Located on Canal Street in Downtown Richmond, the barres at Richmond Ballet are lined with amateurs and professional dancers alike (currently donning masks, to stay safe during the COVID-19 crisis).
Years ago, one of those dancers, Brett Bonda, performed with the company, dancing lead roles in ballets such as “Rodeo” and “Coppélia.” Bonda eventually retired from the stage to become the education director and the director for Minds in Motion, the Richmond Ballet’s community engagement program that brings dance into Richmond-area schools, throughout Virginia and overseas in Israel. He served as the program’s artistic and administrative coordinator for 16 years and the Ballet’s company manager, tour manager and video producer before stepping into his current role as managing director.
We caught up with Bonda to learn more about the Richmond Ballet, now in its 37th professional season.
What’s the Richmond Ballet’s core mission?
To awaken and uplift the human spirit through dance. We do that by means of training in our school, dance classes for the community, our community engagement program Minds in Motion and performances by our professional company.
How does the Richmond Ballet serve the community?
We want to help create more compassionate communities. Additionally, we are dedicated to the promotion, preservation and continuing evolution of the art form of ballet, and are also committed to continue striving for diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism in dance. We want to provide opportunities for dance to be a universal language that brings people together whether it is through the public seeing beautiful professional dance performances or through students training in a safe, welcoming environment. With Minds in Motion, we’ve been able to share dance with many diverse student dancers from all different backgrounds by making dance more accessible by bringing it directly into elementary schools. As a result, students have become more interested in taking dance lessons and cultivating an appreciation for the art. Some have even gone on to dance professionally here at Richmond Ballet and across the United States.
What don’t most people realize about the Richmond Ballet?
A lot of people only correlate us with professional productions like “The Nutcracker,” but we actually have three artistic components at the Richmond Ballet. The professional company is one of them, of course. They perform a home season in our Studio Theater and in mainstage productions at Dominion Energy Center. They also tour throughout Virginia, have performed many times in New York City and have appeared internationally in London and China. Finally, fulfilling our accessibility component, the company also performs Lecture Demonstrations which are abbreviated, narrated full-length ballets that are adapted to be performed in elementary schools for students.
We also have the School of Richmond Ballet, where we teach about 900 students a year, who range in age from 3-years-old to adults. We teach ballet, but also modern, jazz, theater dance, character and tap classes, along with yoga and dance exercise classes such as Barre Boutique at Richmond Ballet.
Then we have our community engagement program, Minds In Motion, which provides fourth-grade school children in Richmond an opportunity to have an in-depth connection to ballet and the benefits of dance though our year-long, in-school program. For students outside the Richmond area, we have our two-week Minds In Motion residencies and week-long summer camps. The Minds In Motion after-school programs Team XL and Ambassadors provide in-school students who are particularly interested in dancing the opportunity to take genre specific classes and enjoy additional performance opportunity.
One of the defining goals of Minds In Motion is to make it an integral part of the school curriculum, rather than offering it solely as arts education. It requires the collaborative efforts of the teachers and administrators to help establish the depth and quality of the experience for the students. Built around a different Virginia Standards of Learning theme each year, the program supports and reinforces what students are already learning in their classrooms in addition to providing them the opportunity to discover the many benefits of dancing. Last year almost 1,800 students participated in Minds In Motion programming.
What kind of work do volunteers do to help the Richmond Ballet?
A lot of our volunteers are parents of our students at the Richmond Ballet. We get a lot of help from them, especially right at Nutcracker time, because there are so many backstage roles that need to be filled for that. They are also very helpful during School of Richmond Ballet end of year workshop performances. Volunteers have also been instrumental in putting together our annual fundraisers. We’ve tried to find more opportunities for big companies like CarMax and Capital One to support us, because they like to provide volunteers to connect with nonprofits. If people are interested in volunteering for us, we’ll absolutely take them up on it! They just need to reach out to us. Despite everything being virtual right now, we still have things we could use help with.
If $100,000 fell from the sky tomorrow, how would you spend it?
I would put it towards reducing our current deficit. During the pandemic, we qualified for a PPP loan, and we were able to honor everyone’s contract at the end of the fiscal year. We were able to pay our dancers, our staff and the musicians who weren’t even playing for us at the time, because we’re so committed to them. We were really proud that we could to that.
Now we’re open and putting on performances, but it’s not the same as in years prior. We’re not doing “The Nutcracker” this year or any mainstage performances. Our Studio Theater performances that would normally bring in a 250-person audience per show are now down to 50 or 60 audience members per show to make sure everyone is properly socially distanced. It is important to us to perform not only for the art, but also because as long as we have professional company performances, our marketing department is needed, and our production department is needed, including the costume shop, making masks and making costumes for everyone. I want to make sure our people keep getting to do their work and keep getting paid because our people are the most important thing right now.