Lightness of Being: Cobalt, the Contemporary Ballet Company of PA

Lightness of Being: Cobalt, the Contemporary Ballet Company of PA

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”#e32aa1″ class=”” size=””]“You can feel a sense of joy and abandonment on the stage. We’ve had dads in the audience crying. It was really emotionally powerful; so many people came to me with tears in their eyes.”[/pullquote]

(From the pages of FLL Issue #14 )
— Written by Robyn Meadows
— Title photo by Brian Offidani (other photos  via Cobalt’s Facebook page)

Those who have seen a performance by COBALT say that it’s a breathtaking experience, one that lingers long after the curtain has closed. COBALT is the Contemporary Ballet Company of PA, a preprofessional performing group out of the Susquehanna Dance Center. During the 2009 holiday season, COBALT put on a modern version of The Nutcracker that ran before packed theaters. The audience cried, and the audience laughed. It was unlike any Nutcracker they had ever seen.

Fan Dewie Mylin wrote a message to the company’s director on Facebook about the show: “The choreography was amazing, interesting, emotional. The dancers danced like love.”

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The company puts on other shows during the year, but The Nutcracker is the crowning jewel. “COBALT’s Nutcracker is fast-paced and choreographed for modern times,” director Shari Vegso-Wilson said.

There are some notable twists from the traditional story. Instead of a godfather who brings the nutcracker doll, a “mysterious aunt does.” Clara has a brother and a sister. It takes place in modern times, leaving the mustiness of the Victorian age behind, and “it is a coming-of-age story,” Shari said.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”#e32aa1″ class=”” size=””]It’s not easy running an arts program in these times. The company works hard to put on beautiful shows with a “minimal budget.”[/pullquote]

Clara’s brother, Fritz, still breaks the doll, but he becomes the mouse king. There is nothing stuffy about the battle between the prince and the mouse king. It’s sort of like an action-movie combat dance. There are hip-hop mice on skateboards, and the soldiers move like a SWAT team.

The dance that tells the story of Clara and the prince traveling to the world of snow is an audience favorite. “The snowflake waltz dancers fling snow confetti,” Shari shares. “You can feel a sense of joy and abandonment on the stage. We’ve had dads in the audience crying. It was really emotionally powerful; so many people came to me with tears in their eyes.”

When Clara and the prince travel to the Land of the Sweets, she transforms into a ballerina and dances with the prince instead of watching him dance with the Sugar Plum Fairy. And after the magical journey ends, Clara awakens, surprised that it’s over, at home. She meets the prince again—unexpectedly.

The dance company COBALT is about more than just the holiday classic. The company performed a Chopin Celebration concert at Linden Hall’s Lyet Theater in Lititz June 5 and 6, 2010 — featuring new works and classical ballet excerpts from Les Sylphides, a non-narrative ballet that traditionally involves sylphs dancing under the moonlight. They also performed outdoors at the end of July 2010 in Millersville.

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The Nutcracker annually returns as the holidays approach. The company has performed the holiday favorite in Hempfield High School’s auditorium and at the Stahr Performing Arts Center in Lancaster, former home to the Theater of the Seventh Sister.

The vision that would become the dance company began in 2005 when Shari was opening her dance studio. Parents of some of the more advanced dancers asked about forming a pre-professional dance company, and she thought it was a great idea. The parents formed a nonprofit, and COBALT was born.

“We put together a small performance in fall and spring of works that were choreographed by myself, the brilliant Kristin Pontz, and other choreographers who are working locally,” Shari said. “Most regional dance companies don’t create original works. They hire someone to come in, or they use videotapes to recreate existing works.”

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”#e32aa1″ class=”” size=””]“The choreography was amazing, interesting, emotional. The dancers danced like love.”[/pullquote]

Most companies will focus on either modern dance or ballet. “But the direction of the choreography of today is not to be entirely classical or entirely modern. We use ballet and modern [dance] as extensions of the dance vocabulary that the dancers are expected to know. That is what is happening in professional companies.”

The company’s dancers range in age from 12 to 18. Many started “quite young.” One of the company’s graduates, Lucinda Mann, of Gap, went on to the prestigious Alvin Ailey professional dance program in New York City. (The Ailey School is the Official School of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.)

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Other COBALT dancers have been offered year-round placement at various prestigious national dance schools such as the American Ballet Theater School in New York, the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, and the North Carolina School of the Arts. They have also recently won auditions for “highly competitive” summer studies at the Mark Morris Dance Center, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet, and Kaatsbaan.

Shari also explained that there are some very promising male dancers in the area. Boys who have seen performances with their families have voiced their interest in dancing – some inspired by Hempfield High School’s Dance Theater Program, founded by Pat Kautter.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”#e32aa1″ class=”” size=””]Shari feels a reward when she sees her dancers evolve into the best dancers they can be.[/pullquote]

Meanwhile it’s not easy running an arts program in these times. The company works hard to put on beautiful shows with a “minimal budget.” Proceeds from ticket sales go back into the program, but the struggle is worth it for Shari who was seemingly born to dance.

She grew up in Buffalo, New York. Her father is a professor at Canisius College and also taught graduate students when he was in the military living abroad. The year before she graduated from high school, the family was living in Germany where a choreographer discovered her. She danced in Germany for six years in full ballets, as well as sections of operas, musicals, and operettas.

Shari came to Lancaster County 12 years ago. Her husband, Edward, is from the region, and the couple wanted their daughter to grow up here. It was not an easy transition for her, as she admitted that while the beauty of the countryside inspires her, she was accustomed to city life.

“It took me awhile to figure out where I was going and what I needed to do to feel fulfilled in my life,” she said. “I have never expected a financial pay-off.” But Shari feels a reward when she sees her dancers blossom—when she sees them evolve into the best dancers they can be.

Cobalt Contemporary Ballet of PA
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