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Central Ballet Theatre Revisits "The Story of Esther"

By Morgan Fleming

Central Ballet Theatre performed "The Story of Esther" for the first time in five years January 20-22nd 2012 at Tusculum College’s Annie Hogan Byrd Auditorium. "The Story of Esther" demonstrates how faith, virtue, and courage can thwart even the darkest powers. The Saturday matinee performance saw a very full house of both the young and old, many of whom had not attended the original performance in 2007. In five years, Blair Berry (production coordinator and board member) stated Central Ballet Theatre has both doubled the cast size and tripled the budget of the production through the help of many wonderful sponsors and donors.

A cast of 100 dancers can be awfully daunting for anyone but Lori Ann Sparks, Central Ballet Theatre’s Artistic Director and Choreographer, excels not only at excellent casting choices but continuing to offer choreography that allows all performers strengths to shine no matter their skill or experience level. The ballet’s youngest dancers, with the help of some slightly older companions, had many opportunities to show off clean, simple staging patterns. More intermediate dancers presented many different example of character or folk-inspired dance. The most advanced dancers were very concise and exhibited appropriate stage presence and emotions while performing. The many non-lead male cast members were quite entertaining to watch during their dance sequences, including folk dances, waltzing, fight scenes, and the very humorous working guys scene.

The lead dancers and guest artists did not disappoint either. Carlos dos Santos, Jr., who played the evil Haman, was able to fill the stage with his presence. His choreography for both himself and Lori Ann Sparks, the equally evil Zeresh, showcased sharp angularity and asymmetrical moves that recalled many neo-classical themes. Santos, Jr.’s choreography provided a distinct opposite to the dancers Joshua Kurtzberg and Rebecca Parker, Mordecai and Esther respectively. Both of these performers, via Sparks’ choreography, presented clarity of movement, lines grounded in the classical tradition, as well as a calm beauty to best show off their character’s faith and virtue.

Some of the most interesting sections of the ballet featured larger groups of dancers or the lead dancers supported by a smaller group or corps of performers. During the first act, scene five Sparks filled the stage with a variety of Persian dancers providing entertainment for King Ahasuerus’ party. Ben Sparks partners Jordan Hankins while a group of Persian leads back them up. Behind those dancers, on the edges of the stage, were younger performers echoing the movement being presented in the center of the stage. Act three, scene seven celebrating Mordecai’s fame featured several circles of performers dancing around the leads in a style very similar to Israeli folk dancing filling up the stage with joy. The mourning scene in the third act with an all female group performing a series of parallel based movements full of tension, embodied the agony faced by the characters at that moment in the ballet. One of the most satisfying scenes came during the first act, scene six when Queen Vashti is exiled from the kingdom. Sarah Sanders, who filled in for an injured Parke Brumit with two days notice, emotionally exhibited a heavy sadness while keeping the movements light and flexible. Similar to ballets of the Romantic period, corps dancers framed Sanders responding with complimentary movement, creating a series of beautiful tableaus throughout the space.

Presenting original ballets can be hard work. With nothing but the story of Esther, Sparks created not only original choreography but set design and costuming as well. The second time showing "The Story of Esther," Central Ballet Theatre has enhanced both of these elements providing a lush background to showcase the dancers. Founded in 2004, Central Ballet Theatre continues to grow and present quality, accessible ballet to Greeneville and northeast Tennessee. One can hope that Lori Ann Spark will further an appreciation of classical ballet Greeneville as well as continue to create new works like, "The Story of Esther," that present both relevant and uplifting messages.

Review of Central Ballet’s 2011 production of Cinderella.

By Jennifer Kintner, Director Mountain Movers Dance Company at ETSU

Towards the end of Act III, Cinderella lies asleep on her mother’s grave. She is unsure of her future, worn down by the harsh treatment she has received from her family, shaken by the regard of the prince, feeling lost and afraid. As she sleeps, we see a dream of her mother unfold. Her mother is a vision of grace and virtue. Towards the end of the dream, she leans towards her sleeping daughter and in a small gesture, breathes a kiss gently through her fingers, sending her daughter all the devotion and love of her maternal heart.

That moment stands as one of many in a full-length production celebrating the virtues of dignity under duress, generosity of spirit in the face of a cruel and harsh world, and of the courage to love all of creation in equal measure. What we see, suddenly, are layers of character, meaning and a story behind a story. Lori Ann Sparks, dancing as Cinderella’s mother, is, truly a vision of loving kindness. The breath of love and support that she breaths into this entire production brings a sleeping beauty to life.

As each act unfolds, the cleverly designed sets take us into grand houses, palaces and forest glades. The costumes show off each character as an individual. Whoever designed the costume for the mice, and for GusGus in particular, deserves an extra round of applause! The younger members of the cast were as carefully coached in their dancing and performing as the more adult members. Such a range of expressive dancing from young dancers is very impressive!

The technical expertise of the dancers was tested to the fullest in this demanding ballet. The role of Cinderella, ably performed by Margaret Berry, is extremely demanding, especially for a young dancer; asking her to perform at the peak of her technical expertise and also to dance generously, openly, with all her heart. The fairies, dancing the original choreography by Sir Fredrick Ashton, also performed his complicated steps with seamless ease. It is often just as hard to dance a comic role, and Cinderella’s two step sisters kept the audience in stitches with their antics!

The prince was every inch a dignified, scintillating presence on stage. The Ballroom scene was the high point of the show, showing the best of abilities from all dancers, whether comic or heroic.

Each character had an individualized costume and a special way of moving that was unique to them. That variety, along with some very clever lighting, and a variety of music ranging from Prima to Prokofiev, gave the show texture and richness.

One of the most impressive elements of the show was that the entire cast, from youngest to oldest, from the most technically advanced to those newest to dance embodied their characters with detail, precision, grace and a kind of ease that only comes from excellent instruction and coaching of fully dedicated individuals. It takes the hard work, vision and dedication of an entire cast to bring life to this ballet dream. The end result is a feast for the eyes, ears, mind and heart of every audience member privileged enough to bear witness to this grand production of Cinderella.

Exodus Was a 'Novel, Complex Ballet'

(Review of Central Ballet's 2010 production of Exodus)

By Jennifer Kintner

As the audience filtered into the Annie Hogan Byrd Hall on a cold January afternoon, I saw people leaning across the seats and rows to say "hello" to everyone around them. The hall was buzzing with anticipation. I was reminded how strong and devoted an audience I often see at Central Ballet's performances. Exodus: the Story of Moses was a tour-de-force production, staged Jan. 22-24 and involving an enormous cast led by gifted guest artists, hundreds of costumes and lighting cues, and lavish sets. The ballet was a testament to the devotion of Lori Ann Spark's vision, the dedication of each performer, and also the active, sincere support of an entire community. As the curtains went up, what unfolded was an entirely novel, complex ballet which gave full reign to the best acting, pantomime and dancing skills of a wide variety of performers.

It is rare that a production of such professionalism can be shown in our small towns in East Tennessee. Each element of this production showed not only hard work and dedication, but also lively imagination, and the technical expertise required to bring vivid dreams to life. Exodus opened under full lights, illuminating the plight of the Hebrews in Egypt living in fear and daily toil under the lash of the Pharaohs guards. The sets and costumes transported us effortlessly to the time and place of each ensuing scene. Frank Mengel's lighting designs cleverly contrasted the harsh sun of the desert with the moody internal life of palace, river, home or hearth. One of the great strengths of this production was the fine artwork of each backdrop, and the clever design of each set piece, which was moved easily and quickly into place. I was struck by how the chariot and sedan-chair set pieces were included in the overall choreography to change the audience's perspective of the action on stage. The support of Tusculum College's Acts, Arts & Academia allowed this production the ability to use the stage fully, and I was struck by the professional quality of the sets, sound, and lighting as well as the dancing and choreography.

Ms. Sparks chooses her guest artists with care, and attention to how each performer will flesh out the roles they are given. Tanya Rathburn was captivating in her role as Moses' mother, Jacobed. With simple, environmental sound and eloquent gestures, she revealed the emotional turmoil of a mother's decision to let her child go in the opening scenes of the ballet. Ms. Sparks, as the Pharaoh's daughter; Parke, as Miriam; and Margaret Berry, as the wife of Pharaoh; rounded out the lead female roles of the ballet. Each of these women brought full, dynamic life to their roles and were a pleasure to watch.

Guest artists Jeffrey Diehl and Dante Adela are generous, open-hearted, powerful performers. Each paid equal attention to the technical demands and sweep of their roles as well as the fine details of each scene. When Adela watched his "son," played to perfection by a lively Maggie Sanders, you felt his pride and affection not only as an actor, but as an artist fully engaged by all around him.

The ballet itself was neatly tied together between the first and final sections. Through the dances "intercession" and "Life,"we see the women most active in the story of Moses dancing on stage together. They performed separate pieces, and then, gradually, the choreography shifts into unison, building a startling image of the similar inner lives of these women from very different social strata. The two trio sections were bound together by similar choreography as well, allowing us to see how the unfolding events changed each character in subtle ways as the story progressed.

The same use of paralleled choreography tied the story of Moses together. As the younger Moses, dancer David Sparks performed a show-stopping solo of high leaps and quick turns in "Train up a Child" as a tribute to Moses' Hebrew faith. The movement of that section was repeated and enlarged upon by guest artist Jeffrey Diehl as the adult Moses in ÄúParting of the Sea, Äù showing the consistency of his faith, and the persistence of Moses' vision.

Close attention to following the story laid out beautifully in the program notes was well-worth the effort. Each element of the story was brought to life through imaginative costuming and choreography. Of particular note were the very fearsome crocodiles! Trinity Arts Center dancers created a vivid image of the Nile running with blood in "Counterfeits," using only fabric and electrifying performances by all the dancers. Ms. Sparks always has a magical touch with children, and as the bulrushes and the lovely water dancers took the baby Moses in his basket, it was hard not to stand and cheer these young performers so serious and intent in their performance. Later, these same diminutive dancers overwhelmed the Pharaoh's guards in the wonderfully poignant re-closing of the Red Sea. That scene stayed with me, as a vivid insight into Ms. Sparks' own sense of the power and determined grace of her students.

Ms. Sparks was solidly at the helm of this production, finding unique ways for each individual student in her case to share with the audience the best of his/her abilities. From the youngest of children to the teen and adult ballet students, each performer moved expressively, fully in character, fully invested; drawing us into the stories and letting us celebrate their accomplishments as they threw themselves into each movement. Ms. Sparks and Brian Sparks are able theatrical coaches, with an uncanny ability to let each performer have their moment in the spotlight.

A ballet of this scope is a serious undertaking, but Central Ballet manages also to infuse the performance with humor and moments of great tenderness. When Moses extends his hand from his heart to send his love to the Pharaoh's daughter who saved him as a baby, she cannot step down from her exulted place, but she catches his offering in her palm and presses it to her heart as she is carried away by time and events.

>As we left the theatre with so many vivid images in our minds, that last image stays with me as a metaphor for the entire ballet. We leave, knowing these artists from the youngest to the most mature, have sent their message directly to our hearts, and we bear it away with us, the better for having seen Exodus.

This review was written by Jennifer Kintner, the director of Mountain Movers Dance Company at East Tennessee State University.

Central Ballet Theatre of Greeneville

Presents "Exodus: The Story of Moses"

Central Ballet Theatre of Greeneville will present their newest ballet, "Exodus: The Story of Moses," on Jan. 22-24 at Tusculum College in the Annie Hogan Byrd Auditorium.

The local ballet company that brought you "Esther" and "Prince Caspian," now brings to Greeneville their seventh production with 93 local and professional dancers to present an exciting, original ballet appropriate for all ages.

"Exodus" is a spinoff of "Deliver Us!" the first original story ballet CBT performed, with more complex plots and a deeper story-line. Except for five original scenes, there is all new choreography, lots of new music both classical and contemporary, new and old costumes, and scenes enhancing the depth of new characters and the richness of a new storyline. For those who enjoy reading the Biblical history, Exodus chapters 1-15 will be presented in detail along with the presentation of the Egyptian historical side of the story.

As the ballet opens, the royalty and fearsomeness of the old Pharaoh, his son, and his daughter display the depth of bondage in which the Hebrews toil. We watch the horror of slaves considered as objects instead of the beauty of human beings. We see the hardened state of the old Pharaoh's heart as he commands the Hebrew babies to be thrown to the Egyptian river god as a sacrifice to him. We come to find greater understanding within the Pharaoh's daughter, the Princess, who sees life as it truly is, while we see the Pharaoh's son is blind to the events that surround him and believes that he is life. While the Hebrews cry out to Jehovah to deliver them, Moses' mother places Moses in a basket into the river, trusting that God will intervene. As Pharaoh's daughter discovers Moses, young Miriam brings the Princess and Moses' mother together, allowing Moses to live in his own home for years before he is taken permanently into the palace. As Moses grows into a fine man, his character is shown forth before all in the palace. He begins to contemplate his fate as an Egyptian king versus a Hebrew slave. By faith, Moses refuses to be called the son of Pharaoh's Daughter, choosing rather "to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season."

A brutal attack of his people, a murder, and a chase after the Hebrew renegade, Moses flees to the wilderness where he is taken in by a Midian priest. There Moses finds a new life, a wife, and a burning bush. Called to be the deliverer of the Hebrew slaves, Moses goes back to Egypt, and with the help of Aaron, tells the new Pharaoh: "The Lord says, 'Let My people go!"

As pride precedes the destruction of Pharaoh, Moses turns the water into blood, faces Egyptian magicians and a priestess, watches the fall of a great nation through plagues sent by God, and sees the depth of despair as Pharaoh and his wife lose their only heir to the throne, their first born son. As the Hebrews are released to leave Egypt, they rejoice in the passing over of their children and seek God Äôs protection as they approach the Red Sea, being chased by a determined Pharaoh and his great army. As the sea parts for the Hebrews to cross on dry land, the Egyptian army is destroyed by the great walls of water returning to their place, washing the army away, leaving the Hebrews to worship their mighty God.

"This ballet brings the story of Moses alive, allowing the audience and the dancers to live a part of history in such a way that one will not soon forget it," says Lori Ann Sparks, Artistic Director of CBT.

Sparks envisioned this version of the old ballet this past spring "where the new parts just fell into place, creating such a depth of the characters that the audience see their hearts and feel their passion, their peace, their despair, and their hope."

Sparks, also the company's resident choreographer and professional dancer, will be portraying the role of Pharaoh's Daughter, the Princess. Previously, she danced the role of Dr. Cornelius as well as the head Tree in last year's production of "Prince Caspian.

Returning to perform with CBT for his fourth season is Jeffrey Diehl to portray Moses. Now a freelance dancer from Louisville, Ky., Diehl has 12 years professional experience dancing various roles with Orlando Ballet, Louisville Ballet and BalletMet. Jeff played the part of Caspian in CBT's last production.

A native of Davenport, Iowa, Jeff received his early training at the Houston Ballet Academy. He attended Northern Illinois University where he earned a BFA in dance performance. Upon graduating, he danced with the Orlando Ballet under the artistic direction of Fernando Bujones. He then went on to join the Louisville Ballet where he danced from 2003 to 2008. He has performed an array of works by great choreographers as Sir Fredrick Ashton, George Balanchine, Choo-San Goh, Paul Taylor, and Antony Tudor. He had the privilege of performing at the Kennedy Center in 1998 for the ACDFA 25th Anniversary Gala Concert.

Dante Adela, returning to CBT for his third season, comes to dance the role of Pharaoh's Son, the new Pharaoh. Adela played the role of Trumpkin in CBT's "Prince Caspian." The three most memorial events of Adela's dance career: ÄúI still remember the first time I set my foot on linoleum at Luneta Park in the Philippines. After I finished dancing, my hands looked so pale because I was so nervous, but I knew then that all I ever wanted to do was dance. I was 16. Another memory is shaking Gelsy Kirkland's hand back stage after my show at Alvin Ailey Dance Center. She thanked me for my artistry, for dancing with my soul. The third thought is how happy and fortunate I am that I'm still dancing, and thankful that I get to share it with you guys (Central Ballet Theatre). I started as a break-dancer, went backward, from street to classical ballet, the foundation of dance, of movement. Now I dance vertically, on a rock wall."

Adela studied at Lou Conti Studios in Chicago (Hubbard Street Dance Co.), then went to NYC at Steps on Broadway, then to Alvin Ailey Dance Center, then finally to North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C. -- all on full scholarships. He has also danced professionally with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, Cedar Lake Dance, Ballet NY, Orlando Ballet and Kansas City Ballet, just to name a few. Now he teaches contemporary dance, as well as rock climbing, in three major sport centers in NYC.

Jacobed, Moses's mother, will be danced by Tanya Rathbun, who danced the role of Nik-a-Brik last year and is returning to CBT for her third season. Tanya has more than 20 years of professional experience, teaching and performing with respected companies in the U.S. and abroad. She has trained under some of the best dancers and choreographers in the business, including The Chicago City Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Rotara Ballet of Atlanta, Joel Hall Dancers, Danceworks Conservatory, and The St""rling Dance Theatre. Her performance experience ranges from classic roles in traditional ballets such as "The Nutcracker," to fast paced flapper and swing choreography set to the big band music of the 1920s. Her broad range includes everything from entertaining jazz-centric performances aboard an international cruise line, to a variety of contemporary roles with neo-classical ballet companies, and expressive lyrical performances, as part of her own original ballets- "God With Us, Remember Me" and "Genesis." Tanya currently serves as the artistic director and owner of Trinity Arts Center of Johnson City, a multi-disciplinary arts school founded in 2006, where she continues to teach and direct a variety of classes and productions each year.

As with CBT tradition, a huge staff of volunteer parents brings costumes, props, performance coordination, and master sets to the ballet. Brian Sparks, master builder of sets and Sparks Äô husband, uses a careful eye on acting skills. Local artist, Marilyn duBrisk, judges at auditions and gives advice for scenes as CBT approaches performance time. Wess duBrisk will make a guest appearance in the ballet as Jethro, the Midian priest. Beth Stone and Dell Hughes, other Greeneville artists, are creating poster art and Egyptian gods for this ballet. Sam Lane and Barbara Badenhope will once again paint scenery. CBT will be reusing masks from ÄúDeliver Us! Äù which were made under the direction of local artist, James-Ben Stockton. Parke Brumit, Central Ballet Theatre's board president, states that: "Exodus will be the best ballet CBT as produced yet. It will be exciting, beautiful, and heart-moving. Thank you to all the community for the encouragement and financial gifts that help make this ballet happen." Exodus will be presented on Friday, January 22 at 7:00 pm, Saturday, January 23 at 2:30 pm and 7:00 pm, and Sunday, January 24 at 2:30 pm. To reserve tickets or for more information, call 423-330-3098 or 423-798-1620 . Tickets may also be purchased at Three Blind Mice, James-Ben Studio, The General Morgan Inn, or at the box office the day of the performance (reservations are suggested). The General Morgan Inn in Greeneville is offering a special room rate of $75 per night (instead of $120/night) during the month of January. Visit www.generalmorganinn.com or call 423-787-1000. This ballet will be a great opportunity for church groups to attend.

CBT is funded in part by Arts Build Communities, a program funded by the Tennessee General Assembly and administered in cooperation with the Tennessee Arts Commission; the Johnson City Area Arts Council; and Tusculum College's Acts, Arts, Academia.

C.S. Lewis' Prince Caspian Interpreted Through Dance

The enchanted land of Narnia came to life this weekend at the Annie Hogan Byrd Auditorium at Tusculum College when Central Ballet Theatre of Greenville presented the first-known dance interpretation of Prince Caspian: Return to Narnia. The closing Sunday matinee performance was completely sold out to animated audience members who enjoyed breathtaking visuals of the beloved story penned by C.S. Lewis. The performance held the attention of even the youngest audience members, and earned a standing ovation from all at its conclusion.

Romantic and Classical story-ballet favorites, such as Giselle and Swan Lake, are continually revived and reinterpreted in eras where neoclassical, contemporary, modern, and postmodern productions reign. Timeless storylines that might include the triumph of love or the battle between good and evil draw audiences time and again, as do characters and elements of fantasy that enable them to transcend their reality. The Chronicles of Narnia offer powerful examples of such subject matter, and Prince Caspian proved to be an excellent choice for dance interpretation by Lori Ann Sparks, Artistic Director of CBT, allowing her to once again weave together her passion for dance and her faith.

Since its inception five and a half years ago, Central Ballet Theatre of Greenville has grown tremendously. The number of students has nearly tripled, while audiences have more than quadrupled in size. The exponential growth of the community’s respect, love, volunteer efforts, and financial support has enabled CBT to produce more elaborate productions with each passing year, and Prince Caspia is certainly no exception. Stunning scenery and costumes, intricately designed and constructed, helped the audience feel as if they’d actually stepped into the world of Narnia for an hour or two. Exceptional lighting design by Frank Mengel also contributed to the magic, from more literal depictions of tree branches and water reflection to the subtle effects of color and shadowing that painted each scene. The talents of Aminda Miles, sword choreographer and fight coach, were beautifully demonstrated. The dancers appeared quite comfortable in executing swordplay and fight scenes that drew much enthusiasm and applause from audience members. Lori Ann Sparks’ selection of music captured the actions and emotions of the storyline, and in some cases, helped to convey the plot.

In her choreography, Ms. Sparks drew from several genres of dance movement in order to best convey the intent of each scene. As is always the case, her choreography demonstrated great musicality, alternating between sustained and syncopated movement that mirrored the varying rhythms. If the movement was somewhat repetitive in its vocabulary and use of port de bras, it was appropriate to the skill of the dancers and was successful in creating visually pleasing lines in space. Ms. Sparks choreographed some truly beautiful corps de ballet passages for Prince Caspian, such as “The New Heir is Born,” “Long Live Prince Caspian,” and “Lucy Calls to the Trees.”

In such a story-driven ballet, the artistic abilities of the dancers become equally as important as their technical ability. In addition to the artistic direction of Lori Ann Sparks, the students of CBT benefited from the expertise of acting and staging coaches Marilyn du Brisk and Brian Sparks. I was struck by the ability of the entire cast, regardless of age, to assume and project the emotion of their characters and to stay in character regardless of audience response and distraction. The soloists in the company demonstrated excellent rhythm and musicality in the execution of pantomime and choreography, which allowed scenes to flow quite well and carried the storyline beautifully.

Observing the manner in which professional dancers conduct themselves in class, rehearsal, and performance is vital to the growth of the dance student. Central Ballet School students had the privilege of working with four professional dancers throughout the production process of Prince Caspian: Return to Narnia. Lori Ann Sparks, Resident Performing Artist, awed audience members with her depiction of two very different roles. Her quirky, comical Dr. Cornelius, with his sharp, exaggerated movements and quick, intricate footwork, endeared him to Prince Caspian and captured our hearts as well. Conversely, Ms. Sparks’ performance as the Lead Tree inspired worship through her clean, fluid movements that demonstrated strength and beauty. Audience members marveled that the dancer who had portrayed Dr. Cornelius was the same as the woman who danced at the end of the ballet: “She seemed so much taller than Dr. Cornelius!” – a testament to Ms. Sparks’ excellent imitation of an old man, stooped with age.

Guest Artist Jeffrey Diehl returned to perform with Central Ballet Theatre of Greenville this year as Prince Caspian, having performed the role of Mordecai in The Story of Esther in 2007. Mr. Diehl offered a humble yet strong Caspian, partnering numerous dancers and executing beautiful pirouettes throughout the performance with grace and ease. His lines particularly complemented those of Ms. Sparks in the final pas de deux of the ballet. Also a returning Guest Artist, Dante Adela displayed a commanding stage presence, drawing eyes to his expressive, weighted movements and his powerful balon. Performing the Jester for CBT’s Sleeping Beauty last year, Mr. Adela took on the role of Trumpkin the Dwarf this year, a hardened Narnian who fights beside Prince Caspian and the Pevensie royalty. Portraying the feisty, combative Nikabrik was Guest Artist Tanya Rathbun, Artistic Director of Trinity Arts Center in Johnson City. Ms. Rathbun proved a wonderful addition to the cast, attracting the eyes of the audience with her vigorous, aggressive energy.

In a generation marked by self-proclaimed artistry, when some have said that classical art forms are doomed to become extinct, it was truly refreshing to see such a large audience, comprised of all ages, enthusiastically attending CBT’s performance of Prince Caspian: Return to Narnia. In these troubled economic times, such an attendance speaks volumes as to CBT’s artistic value in Greenville and the surrounding communities. I commend the administration, dancers, families, volunteers, donors, and patrons of CBT for their commitment to this expression of faith and artistry.

Erika Ballard holds an MFA in Dance and currently teaches ballet and modern dance classes at Kingsport Ballet.