Ballet productions of Giselle seethe with secrecy, deception, vengeance and torture. A peasant girl goes mad when she discovers her lover is secretly engaged to another. Frenzied, she grabs his sword and kills herself. Desperate spirits of jilted brides condemn the double-crossing suitor to dance until he drops dead. When New York's American Ballet Theatre does this show, mysterious rites under moonlight are offset by the fanfare of hunting scenes replete with dogs and fancy horses. To teenagers who are would-be prima ballerinas, there's no better recipe for high-Russian ambience and drama.
Clear Lake Metropolitan Ballet will perform Giselle April 16-18 at Bayou Theater of University of Houston/Clear Lake. Principal dancers Andrea Berkley and Heather Steele play Myrtha, queen of the jilted bride. The 16-year-old performers were dancing at Clear Lake's Royal Academy of Fine Arts before they started first grade. Berkley will train this summer with the American Ballet Theatre, and Steele will intern with the Joffrey Ballet in New York. In Giselle they share the stage with Russian professionals Tatiana Stepanova as Giselle and Timour Bourtasenkov as Count Albrecht.
The artistic roots of this little-known suburban company go back to a plot of soil near east Galveston Bay that folks used to call Shell City. Lynette Mason Gregg, Royal Academy director and CLMB artistic director, remembers her grandfather as one of the eight original citizens of Shell City -- now Deer Park -- employed by Shell Oil to work near the Ship Channel. When Gregg was old enough, he sent her to New York to study at the American Ballet Theatre.
From that point, Gregg couldn't shake ballet from her bones. In 1972 she opened the first branch of the Royal Academy in Deer Park and founded the Ballet San Jacinto. The amateur company performed shows in the Gaines Mason Auditorium, named after Gregg's grandfather, until Hurricane Alicia destroyed it in 1983.
"My grandfather ingrained in me the need to bring something back to the community. But bringing ballet to Deer Park was like taking Communism out of Russia. To me, it was missionary work," Gregg says. To this day she teaches her youngest dancers to keep heads high and smiles big for the few grudging, blue-collar "Lesters" in the audience who don't care a hoot about classical dance.
In 1986 Gregg opened the second branch of the Royal Academy in the posher environs of Clear Lake. The white-collar enclave was eager for a school that could turn their toddlers into miniature Margot Fonteyns. "The link between the Royal Academy and the Clear Lake Metropolitan Ballet is incestuous. The company is housed in the school. Many of the dancers are trained there. The children and other young dancers support productions like The Nutcracker; that calls for a bigger corps," says Gregg. CLMB relies heavily on parent volunteer hours. As artistic director, Gregg works solely as a volunteer.
On CLMB's annual budget of $300,000, Gregg can afford a contract for Soili Arvola, a native Finn and "keeper of the classics." As resident artistic adviser, Arvola choreographs classics such as Giselle straight from her memories of the National Ballet of Finland, where she danced at age 17. While a 14-year-old student at the Ballet Academy of the National Opera House in Helsinki, she got her big break.
A Russian ballet mistress came to stage Giselle for the company. During the second act, the mistress pulled a professional dancer and subbed in Arvola.
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During rehearsals Arvola doesn't worry much if her girls are pointing their toes straight. "My husband and I have found our place. These productions are better for me. The children here are more excited [about what they're doing] than professional dancers. They're so fresh and full of life."
While Arvola and Gregg want youngsters to take dance seriously, they don't want the art form to lose its excitement. Gregg has two Russian wolfhounds from an Alvin dog kennel joining the royal hunting party in the first act of Giselle. "At first we had four dogs, but we discovered one of the dogs was pregnant. She was too far along to be anything but a distraction. We ended up cutting a second dog since we couldn't have an odd number," Gregg says.
The wolfhounds are part of Gregg's dream of emulating the spectacle and extravaganza of the American Ballet Theatre, the company she has loved most since her training in New York. "Our shows are more in the Russian style -- as dramatic and flamboyant as our budget allows."
Clear Lake Metropolitan Ballet performs Giselle at UH/CLC Bayou Theater April 16-18 at 8 p.m., with 2 p.m. weekend matinees. (281)480-1617. $15.