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Ballet La Crosse

Young dancers get taste of pro life

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At the end of November, months of rehearsal for 65 young dancers will come to fruition at the La Crosse’s Weber Center for the Arts when Ballet La Crosse stages performances of a new full-length ballet based on the novel, “Heidi.”

This is the kind of production one would see in a big city like Minneapolis and the preparation mirrors that of a professional ballet troupe that works with top-notch choreographers. That, in fact, is the whole idea.

Ballet La Crosse was created by Misty Lown, owner and director of Misty’s Dance Unlimited in Onalaska. The aim is to provide a venue for area youths to explore and develop in the classical dance arts by receiving the kind of masterful training that professional dancers receive.

Ballet La Crosse Artistic Director Kennet Oberly is uniquely qualified to provide exactly that kind of training. He and his Russian-born wife, Larissa — who also teaches at Misty’s Dance Unlimited — have devoted their lives to ballet and have impressive resumes to prove it.

Although Oberly grew up in the Boston area, his family moved to Germany when he was young. He first danced professionally with the Stuttgart Ballet and then other European ballet troupes, but Oberly also has danced or choreographed ballet in this country in cities including Houston, Boston, Minneapolis, Des Moines and Columbus, Ohio.

Oberly met Larissa — who danced for 20 years in Russia before coming to this country — in Vermont. The beauty of the La Crosse area, he says, reminds them both of Vermont. Oberly said he met Lown by chance and, after agreeing to be a guest teacher here, was eventually talked into becoming Ballet La Crosse’s artistic director.

“My wife and I enjoy smaller places and the kind of focus you can have there,” Oberly said. “You can do good work anywhere.”

Another factor in moving to La Crosse is that in some of the bigger cities where he’s worked he ended up doing more administrative type work. What he enjoys most is working individually with young dancers and sharing his knowledge of what it takes to become great.

He emphasized that the point of the pre-professional program at Ballet La Crosse is to give kids the experience of what professional ballet is all about.

“It gives them a chance to get their feet wet, an opportunity to grow and think of both the characters and technique so that the two can come together,” Oberly said. “‘Heidi’ is exactly the kind of ballet that I would do with a professional group.”

He stressed that in working with 12- or 13-year-olds that “look like they’re going places,” training must be consistent, but at some point dancers have to perform on stage before real audiences. “Classes are not enough,” Oberly said. “If you are a musician are you just going to do scales all your life?”

Oberly said he firmly believes ballet is a calling and that the discipline involved to become great is not the sacrifice it might seem from the outside.

“You don’t choose it — you are chosen,” Oberly said. “When you are willing to live it and breathe it, that’s when miracles happen. To those who love it, it’s not a sacrifice. In fact, to not do it is a sacrifice.”

Young Ballet La Crosse dancers who would agree with that statement include Olivia Key of West Salem and Sarena Young of Holmen. Like all the other dancers, they spent three weeks of eight-hour days in July rehearsing intensely for “Heidi.”

Now that the school year has begun, they meet for five or six hours on Saturdays and sometimes after school during the week to refine their performance. According to Oberly and Associate Director Amanda Schams, a former professional dancer who is helping Oberly choreograph the ballet, that is much like a typical professional schedule.

Key, a diminutive ninth-grader at Seven Rivers Community High School, has been dancing since she was 3. She does not mind the work at all. “I love it!” she said. “You can escape everything and be yourself.”

Key, who plays a goat in the production, said her main goal is to become a professional dancer some day. She also has an interest in some day providing physical therapy for someone like herself. “I have back issues,” she said, “so I could see helping other dancers.”

Young, a seventh-grader at Holmen Middle School, will play the role of Clara in one of the performances (she gets to be a goat in the other performance). “I’ve always loved to dance,” Young said, “and when I tried out and found out I got Clara, I was so excited!”

Clara spends much of the ballet in a wheelchair so Young had to learn to express herself with her hands. “I use my arms a lot,” she said, “but I do have a solo where I’m dreaming and the last scene is me getting up and walking.”

Like Key, Young has been dancing a long time (11 years) and she wants to become a professional dancer or maybe a choreographer. All the work involved doesn’t faze her at all. “There’s a lot of discipline and exercise, but I love it all so it’s kind of a package deal,” Young said.

Both dancers said that rehearsals are going well. “I’m really excited — I think about it every Saturday!” Young said.

Ballet La Crosse performed in the Weber Center for the first time last year, and Oberly was impressed. “It’s a great theater,” he said. “We are very lucky in this town to have that — it’s a real gem.”

Oberly also said receiving professional-level training and performing on a stage like the one at the Weber Center is an invaluable experience for youngsters like Key and Young. “It’s an opportunity that few kids get anywhere,” he said.

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