by Eric J. Wallace
The Virginia Symphony Orchestra leans into Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Snowflakes, their notes soaring into a familiar, edgy climax. Clusters of dancers wearing sparkling tieras and silver-white dresses whirl across the stage. Like snow swept by crosswinds, they dash through a maze of human corridors in a wild interplay of pirouette, leap and twirl.
Suddenly, the mass parts for the Snow King and Queen. She arrows toward him, bounding into the air so he can hoist her high overhead, then freeze in place as the music concludes. The audience erupts into a standing ovation. Surrounded by the baroque trimmings of Richmond’s historic Carpenter Theatre, the tableau seems fitting for a royal court of old.
“That moment was one of my proudest,” says Richmond Ballet founding Artistic Director Stoner Winslett of the December production. Not only was it the 40th anniversary of her first staging of The Nutcracker, but it starred an alumnus of the company’s groundbreaking Minds in Motion program, which Winslett cofounded in 1995 – 26-year-old Ira White, dancing as the Snow King.
Looking back on her four-decade-long career — which has seen Richmond Ballet named the state’s official company and has included invitations to perform at prestigious venues from New York to China — Winslett calls Minds in Motion her crowning achievement.
“We’re going into local schools and giving kids the opportunity to experience dance,” says Winslett. The program now includes about 2,000 kids a year representing 27 schools from Richmond to Charlottesville. It offers a pipeline for talented students to dance in college or, like White, go pro.
“Ira started in elementary school,” says Winslett. He won scholarships to The School of Richmond Ballet and became a trainee. Rising through the ranks, he joined the first company in 2015. “To me, Ira embodies the kind of positive and personal impacts I hoped this company would be able to affect.”
From the beginning, Winslett’s goal has been to make the high art of ballet accessible to all Virginians. With 900 students; Minds in Motion, a primary company performing a full schedule of events in Richmond and special offerings throughout Tidewater; and a second troupe traveling to venues from the Eastern Shore to the southwest corner of the state, she appears to have hit the mark.
“Stoner has been at the center of everything this company has accomplished,” says Brett Bonda, who joined the troupe in 1985 as one of its first paid dancers and is now its managing director. “It’s been her vision, approach and guidance that’s brought us to where we are today.”
Without Winslett, says Bonda, there would be no Richmond Ballet.
Success didn’t come easily for Winslett and the company, and the road to prestige began humbly.
For her part, Winslett had to overcome a career-ending knee injury around age 20. Before that, she’d spent her youth studying ballet with world-renown teachers like Ann Brodie, Adolfina Suarez-More and Michael Lland at top institutions like the American Ballet Theatre School in New York.
“At first I wanted to crawl into a corner and die,” says Winslett about the injury. “But then I thought, ‘I can apply what I’ve learned in a different way.’ So, rather than leave behind the world of dance, which I loved, I chose to focus on production.”
Attending Smith College, she choreographed for its acclaimed dance program. The work attracted the attention of the new Richmond School of Ballet, which hired Winslett to direct its student company in 1980. She helped found a professional troupe four years later with just 12 dancers and a meager budget of about $164,000.
“We were an anomaly for so many reasons,” says Bonda. “For starters, this was the state’s first professional ballet company; we had no idea what to expect in the way of an audience. Second, we were led by one of the first female artistic directors in the country. Third, Stoner’s approach was radically ahead of its time.”
Because the art form was viewed as essentially unappreciable to the masses, pro-level regional companies were few and far between. Limited slots at major organizations led dancers to compete with cutthroat ferocity. And management treated them like thoroughbred racehorses: prized during prime years and abandoned promptly thereafter. In times of economic hardship, non-stars frequently went unpaid.
“Stoner loathed that culture,” says Bonda. “Yes, she was intense and ambitious and exacting. But she was also profoundly sincere — she went out of her way to make us feel respected and cared for. She made sure we got paid, had good housing, were doing OK mentally. With her, you knew you were a person first, a dancer second.”
The approach paid off in a big way. Dancers cherished the environment and worked to expand and protect it. They took on added tasks such as helping with promotions and put in extra hours to perfect shows. Turnover was virtually nonexistent.
“It was a family culture where everybody was so passionate about what we were doing; we supported each other like a band of rebels fighting for a cause,” Bonda says, calling Winslett their Wendy and Peter Pan rolled into one.
The love and dedication translated to incredible performances and won the company a dedicated following. By 1990, then-Gov. Douglas Wilder had named it the official ballet company of Virginia.
“That was the moment we knew we were truly going in the right direction,” says Winslett. “That’s when we understood we were laying the foundations for something that had the potential to outlast us all.”
As budgets increased and the company grew, Winslett worked with board members to fill new positions with retiring dancers. Among the roles filled, veterans became teachers, costume designers, choreographers, public-relations officials and marketers.
Bonda made the leap after 10 years of dancing in 1994. When he told Winslett that he was ready to hang up his slippers, she asked him to develop Minds in Motion.
“To dance at this level requires incredible discipline, intelligence, sensitivity and an ability to work closely with others in a team,” says Winslett. The profession is as high-stakes and high-stress as they come. “If a person has performed with a major company, they can succeed at nearly anything.”
Bonda says Winslett has built up the company’s familial atmosphere, helping to create an organization with a strong culture of caring and symmetry between its financial and artistic sides.
“Everyone knows what’s required to make a great ballet production work, and that understanding informs every decision,” says Bonda. “So, when I say we need to cut costume budgets or freeze salaries for a year, there’s no questioning it. Instead, people on the art side immediately start trying to figure out how to put on the best show with what we have.”
The trust has helped Richmond Ballet survive hard times, attract top talent and achieve recognition as one of the U.S.’s premier companies. The organization now has about 135 full-time employees, not including its 28 dancers and numerous trainees. Its annual budget has grown to more than $6 million.
Celebrating her 40th anniversary with the company, Winslett acknowledges that much has changed but says the group is essentially just a wiser, more mature version of itself.
“When we started this journey, our mission was the same as it is today: ‘To awaken and uplift the human spirit through dance,’” says Winslett. “And I’m happy to say, I think we’ve gotten better at that every year