Generations of Dance
written by becca sankey | photos provided by mfb
There’s something about the Midland Festival Ballet that makes its dancers never want to leave. Founded in 1993 by Judy Coleman as a means for students at her ballet school to perform, its mission to provide performance opportunities continues 25 years later, with some of its dancers being second-generation students.
Executive Director Rachel Kerr Ritter understands firsthand the Midland Festival Ballet’s magnetism. Ritter grew up dancing in the Permian Basin under the tutelage of the Ballet’s Artistic Director Susan Clark.
“It taught me so much about discipline, hard work, perseverance, and I credit so much of my success in my adult life and academic life to ballet,” Ritter said. “I happened to be moving back to the Permian Basin and connected with Susan. I really jumped at the chance to come back here. I knew what she was trying to accomplish because of working with her for years myself.
“Dance has always been my passion, so this was really kind of a dream job for me. The best part of my job is working with kids and seeing them get all of the life skills ballet taught me, and just a love of the art form itself.”
"It taught me so much about discipline, hard work, perseverance, and I credit so much of my success in my adult life and academic life to ballet." -Rachel Kerr Ritter
Executive Director-Rachel Kerr Ritter
In 2009, the Midland Festival Ballet took over Coleman’s ballet school. The nonprofit continues to be renowned in the Permian Basin for its two season performances, The Nutcracker in December, and its Spring Gala and its community outreach, which makes the arts available to area children who might not otherwise have access to it.
Ballet’s Artistic Director-Susan Clark
The Ballet’s Christmastime Nutcracker production includes a cast of approximately 100 local dancers and half a dozen guest artists and is performed to the live music of the Midland Odessa Symphony and Chorale. Dancers have ranged in age from 5 to 80.
Its spring production is different each year but showcases the talent of its 25 to 35 civic company dancers, who typically range in age from 12 to 18. That performance requires about 20 more hours a week above and beyond the students’ regular class schedule.
The ballet school averages about 200 students, Ritter said, with course offerings for 3- and 4-year-olds all the way up to adults. “I know lots of people that grew up here going to the ballet and either continue to live here or moved away, came back and still come to the ballet, as well as mothers who performed and their kids are in our ballet school,” Ritter said. “They want to be a part of it and stay a part of it for generations.”
“Midland is very fortunate that there’s a community that really supports the arts,” Clark said. “We’re in the middle of nowhere, so I think it’s very important for people that live in Midland to try to have a quality of life that includes the arts; they want to be able to give their children a chance to attend the symphony, go to the opera. People who have moved here from bigger cities still want to have that community-oriented (feeling).”
“Midland is very fortunate that there’s a community that really supports the arts.."
Midland, in fact, has a long history of supporting the arts and providing quality arts education. “When I grew up here I danced with the Permian Civic Ballet and I was very fortunate that they brought in world class guest artists which was my first exposure to professional ballet,” Clark said. “At a very young age I knew I wanted to be a professional ballet dancer. My parents encouraged me, and I went away to a performing arts high school for my academics and dance training which led to my 30 year professional ballet career.
“I’ve always loved teaching, and I felt so fortunate to get the training I got, and I’m happy to be back in the community I grew up in and share my experience with my students. I still feel very passionate about it, and I love passing on what was given to me.”
The Ballet often brings in guest performers, choreographers and teachers from throughout the world to mentor its local students and “give them some perspective outside the Permian Basin,” Ritter added. Clark knows that not everyone exposed to dance will become a dancer, “but if they put the time into dance, when they do find their passion, they’ll be able to take that discipline they’ve learned with them, and they’ll be that much better at what they’re passionate about,” she said. “I want our school to be about lifelong lessons.”
Even children and youth who get the opportunity just to witness a Ballet performance benefit from the experience. “One of our major outreaches is in conjunction with the school districts,” Ritter said. “We perform for Ector County ISD students. They bring almost the whole third grade. And in conjunction with our spring show, students are bussed to the Wagner Noel, and they see excerpts of our performance. Last year, 1,700 came to that.
“We also work with the Midland County Library and do ballet camps during spring break, summer, and we offer those free of charge and anyone can register if they’re within the age group.”
Added Clark: “Even if kids’ parents are involved in the arts, they’re more likely to take them to a Broadway show or a football game. It’s important to get rid of the stigma of what ballet and dance is about so they see all forms of dance. It’s also important to use live music. Parents might take their child to an orchestra and have them say, ‘I never knew someone could make a living playing the flute!’ I think that’s so important, especially with the arts limited in schools now.”
Having celebrated the Ballet’s 25th anniversary last year, Ritter and Clark are optimistic about its future. “I think we both want it to continue to grow, and that could mean a lot of things,” Ritter said. “Something we want to see happen is more outreach opportunities, more partnerships with other nonprofits.”
“The mission is to make the organization stable enough that when I’m 105 it will continue,” Clark said. “It would be my hope that we get the Permian Basin on board so that it can sustain itself for another 25 years to come.” †
Those interested in supporting the Midland Festival Ballet can purchase a ticket to an upcoming performance, donate, or make contributions via different sponsorship levels, including one tuition scholarship that provides financial assistance to students who otherwise would not be able to afford to take dance classes. For more information, visit midlandfestivalballet.org