By Stephen Burnett
Providing a multicultural experience in music and dance – with a lot of fun in the mix – is the goal of Bluegrass Youth Ballet, a nonprofit school whose students will take to the stage at Lexington Opera House May 2 to 4, for performances of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and “Peter and the Wolf.”
Sorcerers, wolves and children will surely be enjoying themselves. And one of Wednesday’s performances of “Peter and the Wolf” will be in Spanish.
Over nine years, Bluegrass Youth Ballet has grown from 45 students to about 250 at the facility on Mercer Road. Despite some struggles in recent years because of the slowing economy, the school survives because parents seem to believe in its approach to teaching students the art of the dance, not just training them for potential professional dance.
That’s according to the school’s director, Adalhi Corn, who first learned dance in her homeland of Mexico.
“I really love culture, and I love the different world cultures,” she said.
Corn has performed and taught ballet in many places, and though others may teach their students well, she emphasizes a caring learning environment.
In Corn’s view, dance schools run by dance companies can lead to flaws: “The kids never had their own place. … I saw that the kids’ purpose was to sustain the company.”
“It just wasn’t the place for me, because I saw that the kids were just not as well-developed as individuals,” she continued. “I just felt there was not a lot of education going on. The kids work very hard and work very long hours, and if they don’t make it as professionals, it’s like, that’s it. I observed how they actually left the dance world feeling bitter and angry and sometimes a little messed up.”
The “psycho ballerina” theme of the 2010 movie “The Black Swan” has some basis in reality, Corn said. “I hated it, just because it makes us look crazy, and there are places like that . . . I have had many teachers, and most of them have been very harsh teachers. … I learned a lot from them, but it’s not that I see them as my mentors.
What students should want to pursue is not only competition, or even attention during a stage performance, but the ability to express one’s self with art and culture, she said.
“All art should be for the better of the human itself, and not to isolate or to divide,” Corn said. “I really want to create things that will teach the children, through them, some culture. … That’s why I created some works that have the Mexican culture infused into them.”
For example, “Peter and the Wolf,” on Wednesday, May 2, with performances at 10 a.m. and 12 p.m., will have two different narrations — first in English, then in Spanish.
“In Mexico we have these places called culture houses, casa de la cultura.” Those serve as good, inexpensive ways of exposing people to art, with people inside who provide singing and dancing, Corn said. “I wanted to recreate that [at Bluegrass Youth Ballet]. … That’s why it’s so colorful, and kind of designed that way. It has a feel to it.”
Being surrounded by art, thanks to her photographer father and music-loving mother, is what led to Corn’s love for ballet. “Performing arts in Mexico are not as developed as here.” At age 12, she enrolled in a school in nearby León, in the state of Guanajuato.
That school, she said, was essentially a woman teaching dance in her basement. Also, because Corn had started later in life, she had much catching up to do — often being outpaced by younger students.
“But I was very determined; I just couldn’t imagine not doing it,” she said. “Once I got my feet into it, I couldn’t get out.”
In 1994, she moved to Indiana, to teach and perform with the Evansville Dance Theater. Five years later, she moved to Lexington to join the Lexington Ballet, under artistic director Xijun Fu. Eventually, though, Corn began considering retirement from full-time dance. She wanted to start a family, and she also wanted to teach dance to others.
“I was very determined about a specific way of teaching children, and I couldn’t really find a place,” she said. “So I just had to try my own.”
In 2003, Corn took out a loan and began operating the school as an unofficial nonprofit, at that point without a board of directors. Scholarships and trade work helped bring in students and their parents, and soon they needed to move to a larger space. In 2008, the school became a nonprofit organization, with a board of directors that supports the teachers’ philosophy.
Since then, the school’s leaders have added music classes, building on a vision of a casa de la cultura for the area. Corn’s husband, Duane Corn, is one of the music teachers, and while he is works full-time at an equine hospital, he is also a classical guitarist who teaches Suzuki guitar.
The school offers classes in pre-ballet, ballet, modern dance, guitar, and piano and voice. And every year, dance students perform “The Nutcracker” in the fall and spring recitals in May.
People keep enjoying those classes and performances, despite economic hardships. In summer 2010, Corn said, the school’s situation came to a point that school might need a loan just to pay the rent. But now things have improved.
“We have been very fortunate to be able to continue offering scholarship to all those people who lost jobs, and there’s still a few of them who are jobless, and we’re still supporting them in that way,” Corn said.
Meanwhile, though the school does not emphasize competition at the exclusion of learning culture and having fun, school leaders are proud of being able to send many of their students to the Youth America Grand Prix dance competition finals.
“Both last year and this year, we have had people that have qualified to go to New York to the finals,” Corn said. “This year, one of my students won the gold in the semifinals.”
At 14, Tanner Bleck has been a student for seven years and is very involved at the school. He is one of the few students who does want to be a professional dancer and has already been offered scholarships and jobs.
Though someday this may change, male ballet dancers still find many more opportunities than female dancers, Corn added. But regardless, the school’s goal will be to teach culture and artistic excellence to anyone, not just women, or men, or those destined for professional dance.
That will also keep including diverse cultures, Corn said, from Mexican to American and more.
“Next year is our 10th anniversary,” she added. “And I’d like to create a new ballet that has Native American content, and be able to commission a composer to compose music for it. I’m also really, really hoping to create an Appalachian ballet too. Something that’s related to our own Kentucky culture.”