Ballet Austin's Night of Community
When a ballet's dress rehearsal becomes the main act
By Barbara Purcell,
3:05PM, Thu. May 9, 2019
For more than 20 years, Ballet Austin has run a little-known program which has left a big impression on audiences the night before the opening night, transforming each final dress rehearsal into an official evening at the ballet for those who might otherwise not have this opportunity.
Night of Community brings in thousands of invited guests, from hundreds of local agencies and nonprofits every year, ushering them into the grand concert hall at the Long Center, for an intimate performance more typically reserved for VIPs and corporate sponsors.
“I knew we had an opportunity to share all this beauty, rather than have the house sit empty during dress rehearsal,” says Cookie Ruiz, Ballet Austin’s executive director. In 1997, soon after she began her career with the company, Ruiz partnered up with Dan Pruett, then deputy director of Capital Area Food Bank, in distributing tickets, at no charge, to as many local organizations as possible. Night of Community, she explains, came from a desire to connect populations to the ballet who may otherwise never get a chance to experience a live performance, let alone a fully staged dance production complete with a symphony orchestra (or DJ Spooky).
Ruiz and her team make an effort to match each performance with the right audience. Their event for Giselle will mainly attract school groups and senior citizens, for instance, whereas their work with more adult content – the emotional heaviness of Exit Wounds or the murderous mothers in Grimm Tales – might not be suitable for the same crowd. Even so, she stresses the importance of never deciding what someone will or will not like: “The whole purpose of this is to not make certain assumptions.” The very first Night of Community taught her that lesson.
Then, she and Pruett had debated on whether to allocate tickets for the company’s production of Sleeping Beauty to a transitional housing/treatment program for men, assuming that a ballet, which epitomizes romance and classical beauty, would be too mushy for men who had spent time living on the streets. Ultimately, they went against their initial reasoning and opened it up to the organization – which subsequently requested 20 additional tickets. “I still have the image of these banker types walking up the steps of Bass Concert Hall that first night,” says Ruiz, when in fact, they were the men from the program which had nearly been nixed, dressed handsomely for the occasion in Salvation Army suits.
By inviting those who often struggle outside the margins of society or feel largely invisible, Night of Community literally offers a venue in which they can be seen and heard, creating an opportunity to experience a meaningful exchange from both sides of the stage’s footlights. “Anytime you’re performing onstage, you feel the energy of an audience,” says composer and longtime Ballet Austin collaborator Graham Reynolds. “And having this be the first group we share a piece with makes it more special.”
For more information about Night of Community, please visit www.balletaustin.org.
Giselle will be performed May 10-12, Fri., 8pm; Sat., 2 & 8pm; Sun., 3pm, at Dell Hall in the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside.