much on you that it's hard to dance in front of them because you're afraid of getting yelled at," Jacobs says. "This is really nice, and it's really family oriented."

All eight dancers say they enjoy the intimacy of the small company. In many bigger companies, they say, they might be on the back lines of a large ensemble, straining their bodies to fit a vision created by another dancer in another place in time.

At Lexington Ballet, they all play key parts in pieces, including numerous new works that Dominguez is creating this year.

"It's really nice to have a choreographer set a piece for you and your abilities," Wilcock said.

A growing company

None of the professional dancers is getting rich dancing in Lexington. Tackett says each dancer has a yearlong contract with pay comparable to that of other ballet companies, but some of them might get part-time jobs to supplement their incomes.

Dance, like many art forms, is a field in which performers usually hope to move up to bigger and better things. But among the dancers in the company, there is little talk of Lexington as a stepping-stone.

"This is an amazing thing to be able to get in on the ground level of a new company and let it grow around you," Jacobs says.

Wilcock says, "I would love to stay here, be here and see it grow into an amazing company."

That, it seems, is the idea.

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