Stage + Studio, A Louisville Ballet Blog: Family Focus by Annie Honebrink

Family ties us together.  Holds us up.  Builds us into something more.  Bigger.  Fuller.  Family reminds us who we are and who we can become.  Family laughs together in times of joy and picks one another up in times of despair.  Louisville Ballet is a family.  Since its conception sixty-five years ago, a family based atmosphere has presided in the company.  “There was a feeling about the whole thing of a unity, an ensemble, a real little company that was working hard to be effective as a whole not as individuals,” Karen Conrad and Pittman Corry wrote to William Habich concerning their experience working with Louisville Ballet dancers in 1953.  Alun Jones and Helen Starr greatly contributed to this sense of family and unity during Jones’s directorship of the company.  “It’s a real family atmosphere.  Helen and Alun Jones are great that way.  They make us feel comfortable coming to them with any problems we might have—professional or personal.  There’s also a great sense of humor during rehearsals,” expressed dancer Katie Morris.  This family focus has endured into the Ballet’s current state.  Dancers and staff support, comfort, encourage, and sustain one another.  These individuals laugh together, cry together, live together.  They experience life together as a close knit unit.  Dancers in particular share a bond that few colleagues in other work forces experience.  Dancers strive to move and breathe together on a daily basis.  Perhaps this contributes to the resilient and powerful bonds forged in such a workplace.

Louisville Ballet’s support of family extends beyond the studio.  Many members of the company have their own families—husbands, wives, children—waiting at home.  On April seventh and eighth, The Sleeping Beauty will celebrate this longstanding tradition of family by including families in the production.  Jones and Starr’s daughter, Hannah Jones Thomas and grandchildren, Rhys and Gordon will perform in the ballet, as well as Natalia Ashikhmina and Philip Velinov’s children, Gabriella and Raphael; Emily Reinking O’Dell’s daughter, Maya; Helen Daigle’s son, Keiran; and Kateryna Seller’s husband, Pete Lay.  Involving families in the production enriches the experience, giving it a special dynamic only family can provide.

“It makes me feel happy,” says seven-year-old Raphael when asked how he feels when he watches his parents dance in The Sleeping Beauty. Helen’s son, six-year-old Keiran, enthusiastically exclaims, “I know what mine feels like—it feels like I’m proud.”  The children in this production bring lightness and joy to the studio.  They are respectful, but playful.  Their carefree spirits brighten the company, and their laughter animates the studio.  They are extremely enthusiastic about The Sleeping Beauty.  Six-year-old Gordon and Keiran are particularly keen on the monsters that appear with Carabosse.  They agree that the flip by the “big monster” is especially impressive.  Keiran also enjoys “going down the stairs when everyone bows at us.”  He plays one of the King’s pages in the ballet.  Eight-year-old Rhys’s favorite part of The Sleeping Beauty is the fancy costumes.  Raphael loves sitting and watching.  Nine-year-old Maya’s favorite part in The Sleeping Beauty is the Bluebird pas de deux.  She loves sharing this experience with Gabriella.   Ten-year-old Gabriella most enjoys the exciting and dramatic parts of the ballet such as the end of Act I when Aurora pricks her finger, or the witches’ appearance with Carabosse in the Prologue.  Her favorite part of performing in the ballet is “pretending to be scared when Carabosse has announced [Aurora’s] final fate.”

The eagerness and delight of these children is contagious and endearing.  When Keiran discovered that his grandparents and other family and friends were coming to see The Sleeping Beauty, his response was, “they’re coming to see me,” innocently disregarding that his mother is dancing two chief roles in the ballet.  For the parents and grandparents, sharing the stage and ballet with their own family is an extremely special experience.  The unique opportunity to perform with one’s child is rare for one parent to experience, let alone five in the same production.  “It’s just really special to know that he is going to be on stage with me,” says Helen.  Natalia suggests that this experience will make a special memory—one that will stay with the family for years to come.  “Once upon a time we were all on stage performing together,” she smiles.  Philip considers the value gleaned by the children in seeing what their parents do every day.  They are given the opportunity to taste a little bit of the process and what it takes to get to the performance.  The children’s involvement in the ballet also gives them the chance to engage their expressions.  Kateryna finds it fun to have her husband, a previous dancer with the company, back in the studio.  His fun presence brings warmth and humor into the building.  Kateryna especially enjoys the part in the ballet when her character, Carabosse, tells his character, the King, to “listen to what I have to say.”  “And he has to listen,” she says.  Louisville Ballet last performed The Sleeping Beauty ten years ago.  Ten years ago Emily was pregnant with her first child, Maya.  She performed the ballet carrying Maya in her womb.  Now, ten years later, Maya will join her mother in this ballet once again—this time on her own two feet.  Emily enjoys seeing how much her daughter loves being a part of The Sleeping Beauty.  She reflects upon the way Maya’s face “lights up” when performing.

“She’s a marvelous dancer, an incredible actress, an administrator who helps keep the company going, and, on top of all that, she’s with her children for every school performance they are in and even goes with them to church.  Believe me, she’s a rare human being,” Domy Reiter-Soffer described Helen Starr.  Hannah explains that the Ballet “always felt like family.”  She reflects on the way that the Louisville Ballet company members “watched me and my brother grow up.”  Many of these dancers, key individuals in the company’s growth and expansion, will be attending The Sleeping Beauty.  “My experience with the Louisville Ballet is that it’s a very cohesive unit…Here I found enormous support for the company director, a sense of camaraderie and family,” stated Ron Cunningham, Boston Ballet’s resident choreographer up until his visit to Louisville.

The impact of family—within the studio and outside its walls—has been and continues to be imperative in the growth and sustenance of Louisville Ballet.  This unity is a driving force in the company’s success. The sense of togetherness, the ache for companionship—are desires of the soul.  Art is a very personal undertaking; yet, when bound with others, it becomes something greater.  These ideals are at the core of Louisville Ballet.  The company will extend its arms, drawing in as many as will share in creating something greater.  Creating art.  Creating family.


Ashikhimina, N.  (2017, March 23).  Personal Interview.


Daigle, H.  (2017, March 22).  Personal Interview.


Jones, A.  (2017, March 7).  Personal Interview.


Nuss, K.  (2017, March 25).  Personal Interview.

O’Dell, E.  (2017, March 31).  Personal Interview.


O’Dell, M.  (2017, March 31).  Personal Interview.


Sellers, K.  (2017, March 22).  Personal Interview.


Starr, H.  (2017, March 14).  Personal Interview.


Thomas, G.  (2017, March 25).  Personal Interview.


Thomas, H.  (2017, March 25).  Personal Interview.


Thomas, R.  (2017, March 25).  Personal Interview.


Velinov, P.  (2017, March 30).  Personal Interview.


Velinov, R.  (2017, March 25).  Personal Interview.


Velinova, G.  (2017, March 25).  Personal Interview.


Louisville Ballet.  65 Years of Making Moving Art.  Louisville: Butler Books, 2017.  Print.


Draut, Lynda Lane.  The Louisville Ballet Company: A History, 1951-1965.  Louisville,

Kentucky: Division of Humanities University of Louisville, 1968.  Print.
Hansen, Paul.  “Balancing Art and Humor.”  County Clarion.  30 January 1997: 3.