– Mihailo “Misha” Djuric, Artistic Director of Festival Ballet Providence

“We all move, we dance through life,” says Mihailo “Misha” Djuric, Artistic Director of Festival Ballet Providence. “Movement is dance. Everybody’s dancing, but a lot of people are not aware that they are dancing.”

Originally from Belgrade, Yugoslavia, Djuric says he was born to be a dancer. His enthusiasm is contagious. You can easily understand why this very talented man is a main reason for the spectacular emergence of Festival Ballet Providence as a leading arts success story. Not just an artistic director, his career in Europe and the United States spans that of actor, dancer, choreographer and costume designer.

Misha Djuric was hired in the summer of 1998 to lead the organization into the new millennium. His multi-pronged vision for Festival Ballet Providence encompassed increasing the number and variety of performances, developing a stronger resident company and increasing community collaboration, and developing the dance school.

What did he inherit?

Christine Hennessy and Winthrop Corey, formerly principal dancers with the Canadian Royal Winnipeg Ballet founded festival Ballet in 1978. With Corey’s departure in the 1980s and the untimely passing of Hennessy in 1997, the organization was in serious need of focus and direction. It launched an international search for a successor, found Djuric and hired him. While the seeds of what Festival Ballet was and would become already were sewn, it took the fresh energy of the new artistic director to move it forward.

Like a turbo charger, enter Misha Djuric. Lots of good things have happened, and they continue to happen — not only just through his vision and efforts. Apparently, it’s a fantastic, synergistic effort. Perfect timing, perfect positioning, with many very talented people pitching in. Lisa LaDew, Managing Director, kindly invited me to come talk with her and see Festival Ballet’s new space at 825 Hope Street.

The former home of Festival Ballet was a spartan and in many ways inadequate space. “It was about 4,500 square feet,” she tells me. “It had basically one office and two studios. Everybody was piled on top of each other. The ceilings were maybe 8 feet, so the dancers could never practice their lifts. It was an old building behind Rhode Island College. Nobody knew where we were.”

The Board of Trustees created a site search committee, comprised of board members and with a committee head who is an architect. In conducting an extensive search, certain criteria had to be met. The company wanted to move where it would be more visible. There were certain obvious space requirements, including more space and higher ceilings. In fact, it took them about two and a half years to find the space on Hope Street. They moved into their new building in September 2001.

“What was the building when it was originally built?” I ask LaDew.

“A grocery store,” she tells me,” so there are no bearing walls. Everything’s just opened up, which is why we have those lovely studio spaces. Then it became a funeral parlor. They did leave the embalming table for us. We started the renovations in July and in September we moved in.”

Now they have proper dressing rooms for the dancers, ample studio space with diffused and ambient lighting, and — most importantly — beautifully sprung floors in the studios.

Apparently, one of the first questions a dancer asks about a space is “How’s the floor?”

Soft and springy is good. Hard and unforgiving is not good.

Why did Festival Ballet change its name?

“For many years,” LaDew explains, “we were incorporated as Festival Ballet of Rhode Island. Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci has been very supportive of us in many ways. With our move to Providence, we wanted to be part of that cultural renaissance. We wanted to be in a league with Trinity Rep, with the Rhode Island Philharmonic, and with the performances and shows that come into the Providence Performing Arts Center (PPAC). The Board thought that having ‘Providence’ in the name would give us more credibility as a professional arts organization based in Providence. So, our corporate name is ‘Festival Ballet Providence.’”

What is Festival Ballet’s mission statement?

As adopted by the Board of Trustees, it is “We seek to thrill and move our audiences, dancers, choreographers, students, supporters and staff with art and discipline. We dance to enrich and inspire lives.”

It would appear that they are doing an excellent job in terms of meeting their objective. In addition to the professional company, Festival Ballet has a Center for Dance Education. It offers comprehensive, educational programs. These programs include Young Children’s Program (ages 3-7), Core Dance Program (ages 8 – adult) and a Summer Dance Program. The Core Dance Program includes Beginner Ballet Division, Intermediate Ballet Division, Boys Division, Adult Ballet Division and Enrichment Division.

But, these classes are not just ballet. You can take classes in Hip-Hop/Jazz, Ballroom Dancing, The Festival Ballet Workout, Yoga and Cultural Dance. “We have a large number of classes for students of all interests and all abilities,” LaDew tells me. “Since we have moved to the East Side of Providence, we’re seeing what the needs are and what the demands are for additional classes. So, we are still playing with the schedule. The school is a very significant part of our business and certainly a significant part of our income as well.”

“How many people attend your school?” I ask.

“We have,” she replies, “about 360 children and adults enrolled right now. When we left North Providence we were at 130. We had actually hoped to hit the 200 mark. Here we are approaching the 400 mark, so pretty impressive growth. The students range from ‘I am going to have fun in a hip-hop jazz class’ to serious, advanced ballet students who are here 8-10 hours a week taking class. We get new registrations every day.”

LaDew explains that the other component is the professional company, which does the public performances. Festival Ballet Providence does five a year. Three are for adults and two are part of the Dance-Me-A-Story Family Series for young children. This year they are Carnival with the Animals and King Arthur & The Knights of the Square Tables. “The performances,” she tells me, “are 45 to 50 minutes, and the kids have an opportunity to go up on stage, meet the performers, get autographs, feel their toe shoes and kind of experience a ballet beyond just watching it.”

Another new and innovative program is Discover Dance, which reaches out to students, senior citizens, persons with handicaps, and other groups. Audience members have the opportunity to meet the artistic director, see a full performance, and ask questions at the conclusion of the ballet. In the 1999-2000 season over 4,000 people enjoyed The Nutcracker and Dracula through this program.

Last year under Djuric’s direction, Festival Ballet presented eight different productions in four states, including 38 performances to an audience of over 30,000. The 2000/2001 Season consists of seven different productions, with an expanded company, touring Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

To learn more about Festival Ballet Providence, including the information about the company, performances, classes, and programs, you can access their website at www.festivalballet.com

“How do you see yourself situated amongst the other leading arts organizations in Providence?” I ask her.

LaDew replies, “I think the Board and the people who come to our performances believe that we are on a par, that we are a very professional company, and that in the world of ballet this is it in terms of Rhode Island. Like the Philharmonic is it, and you know Trinity Rep is. I think in terms of dance we see our competition for an audience more from Boston Ballet than from other dance companies in Rhode Island.”

“As Managing Director,” I ask LaDew, “what is your vision for Festival Ballet Providence?”

Next year is their 25th year, and they are planning a celebration. “We have a capital campaign going on right now,” she explains. “Our Artistic Director is very well connected in the ballet world, and he has professional dancers who have agreed to lend their names to our capital campaign as honorary chairs. They would come over here for a gala performance that we would market on a national scale. Because people from all over would come to see principal couples from the American Ballet Theatre, from Boston Ballet, from the Canadian Ballet and from the Royal Ballet in London.”

In a separate telephone chat with Chairman of the Board of Trustees Don Wineberg, he stated that “Dance enthusiasts from all over the country would come because it would be the only time in your life you would have chance to see all of these dancers together.”

How does Wineberg see Festival Ballet Providence positioned today and where does he see it in five years?

“Now,” he tells me, “it is an up and coming regional ballet company. Four years ago it had a budget of $300,000. Today the budget is over $1Million. In five years I see it as a national and international force in dance.”

LaDew tells me that they grew so quickly in those four years that they are playing catch-up most of the time. For her, it has been a great opportunity to use the management and organizational skills, developed in her other career, to do something fun. She has over 20 years experience in health care administration, and most recently served as COO and CEO of the Rehabilitation Hospital of Rhode Island. An avid fan of dance, she joined the Festival Ballet Board of Trustees in 1998. In 1999 she became Vice-President of Strategic Planning, and in the fall of 2000 she volunteered to cover the vacant position of Managing Director. LaDew was hired in the spring of 2001 to the full-time paid position of Managing Director.

“Are you a dancer?” I ask her.

“No, I have never danced professionally,” she replies. Apparently, however, LaDew did take formal dance training, and she danced a lot when she was younger. “But the mid-western side of me said, ‘you’re never going to be really good. You may make the corps somewhere, but then you are going to have to retire by the time you are 30 and go back to college and have a career anyway. So, why not skip the dancing and go for the career.’”

She tells me that she just started her five-year old daughter in Festival Ballet’s pre-ballet class called Creative Movement, and that she lives vicariously through her.”

I re-live Misha’s statement. He’s right.

Everybody’s dancing.