Albany Berkshire Ballet is living the 'Dream'

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PITTSFIELD — Titania, Queen of the Fairies, makes an ass out of Bottom once again in Albany Berkshire Ballet's production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," its first new staging since 1987 of this full-length work based on Shakespeare's beloved comedy.

Saturday's performance at the Colonial Theatre celebrates the 50th anniversary of the company founded by artistic director Madeline Cantarella Culpo in 1969.

With choreography by Paula Weber and costumes by Sam Meredith, the magical forest where fairies and mortals collide incorporates vintage scene drops by original designer Thurston Munson.

A professional cast of 18 includes core company members — many trained in ABB's school — plus new and returning dancers hailing from nearby Great Barrington and Albany, N.Y. to Brazil and Kazakhstan. Current ABB students and 14 local children also perform as fairies.

Book-ending her career, Weber first danced Titania in ABB's "Dream" in 1988. The 30-year University of Missouri-Kansas City professor and dance conservatory chair has performed with Milwaukee and Chicago ballets, among others; choreographing for many more. She joined ABB while pursuing an M.F.A. from Smith College.

"Miss Madeline took me in and I've been with her ever since," Weber said by phone. "It was a great time for me, I felt I could be the artist I always wanted to be."

She has returned annually to ABB, first as a dancer, then as ballet mistress for "The Nutcracker."

"Dream" is the choreographer's first full-length ballet for ABB, following a one-act "Carmina Burana" in 2014. Blending classical and contemporary dance styles, she delved deep into Shakespeare's characters and augmented Mendelssohn's score with his "Italian" Symphony to help develop the story.

The dancers include three former UM-KC students. "It brought me back to a time when I could make a difference in their lives," Weber said.

One cast member, Ruslan Sprague, who plays Lysander, goes back much further in Weber's career.

In 1993, "Ruslan was my Changeling," Weber said.

Cast at age 3 without speaking a word of English, Ruslan Sprague spent his first years in a Russian orphanage immersed in music and dance. He was adopted by Stockbridge couple Susan Merrill and Carl Sprague, designer of the current "Nutcracker" sets.

Now 28, he has danced with ABB for a quarter century.

"Paula was my Titania," he recalled by phone. "It has definitely come full circle, it's very cute seeing the Changeling now in the same costume."

He considers Weber "an amazing teacher and dancer." Her choreography is "tricky and hard but looks beautiful," he said, "there's a lot of acting and partnering."

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Sprague hopes dancers will stay around to form the basis of a year-round company — as does ABB associate artistic director Mary Talmi.

In a downtown Pittsfield studio, she explained the production marks her transition to steering the company Culpo founded half a century ago, so the community "can recognize ABB is entering a new phase."

"I have the overall view of where the company can go and the energy to do it," she said.

Talmi grew up in dance at ABB, first taking lessons at age 9. After studying choreography at Juilliard, "[Culpo] gave me my first opportunity to set a work," she recalled.

She founded her own company in Hartford, Conn. but still maintained her ABB connection.

"No matter where I went, whether I was teaching in Ohio, I would come back to work with her dancers."

While serving as ABB general manager, Talmi brought in distinguished guest artists, and most recently developed ballets based on Rockwell's Four Freedoms paintings.

"Dream's" staging logistics were challenging, but the end result is worth the effort, she said.

"If we can get an audience, we're on the right path."

Gathering ABB family together with thoughts of establishing a company is very important for Talmi.

"We're building a team with everybody looking forward with the same vision." she said, acknowledging longtime ABB ballet mistresses and faculty Nancy King and Deirdre Duffin Swindlehurst, the original Titania.

While ABB's "Golden Age" frequently included story ballets like "Coppelia" (it opened Jacob's Pillow 1978 season), "Dream" and "Cinderella," recent years have centered on more educational elements and "The Nutcracker."

Now ABB is ready to "revitalize and take our place in the community," Talmi said.

"Dream" includes dancers who participated in ABB's recent "Process and Performance" program.

"Anna [Acker], Shane [Horan], Lisa [McBride], Ruslan [Sprague] and Vincent [Brewer] are all homegrown," Talmi said. "They are so powerful as individual dancers and choreographers.

"To see this wealth of talent bodes well for what we are going to be able to do."


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