Group’s founder re­mains in­volved


Austin American-Statesman - - AUSTIN360 DAILY - E bal­let austin Con­tac­tjeanne Claire­van Ryzin at 445-3699.

had the rare op­por­tu­nity be­gin her bal­let stud­ies with a former dancer from Rus­sia’s famed Maryin­sky Bal­let in St. Peters­burg, an emi­gre artist like many oth­ers who fled the Stal­in­ist regime.

“I was very for­tu­nate to have a fam­ily in­ter­ested in the arts,” said Car­son re­cently. “And I had ex­cel­lent clas­si­cal bal­let train­ing early on, which many (of my peers) did not.”

Car­son soon lit out for New York City, join­ing her brother who sang with the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera com­pany and her sis­ter who per­formed on Broad­way. Car­son pur­sued her dance stud­ies at the School of Amer­i­can Bal­let, the in­sti­tu­tion founded by Rus­sian-born now-leg­endary chore­og­ra­pher Ge­orge Balan­chine, who is cred­ited with pop­u­lar­iz­ing bal­let in this coun­try.

“I was very for­tu­nate that Balan­chine was still teach­ing when I was (in New York),” Car­son said.

She danced with the New York City Opera Bal­let, among other com- pa­nies. “I was lucky I got roles clas­si­cal bal­let and didn’t have to go into mu­si­cal the­ater the way so many of my friends had to in or­der to just get work.”

Then the young bal­le­rina mar­ried David C. Car­son, a psy­chol­o­gist and fifth-gen­er­a­tion Texan. And well, Tex­ans al­ways move back to the Lone Star State.

The cou­ple landed in Austin in the late 1940s.

Like many bal­let dancers, the habit of reg­u­lar prac­tice — reg­u­lar class, as bal­letomanes call it — never abates. The bal­let barre al­ways calls. Though she now had three young chil­dren, Car­son found a class to join in Austin.

“Well, it was a sort of bal­let that was taught, at least,” Car­son said. “It wasn’t as rig­or­ous as what I was used to.”

Af­ter all, clas­si­cal bal­let wasn’t as pop­u­lar in the early 1950s as it is now.

With its ori­gins as an elite art per­formed at aris­to­cratic Euro­pean courts, bal­let’s com­bi­na­tion of orthodoxy, lux­ury and sen­su­al­ity was at odds with Amer­ica’s demo­cratic ori­gins and pu­ri­tan­i­cal sense of sim­plic­ity.

At the time, Amer­i­can chil­dren — and their as­pi­ra­tional par­ents — likely had vi­sions of the ball­room suave of Fred As­taire or the perky cute­ness of Shirley Tem­ple, not the pris­tine ar­ti­fice of clas­si­cal bal­let. (“Shirley Tem­ple wasn’t a great dancer,” Car­son says with a laugh.)

“But I wanted some­thing more than a place to teach lit­tle girls poise and grace and charm,” Car­son said.

And so in 1953, she be­gan the Car­son School of Bal­let. And she set her stan­dards high.

“I au­di­tioned stu­dents be­fore I ad­mit­ted them to my classes,” she said. “Bal­let train­ing takes a cer­tain ap­ti­tude and a fo­cus in or­der to get some­thing out of it.”

She also set up in­tro­duc­ing the broader Austin com­mu­nity to bal­let. Car­son had a spot host­ing a seg­ment on a lo­cal tele­vi­sion show on which she talked about fit­ness and ex­er­cise for women. “I used to talk about the ben­e­fits of clas­sic bal­let train­ing, and how classes that just of­fered tap or ac­ro­bat­ics were not the best places to get really se­ri­ous dance train­ing. In fact, I prob­a­bly ir­ri­tated a lot of peo­ple by talk­ing about (bal­let) all the time!”

Bal­let nev­er­the­less gained mo­men­tum in this coun­try in the 1950s. And in 1958, when CBS beamed Balan­chine’s “The Nutcracker” live across the na­tion on Christ­mas Eve, a new hol­i­day tra­di­tion was born.

In Austin, Car­son’s per­se­ver­ance paid off, even if she had to lit­er­ally step in at times.

Car­son her­self danced the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in 1960 when Texas’ first full-length “Nutcracker” was staged at the then-new Palmer Au­di­to­rium, now the Long Cen­ter. (Though Bal­let Austin is cel­e­brat­ing the 50th an­niver­sary of its “Nutcracker,” the bal­let wasn’t staged ev­ery year.)

With no pro­fes­sional adult male bal­let dancers in Austin, Car­son had to hire Bal­let Russe de Monte Carlo dancer Ge­orge Zoritch to dance the lead role of the Nutcracker prince. But when Zoritch re­fused to dance op­po­site any stu­dents, Car­son had to take the lead fe­male role.

Car­son’s high stan­dards and New York con­nec­tions con­tin­ued as the com­pany grew. In 1964, she brought Maria Tallchief — the first Amer­i­can In­dian prima bal­le­rina, Balan­chine muse and the chore­og­ra­pher’s third wife — to Austin to teach a master class. But she didn’t ask Tallchief to per­form.

“Oh heavens, we weren’t ready for Maria Tallchief to per­form with us!” said Car­son. “I was very par­tic­u­lar about not do­ing some­thing we weren’t ready to do.”

“I was will­ing to go slowly,” she said. “And build­ing the com­pany slowly was the best thing to do, in hind­sight.”

Car­son left Austin in 1967 as her hus­band’s ca­reer took the fam­ily first to Washington state, then to Wis­con­sin. The fam­ily re­turned to Texas in 1979, and Car­son re­sumed her involvement with Bal­let Austin, this time as a sup­porter and as a teacher.

While now her involvement with the com­pany she started is lim­ited to the oc­ca­sional ap­pear­ance, Car­son’s love of bal­let still beck­ons.

“I can’t ever re­mem­ber not do­ing barre work,” she says. “I still have a barre in my hall­way that I use.”

Bal­let austin

In 1964, Maria Tallchief (cen­ter), the fa­mous Amer­i­can In­dian bal­le­rina, vis­its Bal­let Austin to lead a master class. Tallchief vis­ited at the in­vi­ta­tion of Bar­bara Car­son, (left), who founded Bal­let Austin. On the right is Eugenia Orusso, di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can School of Bal­let.

Dancers in a mid-1950s class at the Austin Bal­let So­ci­ety, the or­ga­ni­za­tion that would be­come Bal­let Austin. Bal­let classes were held at the Texas Fed­er­a­tion of Women’s Club his­toric man­sion in the West Cam­pus neigh­bor­hood.

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