New Pro Company Ballet Vermont Makes an Entrance | Performing Arts | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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New Pro Company Ballet Vermont Makes an Entrance


Published September 27, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.

Chatch Pregger and Avi Waring dancing as fireflies - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Chatch Pregger and Avi Waring dancing as fireflies

Going to the ballet often conjures images of elegant theaters, dapperly dressed adults and thin young people dancing across a pristine stage. But what if ballet were more than that? What if parents in jeans and sandals brought their rambunctious children to a farm picnic to watch ballet lovers of all ages dance across a verdant, or muddy, field? Would it still be ballet?

In Vermont, it sure would. Since 2015, the Farm to Ballet Project, founded and directed by Vermont-raised ballet professional Chatch Pregger has given 24 full-length classical ballet performances for adults and children at 17 Vermont farms.

Featuring six string musicians and 25 adult dancers, each performance conveys the work and life of a female farmer during the growing season and the natural forces she encounters. In addition to watching the show, attendees can participate in mini-classes, purchase food from vendors and have their pictures taken with company members in costume.

Farm to Ballet's broader mission is to celebrate local agriculture, bring ballet to new audiences and raise funds for agricultural programs. This summer, the project performed in six counties for more than 3,000 spectators. It raised more than $30,000, 75 percent of which went directly to farms and agricultural nonprofits, according to a press release.

Building on Farm to Ballet's success, Pregger has taken the next logical step: forming Ballet Vermont, a professional classical ballet company. The venture will kick off with performances of a new production with original choreography at two venues in October.

"It's largely about the momentum that got going with Farm to Ballet and the cohesion the dancers created as a group," says Pregger, 37. Composed of many Farm to Ballet dancers, Ballet Vermont aims to "bring high-quality art to communities, be a socially positive company, enrich life in Vermont and provide opportunities to adult dancers," he says.

And the company will remain outside the ballet box, literally. While most ballet companies reside in one city and perform in theaters, Ballet Vermont will keep on traveling and dancing outdoors. "The things that a ballet company would do for a city, we'll do those things, with the added component of bringing art to multiple communities instead of having a centralized place," Pregger says.

The relaxed, accessible, family-friendly performances at farms will continue. "At our performances, I see all the adults with their picnic blankets and their dinners — eating, drinking, enjoying themselves," says company soloist Maria Mercieca. "And I see all the kids dancing along, running around. They're watching, they're enjoying it, they're taking it in, but they're not being made to be still. I love that about it. It's a family- and kid-friendly event, and I mean little, little kids."

"It's really a great event for our members and our community," says Tre McCarney, director of community programs at Shelburne Farms. She's coordinated four Farm to Ballet events there, and each has drawn more than 600 spectators.

Chatch Pregger and Avi Waring dancing as fireflies - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Chatch Pregger and Avi Waring dancing as fireflies

Last year, a single Farm to Ballet performance yielded $4,000 for Shelburne Farms' educational programming. From two performances this year, McCarney expects to receive approximately $8,000 to support Vermont Food Education Every Day, a partnership of Shelburne Farms and the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. More specifically, funds help sustain Jr Iron Chef VT, a statewide culinary competition for teams of middle and high school students charged with creating healthy, locally sourced dishes to improve school meals. "Funds from Farm to Ballet help keep the entrance fees for teams low to make it accessible to all students," notes McCarney.

"They are wonderful to work with," she says of the Farm to Ballet cast. "You can tell that they love what they do; they love dancing; they love bringing these performances to the community and bringing awareness to the seasonal changes that happen in Vermont through an art."

Ballet Vermont consists of 11 corps dancers and demi-soloists and six soloists. Ranging in age from 19 to 41, they bring skills in everything from teaching and administration to sports and massage. Some have studied ballet since they were children; others began a few years ago and count Pregger as their only instructor. Ten company members have been performing with him since Farm to Ballet's inception.

"The company is very tight; we're very close," says Mercieca, 41, a member of Farm to Ballet since 2016. "It's not competitive; it's really supportive and a good place to be."

Demi-soloist Katie Cunningham, 26, a member since 2015, says the troupe is "like a traveling dance family," a cohesion she describes as born of necessity and ingenuity. "In the first year, we were trying to figure out how to do this without a stage manager, without a prop crew," she says.

The dancers still do everything, including crafting the set and props and setting up before a show, says Cunningham. "I think that that has strengthened our community culture and the honest communication we have with each other."

All company members study with Pregger, and many say they deeply appreciate his pedagogy. "One thing that is great about his approach is that it's very friendly to adults, to our bodies," notes Mercieca.

"We aren't 40-pound creatures who can wrap their legs around their heads," adds company soloist Avi Waring. "We're human beings, and Chatch makes available real, good technique. He has given me permission to adore the work of technique, the work of technical progression."

"It's very different from what we're used to in the ballet world," says Mercieca.

Pregger's approach is also effective, according to soloist Brea McBride, who joined the company in August. She has danced ballet since age 3 and has owned and taught at Infinity Dance Studio in Essex Junction since 2010.

"When I first came, I was amazed not only by how many adults there were but by the skill level that they had," says McBride, 38. "That's what impressed me the most. How are they this good? Obviously, that speaks to Chatch."

Pregger grew up in Fair Haven, where he was homeschooled by his mother, an avid folk dancer and dance company director. Throughout his childhood and early adolescence, he performed with her and helped her plan children's shows that toured abroad.

At 15, Pregger left Vermont to pursue a professional ballet career. He has since danced as a member of companies in Boston, Washington, D.C., and Houston, and as a guest dancer with Ballet Arizona, Hartford City Ballet and the Texas Ballet Theater. In 2005, he moved with his two children back to Vermont, where he now teaches ballet at Spotlight Vermont in Burlington.

Chatch Pregger and Avi Waring dancing as fireflies - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Chatch Pregger and Avi Waring dancing as fireflies

Pregger was inspired to create Farm to Ballet both to support the organic and local food movements, he says, and to give his adult students opportunities to perform. As the Farm to Ballet program matured, he realized that directing a ballet company was "one of those dreams that I didn't know I had until after it was happening," says Pregger. "I feel like I've been trained [in directing], and I've gotten to watch amazing directors my whole life. So now I'm seeing what we can do to create something here that's unique in ballet and expressive of Vermont culture."

Ballet Vermont's first production as a bona fide company, "Bees & Friends," debuts October 1 at Highland Lodge & Ski Touring Center in Greensboro. A second performance is on October 14 at Bread & Butter Farm in Shelburne.

For most of Farm to Ballet's choreography, Pregger reinterpreted ballet classics such as Swan Lake and Giselle to allow dancers to perform on grass without turns or pointe shoes. But each year he also created original choreography for one of the concerti in Antonio Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. "Bees & Friends" combines those original works into a 45-minute performance set to the Vivaldi piece.

"I've developed the repertoire over the three years," says Pregger, "and now I'm seeing it all come together in a cohesive show."

"Bees & Friends" is "a portrait of a part of nature, a part of the farm," adds Mercieca. According to the company website, it explores pollination, metamorphoses, integrated pest management and bioluminescence.

As Ballet Vermont grows, Pregger looks forward to collaborating with more artists and adult dancers. Waring and Cunningham would like to perform beyond Vermont.

"I think expanding it, especially with all the craziness of climate change in the world right now ... would be wonderful," says Cunningham.

Pull on the jeans and boots. It's time to go to the ballet.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Outside the Box"