Arts

Freshening up the Boston Ballet

by Lauren DiTullio
Contributing Writer
Wednesday Nov 30, 2011
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19 Clarendon made over, opened up

The new energy in the 19 Clarendon building is timed perfectly with artistic director Mikko Nissinen’s tenth anniversary with the Boston Ballet, and the company’s newest rendition of the well-loved The Nutcracker, which runs through December.

After a summer of renovations to the building, Boston Ballet dancers are feeling more at home, the staff more inspired, and the community-from neighborhood associations to residents-is continuing to use the place as their own.

"Everyone in this building needs to be inspired," said Barry Hughson, executive director of the Boston Ballet since mid-2009, as he meandered down the building’s central. "Everyone."

The Boston Ballet has been prominent in the dance world since the 1960s, and Hughson has overseen efforts by his staff to make the world-renowned company and largest dance school in North America a welcoming place for the residents of the South End just next door. Yet a few things remained stagnant: worn out carpets, outdated equipment, and faded paint.

"We are doing something vibrant, something special here, and we all know that," Hughson said. "But our appearance didn’t match who we are. Now it does."

Over the summer, the Boston Ballet’s home at 19 Clarendon Street underwent a renovation, which Hughson believes has breathed new life into the building. Nearly every room, from the smallest office to the wide-open dance spaces, features a fresh coat of white paint. A fresh grey runner on the stairs and hallways, complementing the lobby’s grey tiles, has replaced tired pink carpet. Many offices have been rearranged for functionality and aesthetics. In some cases, walls have been taken out, but largely, acclaimed architect Graham Gund’s original structure has not been changed. In fact, by moving files to more appropriate storage locations, Gund’s emphasis on natural light-evidenced by floor-to-ceiling windows throughout the building-can now be truly appreciated.

The 60,000 square foot building is five stories tall and now houses seven dance studios, which are utilized by company dancers and several thousand ballet students of all ages, as well as different community groups. The largest studio came out of the renovation process with the most significant change. On one side of the studio, a glassed-in boardroom overlooks the rehearsal space. On the other side, a panoramic view of the city glimmers.

"We want to make it so that being in this building gives people a sense of what goes on here," he said. "The boardroom overlooking the dancers is a great example of that."

While company dancers are relishing their new digs, community members who attend classes, offered for toddlers to adults of any age, are also enjoying the new energy of the building and the seasonal excitement surrounding this year’s Nutcracker performance.

"It’s really magical, especially this time of year, to see the racks of [Nutcracker] costumes coming in and out of the building," said South End mom Jennifer Ashburn, who has taken her six-year-old daughter to the Nutcracker performance for several years now.

Ashburn’s daughter has been enamored with ballet since she was old enough to move around, but through youth classes at the Boston Ballet, she and her classmates have begun honing their skills, mastering the French jargon associated with the sophisticated dance, and working on skills like cooperation and following directions.

Although she gets to see the magic of the Boston Ballet from the inside, Ashburn looks forward to seeing the building utilized more by the community in the future. She compared the Boston Ballet’s prospective involvement with the neighborhood to First Fridays in the SoWa District - opening the doors so that the public does not feel intimidated by the art.

"That’s something I look very forward to seeing more of: a very local community link," she said.

Part of that link will be achieved through the addition of bleacher seats in the Boston Ballet’s largest studio, which will give the space the ability to be transformed into a black box theater to be utilized by the company and students, but also the community as a whole.

For company dancer and teacher Sarah Wroth, the renovations have contributed to a subtle change in the artistic atmosphere at the Boston Ballet.

Nine years ago, Wroth sat on the tired, pink carpet that used to line the floors of the Boston Ballet, waiting for her first "cattle call" audition. These days, she walks "clean, new, pretty, functional" hallways, with nooks and crannies that offer some solitude and open spaces that create a sense of community. The building also boasts a new physical therapy room that the dancers can use when recuperating from dance-related injuries, as well as for preventative therapy aimed at protecting their bodies from the heavy wear and tear of ballet.

"A lot of the updates that have affected me are spiritual," she said. "There’s enough dynamic [design] here to represent the dynamics in the group, which is really refreshing."

She added, "The color...the life, is us, the dancers. I think that’s really great."

Lauren DiTullio is a student in the School of Journalism at Northeastern University. Originally from Connecticut, she is happy to have landed in Boston, proud to be a Husky, and honored to be able to bring her lifelong passion for writing to the South End’s vibrant community.

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