Draft V as written by Linda Graham, Prof. of Dance of Hope College in Holland, Michigan in 1999-2000, this chapter documents the story of the first half of the existence of the NAA. Its author was a student and she has stayed in touch with many of the graduates and interviewed many of the principal providers of the resources, faculty and administration that made this noble experiment in performing arts education happen.
We are pleased to be able to share the story, already in print, with you.
National Academy of Dance/ National Academy of Arts: A Brief Historic Overview
by Linda Graham, Prof. of Dance at Hope College
From 1972-1978 a small yet vital ballet conservatory emerged in Champaign, IL. Inspired by the vision of Dr. Gilbert Wright, the National Academy of Dance/ National Academy of Arts was to graduate in only a few years a number of dance artists who went on to influence the dance world in significant ways.
“Each ballet in the repertory must reflect, must bring forth out its substance, some expression of truth, beauty or goodness. Much of the success in accomplishing this end will be directly proportional to the ability of our dancers to evoke real feelings, attitudes, and emotions, which reflect more than surface values. And also both choreographic and artistic director and ballet master or mistress must understand the concept and believe in its vitality. Above all I would have us reflect respect and reverence for our art every time we step on stage before an audience. Otherwise we use the art as a means of self-indulgence, and no audience will long abide such perversion.” Dr. Gilbert Wright
Dr. Gilbert Wright had never, well, ok maybe once (and it wasn't very good), seen a ballet. An Assistant Professor of English at the University of Illinois, 1966 found him on a leave of absence for a year in England. Accompanied by his wife Colleen, who was soon to give birth to their 5th child, he was involved in the editing of an important medieval manuscript. A native of the Bay area, Wright had originally studied to be a priest, met Colleen, and become a medievalist. About 80% of his work was done at the Oxford University Bodlein Library; he also spent a bit of time at London's British Museum, which had copies of the text. One night while in London, the British Museum closed early, and by pure serendipity he found himself at Covent Garden, where he saw Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev perform with the Royal Ballet in Kenneth MacMillan's version of Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, a text with which he was very familiar. So moved was he by the power of the performance that he found himself walking the streets of London throughout the night, trying to figure out how could this be? What can I do to support this art? The text seemed woefully lame when compared to the power of the performance he had just witnessed. Compelled to do something, he returned the following evening to Covent Garden to find Margot Fonteyn and speak with her, an encounter that led to his introduction to the Royal Ballet School and a friendship with Fonteyn that would have a significant impact on the later development of the Academy. What Wright witnessed at the Royal Ballet School was a professional training program that prepared dancers to create and perform the kind of dance art that had so deeply moved him. He was inspired to pursue the development of a similar program in the Midwest. Fonteyn, who would thereafter refer to him as that funny little man from Illinois, later agreed to serve on the first Board for the Illinois Foundation for the Dance and the National Academy of Dance.
Charismatic, personable, intelligent and articulate, Gilbert Wright was a persuasive visionary. He felt he had a good eye for performers, and his focus was to remain on the training of ballet performers. Ballet, Wright felt, was a universal art form, accessible to all, but it had a special message for the rich and powerful. It opens for them in particular the human aspects of relationships, and therefore offers a broader perspective beyond the exercise of personal power. Colleen, Wright's devoted and talented wife, loved the excitement and beauty of ballet and the dance world. Practical as well as a gracious and able hostess, she truly enjoyed entertaining people from all walks of life; when it came to the Academy, she went along for the ride. In many respects, she provided the personal support and stability that made the realization of her husband's dream possible.
Widely respected as a motivating servant leader, Wright had a long record of academic successes before turning his abilities to fulfilling his vision. When he eventually returned to the United States, he carried the seeds of a dream to open a residential ballet conservatory. Although he continued his work as an English Professor, he began to lay the foundation that would make a reality of this dream. His newfound involvement with ballet led to service as a Board Member for the American Ballet Theater (ABT). When the University of Illinois opened the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts opened in 1969, Wright was appointed Assistant Director. He would not remain in this position, but the connection would later serve him well when it came time to find a performance venue for Academy productions.
The Krannert Center for the Performing Arts was indicative of the cultural explosion happening in Champaign-Urbana and of the commitment the University of Illinois had to artistic performance and cultural development. Although the Champaign-Urbana area lacked large corporations, which made the pursuit of corporate funding difficult at best, the people in Champaign-Urbana were remarkably generous, supportive and hard working. Thanks to the University of Illinois, high cultural standards had developed within the community. Aesthetically and philosophically, many members of the community were ready and willing to embrace the art of ballet.
In 1969 Wright formed the Illinois Foundation for the Dance. The IFD had an affiliation with ABT, where Wright continued as a Board member. Mary Moore, who joined the administrative staff of the IFD early on, empathized completely with Wright's dream. She had become good friends with Colleen Wright while playing bridge, and consequently she and her husband, Brant, were asked to be a host-family for several members of the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) when the company came to Champaign-Urbana to do a residency. Mary Moore became instrumental in the organization and operation of the first Academy, as well as the second Academy that opened under her direction several years after the first academy closed. Several students later described her as the heart of the Academy. Brant, her husband, soon found himself deeply involved with the Academy: It was the only way I could see my wife. He possessed good carpentry as well as technical skills, and served as the unofficial Academy locksmith, set painter, sound engineer, and anything else that needed to be done handyman. Like the Wright family, the entire Moore family became involved with Academy life. When the National Ballet of Illinois went to Europe, the young Moore children accompanied them. Other members of the Illinois Foundation for the Dance who were to prove highly influential in the development of the Academy were Richard and Anne Tryon, Richard and Marilyn Thies, and Dr. Robert and Mary Twardock. At times, the contributions of R. Forrest (Woody) Colwell and his Aunt Pauline (who had married Woody Colwell's Uncle J.B. Colwell) accounted for 70% - 80% of the unearned operating income and capital fund. Without the steady and generous support of these contributors, there simply would never have been an Academy.
In 1971 the Illinois Foundation for the Dance launched the Extension Division using a studio that was literally built by Wright and Brant Moore. With a faculty culled from the ranks of the University of Illinois, the Extension Division was a consistent and stable connection to the community. Stella Applebaum, a brilliant, demanding teacher, had received her training under Salvatore Mobilia, Todd Bolender, and Vitale Fokine. Her students had danced with major American and foreign dance companies, including Alvin Ailey and ABT. Until she began teaching for the Extension Division, she was an Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois and operated her own studio, Ballet Arts, in Champaign. Compassionate and supportive, Maureen Thomas Price was a member of the Royal Academy of Dancing and the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing. She had graduated from the London College of Dance and Drama and been a faculty member of the Canadian College of Dance in Montreal, Marymount College in Quebec and the Banff School of Fine Arts. Peter Franklin-White, a committed and multi-talented instructor, was a former principal dancer with Ballet Rambert (1939-42) and the Royal Ballet (1942-66). Mr. Franklin-White was a noted author, lecturer and consultant in stage movement who was at that time an Assistant Professor in Theatre at the University of Illinois. In class he had exuberance and great enthusiasm No one ever forgot him teaching Czardas from Coppelia or the Clog Dance from La Fille Mal Gardee. Chester Wolenski had been a principal dancer with the Jose Limon Company for many years before joining the faculty at the University of Illinois. Diffident and quiet, Wolenski had a gentle, organic approach to modern movement instruction. Accompanist Glenn Mack had a doctorate from the University of Colorado, where he had also received his B.M. His M.S. was from Julliard School of Music. Mack had taught at Sarah Lawrence College, Julliard and the University of Maryland, and given recitals in Carnegie Recital Hall in New York. During class, Mr. Mack would chain-smoke, sitting with legs tightly crossed at the piano. On top of the piano a hubcap served as his ashtray, nearby was a bowl of cough drops; a newspaper sprawled on the floor next to him enabling him to catch up on the day's news while he played. The Extension faculty was complete.
The National Academy of Dance
By 1971 Dr. Wright felt the time had come to move to the next step in opening a residential ballet conservatory modeled after the Royal Ballet School. Key to creating an outstanding ballet conservatory would be the provision of financial aid for talented students. Ballet required not only a particular physiology, but intelligence, musicality, and above all a tremendous commitment from its youthful participants. The demands were not unlike the demands placed upon Olympic gymnasts and, as for gymnastics, the training and nurturing of this talent could be quite expensive. Wright wanted to enable the most talented students to attend the Academy, no matter what the family's financial limitations might be. Indeed, most of the students who were to attend the Academy were on some kind of financial assistance, either in scholarship or student work program form. Room and board was frequently, and heavily, subsidized. Wright dreamed of a fully funded school.
Sororities and Fraternities had gone out of fashion on the campus of the University of Illinois by the late 1960's and early 1970's. Gil Wright had a knack for spotting properties that were undervalued, an ability no doubt stemming from his work as an appraiser for Marin County in the 1950's, before marriage, graduate school or the Academy. So when the Illinois Dance Foundation bought the Chalmers Street Residence Hall, a fraternity on Daniel St. and a fraternity on John Street in 1972, they were able to do so for relatively modest sums. In 1972 three large studios were built behind the Daniel Street residence hall. Chuck Keeling, a member of the Board and a local distributor for pole buildings, built these studios almost at cost. The University of Illinois High School provided an umbrella for the academic program. Under the direction of Barbara Gutowskey, the academic program produced several outstanding students, most notably Merit Scholar Gina Martin.
At the recommendation of Margot Fonteyn, Wright hired Michael Maule to be the Director of Dance for the new Academy. Maule had recently retired from the stage, where he had had a prestigious professional career as a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet. Renowned for his gracious and elegant partnering, he had danced with Maria Tallchief, Alicia Markova, Patricia Wilde, Alexandra Danilova and Alicia Alonso, among others. He came to the Academy having taught at the American Ballet Theatre School, and the Robert Joffrey School, as well as in England, Sweden, Holland, Japan, and the Philippines. Born in Durham, South Africa, Maule became a permanent resident of the United States in 1956. Maule's wife, Joan, was a native New Yorker who had difficulty in adjusting to life in the Midwest. She was beautiful and elegant to a fault. I always picture her as a younger Greta Garbo with a foot long cigarette holder and a gown to her ankles. During her time in Champaign she became deeply unhappy, and regularly struggled with clinical depression.
Michael Maule hired the original Extension Division teachers to instruct at the National Academy of Dance and immediately added Lupe Serrano to the dance faculty. Born in Santiago, Chile, Serrano began her professional career with the Ballet of Mexico City at the age of 13. In 1949 she joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and in 1953 she joined ABT. Ms. Serrano had an international reputation for brilliant, fiery technique and for powerful dramatic roles. She also had a widespread reputation among dancers for being an excellent teacher and coach. A Principal Prima Ballerina for ABT until her retirement in 1972, she came to the Academy recently divorced, recently retired and raising 2 children - a woman in the midst of an immense transition. Serrano soon became Maule's assistant. Her thrilling technique and direct, clean and firm instruction enhanced the overall faculty. she told us to always stay detached, that's great advice for dancers, said former student Elizabeth Peltz. Maule later stated that he did not feel he used her talents well, but there is no doubt she was an excellent teacher, knowledgeable and highly respected.
Other faculty soon followed. Antony Valdor, wearing only black, would enter the classroom in the morning exuding his toreador training. As he drew his dance shoes out of his briefcase with a businesslike attitude (his dry wit indiscernible for the moment), the students would grimly prepare for what was always a difficult, instructive class. He was simply terrifying. Gwynne Ashton, bird-like, would teach pointe, variations and repertory while dancing around en pointe in her ballet slippers. Jeremy Blanton, Gemze DeLappe, Buzz Miller, Matteo, and the brilliant accompanist Ray Wilson, all were added to the faculty within two years. Camille Hardy teaching Dance History, Ruth Fash (Art) and Sally Mayor (English) were several of the outstanding faculty who enhanced the Academic program. This faculty was central to the professional training in the early years of the Academy.
The Auditions: Spring 1972:
“We went everywhere. Gil Wright did a brilliant thing when he required all auditioning students to pay a $25 fee. You see, this meant they had to be serious.” (Michael Maule, Jan. 1999)
“Every student who auditioned received a written evaluation - and Michael Maule was VERY honest in his observations.” (Dr. Gilbert Wright, May 1999)
Auditions for the residential school were conducted in major cities around the country in the spring of 1972. Approximately 250 prospective students auditioned that first year when Wright and Maule conducted the auditions, but in subsequent years Mary Moore would accompany Maule. She would speak with the parents and generally oversee the running of the audition, while Maule would conduct the audition itself. They were an impressive and effective combination, presenting the Academy as a high quality institution with professional training. Their schedule was grueling and they typically conducted auditions in 24 cities within 25 days.
In 1972 there were very few institutions where a serious young ballet student could find quality training. Interlochen and the North Carolina School of the Arts were the only other institutions offering such training, so interest was strong in the Academy. One young dancer was so intent on studying at the Academy that her father drove the entire family to Champaign from Fort Wayne, IN to view the campus. But as this was the summer of 1972 and the Academy had yet to open its doors, the campus did not exist. (Brant Moore ended up giving them a tour through 2 buildings the Academy was soon to own!) Another young male student arrived alone on a bus from San Francisco, suitcases in hand. He had no money, but he knew he wanted to be a dancer; he knew he wanted to study at the Academy. He was duly auditioned, showed great promise, offered a scholarship, and accepted. In some cases, students were escaping difficult home or school situations. Like the dancer in A Chorus Line, dance and studio life was their happy place, far from familial discord. The students themselves had to be highly motivated and committed, for in coming to the Academy they gave up typical high school social experiences such as dating, homecoming and proms. Most families were remarkably supportive and trusting; they had to be-- they were sending their offspring to an unknown school - often some distance from home. The majority of those accepted chose to come to the new school. The National Academy of Dance opened in the fall of 1972 with a total of 63 students in attendance.
“For me the Academy wasn't just about dance, it was about having a goal, and learning about life along the way. My goals were not necessarily met at the Academy, but friendships, the artists in residence with us, and being on the campus of the U of I, prepared me for New York, and the artistic road ahead.” Cheryl (Motor Mouth) Movitz
A typical day for an upperclassman at NAD/NAA began with required academics plus one, possibly two, elective offerings, typically art or piano. Academic classes met in informal settings, such as a conference room, lounge or dining room. Students would often be seated around conference tables, rather than the typical classroom desk. The unconventional setting was stimulating for some, the informality promoting creative thought. For others, the informal setting proved a distraction, undermining academic discipline. After lunch, a two hour ballet technique class was followed by two one hour classes, including pointe, variations, adagio, character, modern, musical theatre, or ethnic dance. Dinner was frequently, but not always, followed by rehearsals. The schedule for underclassmen was similar, but reversed, with dance technique instruction received in the morning followed by academics after lunch. Little time was left for socializing outside the confines of the school, and little energy was left to attempt excursions. Nonetheless, life could get pretty interesting.
Housed in former Greek houses on the campus of the University of Illinois during the 1970's, the predominantly female student body of the Academy found themselves in close proximity to Big Ten campus life. The result was a juxtaposition of mixed blessings. Cultural stimulation and regular opportunity to participate in campus events and performances was clearly a plus. On the other hand, this was the 1970's, the infamous period of parachuting streakers and animal house style fraternity parties. Academy housemothers found themselves confronting young Academyites caught sneaking in after hours, attending fraternity parties, or smuggling Papa Dels pizza into the dorms past curfew. “By dropping extension cords and scarves down the front balcony we felt pretty adventurous about that.” (Movitz). Growing up had to happen quickly. Away from home and on their own, Academyites relished the exploration of their New World much as college freshmen do.
There were hazards to this climate. The worst case happened in 1977, when a male intruder assaulted a student, stabbing her as she slept. The student awoke, saw the man, and ran screaming to another student, telling her friend that this man had pinched her. Horrified, her friend told her she was bleeding. Fortunately the student was not sexually assaulted. In all its existence, this was the only known case of an assault that took place at the Academy.
Most situations were not so dramatic, and often the personal support of those directly involved in the Academy proved to be exceptional. A young student caught once in violation of the no drug/no alcohol policy found her scholarship revoked. Returning to her home meant returning to an unfortunate family life, one that would not support her aspiration to be a dancer. She was a talented young dancer; the Wrights took it upon themselves to cover her tuition that year. Upon graduation, the student repaid the Wrights in full. One of the Academy's most promising young male dancers, who was to become a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, was discharged from the Academy after repeated violations of the no-drug/no alcohol policy. In this case, the incident was a foreshadowing of the young man's tragic death in 1988 of a drug overdose.
The no-drug/no alcohol policy was a difficult yet critical issue for Wright and some administrators and faculty. Aside from a personal objection to the unlicensed use of drugs, they felt an obligation to keep faith with parents and contributors. The enforcement of the policy was necessary to sustain the Academy's credibility as an appropriate environment for young artists. It was a difficult standard to maintain, as drug and alcohol use was certainly present in the campus culture of that time. Layer to this cultural influence an urbane, artistic faculty, which included some who smoked and/or regularly consumed alcohol, and you have students experiencing something of a paradox. To maintain the integrity of the given standard, the Academy administrators had to expel not only the above mentioned male dancer, but several full tuition paying students as well. Both were sorely needed and very hard to find.
Within the high standards and expectations embraced by Academy founders and faculty struggled the personal issues that challenge nearly all adolescent women. For many, issues of self-esteem were, at times, compounded by obsession with physical development, peer pressure, and competition. Depression and eating disorders were sometimes the result of such discord, and endemic to the pressures some academy students felt. In the stratified, elitist world of intensive classical training, this personal turmoil would seem to have a debilitating affect on an aspiring performing artist. (We) felt we were not good enough. However, others blossomed in the environment: I came out of a life-long depression at the Academy. Each recollection is dependent upon personal history and perspective.
A successful and memorable program the organizers of the Academy implemented early on was the Host Family program. Each boarding student at the Academy was placed with a Host Family, who would invite the student to their home for short-term holidays such as Thanksgiving or Easter holidays, the brevity of which precluded the student traveling home. The experience was beneficial for student and family alike and especially crucial for students from distant states or countries such as Hawaii, Saudi Arabia, Guam, Dominican Republic, Israel, and Canada.
In 1973 Katherine Gardener moved to Champaign when her children, Katherine and John, were accepted to the school. Recently widowed, she was reluctant to send her young children so far from home. Wright convinced her that there would be a home and work for her in Champaign. She became the resident director for the women's dorm on Chalmers Street. Devoted to her children and the school, her maternal commitment extended to assisting many of the young dancers as they struggled with the emotional and social difficulties of being far away from home at so young an age while studying an extremely demanding art form. Her presence, plus the host family program, helped to provide emotional stability for many students.
As of 1973, The National Academy of Dance had a student enrollment of 123 students from 22 states, Canada and Saudi Arabia The National Academy of Music, the second phase of the development of the school, opened in 1974 under the joint directorship of Paul and Clara Rolland. This led directly to the change of name from National Academy of Dance to National Academy of Arts. The director of the strings program was Paul Rolland, a graduate of the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest and a former member of the Budapest Symphony Orchestra. Clara Rolland, director of the piano division, was also a graduate of the Franz Liszt Academy. Noted author and music studies lecturer Marilyn Zimmerman was coordinator of music studies. Approximately 30 students were accepted for the fall semester, 1974, with hopes that the music division would grow to about 150 students within the next 3 years. Auditions were conducted, scholarship monies were made available, and the Music Division opened in September of 1974.
Much as he admired the abilities of the Rollands and the program they operated, Wright believes in retrospect that the Music Division ultimately competed for resources and funding with the dance division, thus complicating the already strained finances of the fledgling school. The Wrights had realized they would have to move beyond Champaign-Urbana for funding, and Wright believed the Music Division would open up funding sources for operational costs. Although some of these hopes were realized, the opening of the Music Division ultimately compounded the problems it was meant to ameliorate.
Having modeled the Academy after the Royal Ballet School in London, Wright felt very strongly that the goal of the school was to train dancers to perform in a classical ballet company. Chicago, the second largest city in the United States, had a history of sporadically attempting to establish a classical company, yet had never quite succeeded. In a 1967 proposal to the University of Illinois, requesting support for an Arts Academy, Wright states:
Since all programs envisioned for the Academy have as their ultimate purpose cultural enrichment, and since no serious cultural enrichment program is possible without intensive exposure to the art in its best forms, this proposal offers as its most serious concern the establishment within the Academy of machinery for the promotion of frequent professional dance performances in the State. All of the Academy's programs are geared to that end. The dance demonstration program assumes follow-up by a full professional company for whom it is creating an audience. Serious teaching programs in dance at all levels require the presence of a company performing to high professional standards to act as catalyst and to set the mark at which they must aim with this in mind, the Academy would devote its immediate attention to seeking means for importing extant professional companies for periods of residence on the Urbana and Circle campuses*. Because such periods would inevitably be short-term and consequently would not provide for the growing needs of the Academy's other programs, and because of the immense benefits to be derived from intimate association between an audience and its home company, the Academy would work to provide, in time, support for a permanently resident professional company in the State, with its home base in Chicago, with complete studio facilities in Urbana, and with a charge to serve the Academy and the departments of dance in accord with needs then current.
* The Urbana and Circle campuses refers to the educational institutions under the auspices of the University of Illinois that are located in Champaign-Urbana and Chicago, respectfully.
Several other factors induced Wright to press for a company. Along with his service on the ABT Board of Directors, he had been appointed to the Illinois Art Council and several national arts organizations. Evidence he encountered in such service demonstrated support for traveling dance companies (for example, the National Endowment for the Arts Touring Dance Program). Wright also felt the product needed to be seen to help increase private funding for the school. As inexperienced as the dancers were, they were exciting performers to watch. As Richard Tryon said, They came out, so young and lithe, and did these beautiful, impossible things. They were utterly thrilling to watch. Believing that more avenues for financial support could thus be tapped, Wright persuaded key members of the Board of Directors that the time had come to create a company.
Initially a student company was formed to present excerpts from Nutcracker, as well as other repertory in the spring. This first company had the support of nearly all the faculty. In 1975 the National Academy Ballet, an apprentice professional company, was formed. Comprised of students with some stipend paid to the principals, several who were also students, the company had now become semi-professional. Maule and several of the other faculty members were concerned about this semi-professional company because it clearly presaged the creation of a professional company, an action both pivotal and controversial. Maule expressed his objections to Wright, and his objections were taken into account in making the decision, nonetheless the Board of Directors chose to move ahead. Maule and the other dance faculty were not formally notified of the decision go ahead and develop this semi-professional company. Therefore, when it was announced at the 1975 graduation ceremony that the National Academy Ballet would begin production in the fall, Maule and the other members of the dance faculty were taken by surprise. Several faculty soon tendered their resignations, as they believed that the company would pull focus from the school, with negative consequences for the training. Michael Maule served as Artistic Director of the company for one year. When he first announced his intention to leave, the idea of his serving as Director of the Company in absentia was explored, then scratched as impractical. Personally pressured by the growing seriousness of his wife's depression and distressed about the impact of a professional company on the school, Maule passed the directorship of the dance program on to Gwynne Ashton in 1976.
Nineteen-seventy-five also saw the purchase of the Inman Hotel in downtown Champaign for $60,000 (another Wright coup according to Moore). Originally intended as an income property, the Inman was to eventually become a central location for the Academy, serving as housing for administrative offices, academic and music classrooms, recital hall, and boys residence. After Woody Colwell's death in 1978, Pauline Colwell contributed so much to the Academy that the Inman was renamed the Pauline Colwell center in her honor. She was to be in the center once before her death in 1981. In that same year, the Academy received accreditation from North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. Rigorous standards were met to receive accreditation, and by meeting these standards the Academy moved out from under the academic umbrella of University High School and achieved academic independence.
In 1976 The National Academy Ballet changed its name to the National Ballet of Illinois (NBI) and had a full production schedule. The name change formalized the revision of the company from a school company to an entirely professional company, with a commitment to touring in the Midwest. It was a company of 21 dancers comprised of 14 NAA graduates and 7 professionals, under the artistic direction of Gwynne Ashton with choreography by Antony Valdor. Hopes were high that the young company would grow to between 24 and 26 dancers and become the professional Ballet Company of the Midwest within 5 years. The National Academy of Arts, Dance Division, continued to perform twice yearly.
Funded by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council, the NBI had an ambitious touring schedule their first year. They toured Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, and Illinois, fulfilling their stated purpose of primarily serving the Midwest. They went anywhere, doing everything, touring on a shoestring with minimal technical requirements being met by one of Wright's sons, John, who later received his degree in technical theatre from the University of Illinois. The NBI brought quality ballet to modestly sized towns that could never afford larger, more renowned ballet companies.
During its short life (1976-1978) the company traveled from Scotland to California, receiving positive reviews wherever they went. This first young company included performers who were to go on to long and illustrious dance careers. John Gardner (soloist, American Ballet Theatre), Maxine Sherman (principal, Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham), Colleen Davis (Principal - Dutch National Ballet), William DeGregory (Principal - Pennsylvania Ballet), Jennifer Palo (Principal Eliot Feld), Susan Clark (Milwaukee Ballet), Edward Hillyer (Canadian Ballet) Elizabeth Rutherford (Canadian Ballet), Andrea Boardman (Les Grand Ballet Canadiens), Rhonda Lee (Ballet West), Diane Van Der Hei, Mary Beth Cabana (Cleveland Ballet/ Ballet Arts Foundation in Tucson, AZ), Kim Von Brandenstein (Cleveland Ballet), Leigh Ann Hudacek (Cleveland Ballet), Veronica Soliz (Cleveland Ballet) and these are only a few of the dancers who began their careers in the ranks of the NBI.
Many of these graduates of the Academy felt their careers were directly and positively influenced by their performance experience with the NBI:
My overall experience at the Academy was very good. I knew that I was a part of something special and the high level of dancers, training and artists involved shaped the level of experiences that I would strive for during my performing and now teaching career. I have devoted my life to dance and it is
my life force. I knew that my eventual destiny would be as a ballet teacher and I'm proud to say that I have many students who are dancing professionally.
It has come full circle for me. (Mary Beth Cabana - Oct. 1999 and Academy graduate, 75, member of NBI 75 and 76, she is founder and Artistic Director of the Ballet Arts Foundation in Tucson, AZ)
New faculty were regularly coming in to teach for the Academy. In September of 1975 Christine Hennessey and Winthrop Corey came to Champaign with their young daughter, 3 year old Elizabeth, to guest teach for six months. Formerly of Canada's Royal Winnipeg Ballet, they had recently been working with Rudolf Nureyev and had extensive classical experience. Alexander Bennett became a regular teacher and choreographer for the Academy beginning in November of 1976. A former premiere danseur with Ballet Rambert and the Royal Ballet, he was hailed as the successor to Anton Dolin and considered one of the outstanding male dancers in 1950's. He came to the Academy having been Ballet Master for the South African Ballet, Scottish Ballet and the Royal Opera, Covent Garden. Nineteen-seventy-six also brought Mary Price Boday and Les Boday to the faculty. The young couple, with a varied background combining professional ballet and modern work, became directors for the Extension Division as well as regular teachers and choreographers for the regular division. Cherie Noble came monthly in the latter years and summer sessions brought various guest artists as well, including Nathalie Krassovska (former prima ballerina for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the London Festival Ballet) and Juan Anduze. Outstanding accompanists such as Ray Wilson and Julius Robinson consistently graced classes with their musical inspiration.
The Angel Did Not Come
Many fund raising activities were pursued throughout the existence of the Academy. Some of these activities were quite innovative, requiring extensive support from a large group of active volunteers. Headed by the effervescent and competent Colleen Wright, the various fund raising events were instrumental in the continuation of the school. One particularly exceptional event was a Ball (featuring Guy Lombardo) sponsored by local businesses and held in a car dealership. At the end of the evening Wright turned in the rental car the organizers had been using to shuttle guests around. The next day he received a phone call from the Champaign police- a large bag had been found in the trunk of the car- was it his? After showing his identification, Wright retrieved the proceeds from the benefit. The man who had rented the car had opened the trunk and found the money. Assuming it was lost he had honestly turned it over to the police.
For most of its 6-year history, the Academy had undergone spells of running out of money for day-to-day operating expenses while it waited for the next grant or the next contribution to materialize. Each year the budget had been based in part on this unearned income. If the contributions did not come, if the grant was declined, the school had to play catch up. It was a system that created havoc with the cash flow.
Wright understood that stable financial support was absolutely necessary to realize his dream, and constant struggling with finances precluded steady school or company development. The Freitas Foundation of San Rafael, California was under the directorship of Wright's uncle, Lou Freitas. Lou Freitas was considering disbanding the Foundation, and the possibility existed that the corpus of foundation monies would become the basis of an endowment for the Academy, thus assuring the continuation of the school. Due to a complex series of circumstances, the endowment did not come through.
In February of 1977 it was publicized that the financial base for NAA was sound. The school would peak with an attendance of 185 students this year. The operating budget was $715,000 but expenditures for the upcoming year were projected to jump to $1,000,000 due to continued expansion and improvements of the facilities and increasing production costs. By fiscal year 1981-82 the final year of the academy's new Five-year Plan, expenses were projected to reach nearly $1.8 million. Rather unrealistically, the portion of expenses covered by tuition and box office receipts was expected to increase proportionally to expenses. In 1977 the earned income of the academy was $512,000 (about 71% of expenses.)
It was hoped that Chicago would become a source for an expanded funding base. Many prominent community members of Champaign-Urbana were already supporting the Academy with generous contributions. Members of the Board contributed 34 % of the operating deficit (the portion of expenses not covered by earned income); 80% of the Academy's money came from the Champaign-Urbana area. An organization with a national reputation was being operated with local support. The local community could not be expected to carry on, much less expand, upon this major funding role. Funding on a larger scale was necessary, and Chicago seemed a likely target. Although a major city, and despite the efforts of many prominent artists, Chicago could not yet boast of being home to a world class ballet company. Chicago figured noticeably as a mark for future Academy fund raising efforts.
The Five-year Plan included ambitious plans to renovate and develop the Colwell Center, formerly the Inman Hotel. At that point the Colwell Center served to house the academic, music and administrative functions. Long-range plans were proposed for the construction a downtown campus, with the Colwell Center serving as a foundational corner. The Academy owned 10 properties throughout Champaign at that time, which would be used to lever against property acquisitions for the downtown campus. The Five-year Plan was to be reviewed about every 6 months by the board's long-range Planning Committee for revision and updating, and adjusted accordingly. It was frequently stated that the Academy is financially stable, the organization is here to stay, that the Academy was doing well. Words of confidence. It was not quite so.
The optimism of 1977 prompted expansion of the scope of the schools programs. Its $1,000,000 operating budget for that year ended up with a $150,000 deficit. But beginning in the fall of 1977, members of the Board of Directors realized that the Academy was foundering in financial backwaters. From October of 1977 on, the minutes of the Board of directors meeting reflect a growing concern about the increasing debt, and a definite urgency towards fund raising activities. Nonetheless, in 1978 the Academy found itself short of being able to continue operations. An 11th Hour fund raising drive failed to raise the projected $350,000 needed to begin operations in the fall. It was still hoped that the school could open on September 1, 1978, but the necessary angel never materialized. The drive raised $205,000, but some of that was contingent upon the receipt of the full $350,000. At a meeting of the Board of Directors on July 31,1978 it was motioned for, voted upon and passed that the school would suspend operations until a certain amount of debt had been met. The Academy would not open its doors on August 21.
The announcement came on August 1, 1978, just four days before preparations for the fall semester were to begin. The summer program was completed. It was hoped that the National Ballet of Illinois might find support and eventually a home in the Chicago area. If arrangements can be made, this splendid ballet company will move to Chicago to be supported by a new organization, Tryon said in the news conference during which the closing was announced. It was also hoped that they would reunite with the school when and if the school reopened. we are deeply convinced that our efforts over the past years under the leadership of Dr. Gilbert Wright have produced a lasting and very worthy impact on the world of the performing arts. To the extent that we have let our supporters down, we apologize. To the many wonderful students who have put such great personal effort and determination into building their careers here, we feel a very special sense of sorrow and disappointment. We hope that none of them will despair, but rather, that they will find renewed vigor and strength with which to pursue their goals and join in the ranks of those who have graduated and are already enjoying success in their careers. To the tireless faculty and staff, who have given more of themselves than anyone in terms of personal dedication we can only pay great homage. Our appreciation will be exceeded only by our efforts to make good our commitments to them. We hope that when the day comes that we can restore our programs they will somehow be able to return. Tryon was having a bad week. His father-in-law, Woody Colwell, had lapsed into a coma and died that same day. As president of a family business (Colwell Systems, Inc) about to lose its Chairman, he knew that it needed extra attention. He was also taking graduate classes at the University of Illinois and was on the verge of an attack of gout from the stress. Now he had to speak to the press about the closure of his beloved Academy. The NBI did not find a home in Chicago, and the reunion would never be.
Tryon was hopeful that the Academy could be revived once it resolved the $125,000 debt it owed former employees and suppliers. On December 2, 1978 five properties of the National Academy of Arts were sold at auction for a total of $728,000 - all to members of the Academy's Board of Directors. Proceeds from the sale would allow the Academy to clear itself of long-term debts from first and second mortgages on the properties. Tryon himself had purchased the Colwell Center for $142,000. Tryon and Phil Faucett, the executive vice president of the Academy, shared the purchase of two other properties - the former fraternity at 901 S. Second St. and adjoining Academy dance studios on Daniel St. They purchased the package for $230,000. All three of these house properties included studio space necessary for the continuation of the extension program. Tryon looked forward to reviving the suspended programs with the generous assistance of Pauline Colwell. Charles Keeling purchased the other two properties that had formerly housed resident students ń the properties at John and Chalmers St., for a total of $356,000. Keeling planned to renovate the buildings and lease them to fraternities, which were once again rising in popularity and had expressed interest in them. An unspecified sixth property had been condemned and was not offered for public auction.
When the Academy closed, the Wright's were physically, mentally and emotionally drained. It took several years for them to regain their equilibrium. Exhausted, they moved to a cottage home in Nevada. Assets were sold to help pay Academy debts. Colleen went to work for Harrah's Hotel as a front desk receptionist and eventually became a group sales manager. Their family of five had moved from relative comfort to a very modest living situation. It took two years for Wright to put himself back together as a functional human being. He hiked the Yosemite trail, wrote a murder mystery in which the murder victim was an eccentric, demanding choreographer who bore a striking resemblance to a familiar faculty member, and slowly recovered. The novel was never published. He eventually went to work for the largest full-service real estate appraisal firm in Reno, where he developed a specialized appraisal function in valuing environmentally sensitive land; he earned national certification from the Appraisal Institute and eventually became a partner in the firm. In 1994 Dr. Gilbert Wright was diagnosed with Bihemispheric Parkinsons. He retired from appraising, and Colleen retired from Harrah's. They have spent recent years camping and exploring the United States. Wright retains his keen, curious, intelligent, agile mind and his strong interest in diverse subjects. Colleen continues to be an energetic and bright hostess in all respects. Wright bears his Parkinsons well, Colleen is ever devoted; both are gracious, generous and maintain a deep and thoughtful Catholic faith.
Had Michael Maule stayed, had the funding been stabilized, had all been well, the Wright's say they would have eventually left and returned to the West anyway as the life was simply too fast and demanding. Ashton, although a committed, kind and excellent teacher, was more retiring than Maule, and therefore perhaps not the dynamic director needed at that early period of the National Academy's development. A majority of the 174 graduates of the Academy, plus those who attended but did not graduate, went on to careers in dance or dance related fields. How many institutions so short-lived can claim such a longitudinal influence? The long-term impact of this short-term institution will be explored through the words of Academy graduates in the next chapter of
The National Academy of Dance/ National Academy of Arts: a Brief Historic Overview
Quote approvals received to date:
MaryBeth Cabana: confirmed (Nov. 1999)
Brant Moore confirmed Dec. 1999.
Gretchen Bevis confirmed Dec. 1999.
Cheryl Movitz (Montelle Leatart) confirmed Dec. 1999.
Dr. Gilbert Wright:
Dr. Gilbert Wright, personal notes, 1978.
Dr. Gilbert Wright, personal interview.
Colleen Wright, personal interview,
Moore, personal interview.
Movitz + alum survey responses.
Tryon, personal interview
Courier, May 3, 1971
Peltz, survey response.
National Academy of Dance Faculty information, c. 1972.
Wright, personal interview.
IFD Newsletter, November 1972.
Moore, personal interview.
Wright, personal interview.
Tryon, correspondence, 12-15-99.
National Academy of Dance Faculty information, c. 1972.
National Academy of Dance Faculty information c. 1973.
IFD Newsletter, November 1972.
IFD Newsletter, November 1972.
Academy schedule, 1972.
News Gazette, c. 1975.
News Gazette, Nov. 22, 1977
IFD Newsletter, November 1973.
Courier, Music division Opening, July 14, 1974
Tryon, personal interview.
Report of the North Central Association Visiting Committee, March 22-24, 1977.
National Ballet of Illinois narrative, c. 1976.
John Wright, personal interview.
Courier, August 22, 1977.
News Gazette, August 30, 1975.
News Gazette, November 3, 1976.
News Gazette, July 24, 1976.
Noble, personal interview.
News Gazette, October 1976.Dancer breath's dance
Tryon, correspondence, December 15, 1999.
National Academy of Arts Faculty records, c. 1976.
Moore, Wright Tryon.
News Gazette, February 6, 1977.
National Academy of Arts Board of Directors correspondence, April 14, 1977.
Board of Directors Minutes: Oct 20, 1977, Oct. 27, Nov. 14, Jan. 17, 1978, Feb. 4, Mar. 7, Apr. 3, May 17, May 19, May 23, May 30.
Board of Directors minutes, July 31, 1978.
News Gazette, August 1, 1978.
Tryon, correspondence, December 15, 1999.
News Gazette, December 3, 1978.