Tulsa Ballet Celebrates Golden Anniversary
By DAVID LLOYD JONES
It is ironic that the Tulsa Ballet company has been chosen to lead off the celebration of Oklahoma’s centennial year in November, for this year marks a half-century of Tulsa Ballet.
In December 1956, the Jewish Community Council was looking for a bonus attraction to finish up the year. They asked Jasha Jasinski, who had just returned to Tulsa with his wife, Moscelyne Larkin, if he could come up with a ballet.
With a corps de ballet made up of 18 dancers from his own and three other dance schools, Jasinski came up with an evening of ballet, dancing to the music of a single piano. It was a hit.
In January 1957, Tulsa Ballet Arts was formed. In two years it became Tulsa Civic Ballet, then years later Tulsa Ballet Theatre and is now simply Tulsa Ballet.
Moscelyne, or Moussia as she is better known, met and married while dancing for the famed Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. The Jasinskis eventually wound up in Tulsa, helping Moussia’s mother, a white Russian immigrant named Eva Matlagova (and known to generations of students as Miss Eva) teach.
When the ballet was born, manned by a hardy few volunteers and with students forming the corps de ballet, it was not a lavish beginning. Performances of The Firebird and The Nutcracker became perennials because the company owned the costumes and the latter was a sure-fire box office success in an age when finances were a constant source of panic.
“We used to take all the unpaid bills and put them face-up on the table,” recalled a board member of that early company. “Then we’d figure out which ones had to be paid, which ones could be paid, and stuffed the remaining invoices back in a box to be dealt with when finances allowed.”
But while the company was just another small local ballet trying to struggle through, it was getting some of the finest guest artists in the world thanks to Jasha’s friendships with some of the top ballet names in the world. Being pals with George Balenchine in the 1950s and 1960s would be like an actor being a best buddy of Steven Spielberg today.
So the little company began to get better and better. The renown of Moussia and Jascha as teachers got a number of students a closer look by other companies, and soon alumni of Tulsa Civic Ballet began dancing elsewhere. Some, after they had gained considerable fame, came back. The little company was gaining recognition.
The single most important change of the last two decades has been the hiring of Marcello Angelini as artistic director of Tulsa Ballet. He has not only given the company enormous international exposure (a trip to Portugal four years ago was widely hailed in the ballet press as an enormous success) but it has established Tulsa as one of the finest ballet companies in America.
Remarkably, despite his success and offers to leave for richer climes, Angelini has shown no signs of moving. He likes Tulsa, he says, and he and his wife find it a great city for their two growing boys.
Georgia Snoke, once Georgia Jones of the fledgling Tulsa Civic Ballet and just recently installed as president of the board of Tulsa Ballet, has another reason.
“One great problem with many arts organizations is that the boards of directors are often in internal conflict with factions fighting each other and the artistic hierarchy; here many of us have been involved with Tulsa Ballet in one form or another almost from the beginning and we all support Marcello to the hilt. If there is any way of doing what he wants, we’ll get it done.”
Choreographers want Marcello to give their dances premieres. Dancers from all over the world ask to join the company. One of those dancers, Ma Cong of China, has created a work that will have its world premiere when Tulsa Ballet opens its 2006-2007 season later this month. It is, says Snoke, who has seen it form in rehearsals, “breathtaking.”
Later this year Tulsa Ballet will, as mentioned, kick off the official Oklahoma Centennial celebration. Its featured ballet will be dances to the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s immortal musical “Oklahoma!” Most of the choreography will be taken from the dances legendary choreographer Agnes de Mille put together for the original.
“We’re in the middle of so many things,” enthuses Snoke. “We are adding classes to our dance school and expanding its mission. Where once we used it to train young students who might want to eventually turn professional, we are now offering classes of two types; the first is for the classical dance student and the second embraces movement from tap dancing to hip-hop for people who just want to dance for the sheer joy of it.
“We are also engaged in a massive fund drive to enhance our endowment fund and secure our future. Just think of the last 50 years and how many companies have risen to prominence only to fade away; we don’t want to be one of those.”
In Snokes’ view, the first 50 years were the setting of the foundation. The foundation is firm. She was here at the beginning and the middle of Tulsa Ballet. She, and dozens like her are looking forward to a great future for tomorrow’s generations.