In 2003, Lena Forster and her husband, Jurgen, founded International Ballet (IB) to bring quality productions of beloved classics like The Nutcracker and Swan Lake to Upstate audiences. To nurture a love of the art form in young dancers and provide the rigorous instruction required to develop world-class performers, they created the International Ballet Academy (IBA). Last July, the nonprofit IB acquired the school from Forster, uniting the two as one organization.
The significance of this step—and Forster’s astute leadership throughout the years—should not be underestimated, says Executive Director Sarah Shoemaker, who described Forster, IB’s president, as “the glue that has held everything together.”
“By turning her business over to a board of directors made up of generous, focused, intelligent, and talented individuals, Lena gave Greenville a classical ballet company and school of its own,” Shoemaker says. “She’s trusting the city of Greenville to take what she started and build it to be even more accessible and impactful.”
International Ballet presents three annual main-stage performances at the Peace Center, where it is a resident company. The fall offering, L’Automne, is a mixed-repertoire program, this year with live music by violinist Kenneth Lambert playing Bluegrass to Bach. Two full-length ballets—the holiday favorite The Nutcracker, and this year’s spring production, Giselle—round out the season. All shows feature the talented pre-professional members of the company with guest artists in principal roles led by Artistic Director Vlada Kysselova.
“We’re proud and grateful to have live music played by the Greenville Symphony Orchestra each year for The Nutcracker,” Shoemaker says. “Our guest artists are international ballet stars, including some returning alumni. And a real treat this year is the addition of Chilean dancer Sebastian Vinet, formerly with the San Francisco Ballet and Houston Ballet, appearing in all three shows.”
In addition to these productions, the company regularly performs in schools, at events like Artisphere, and with GSO’s Holiday at Peace. Outreach programs include Storytime Ballet with the Greenville County Library, and a partnership with Thrive Upstate that has made ballet accessible for special-needs adults for the past 12 years.
“There are few opportunities like this for people with intellectual disabilities once they have graduated from school,” says Shoemaker, who is producing Invitation to the Dance, a 40-minute documentary about the program. “Lena was determined to make it possible for them to come to a real and spacious dance studio and have the experience of being on stage.”
As International Ballet has grown, its budget has tripled in the last three years, Shoemaker says. In late October, the company and upper-level classes will move to a new facility in Greer, leaving more classroom space at the original location.
“The school has been pushing at the capacity of the physical space; it became obvious we had to do something,” Shoemaker says. “Four families who see what the organization contributes to Greenville have become superstars. Thanks to these generous donors, we have two new beautiful, state-of-the-art studios.”
Greta and Graham Somerville, for whom the new Somerville Center is named, are one of those families. Greta, a lifelong dance aficionado who will appear as the grandmother in this year’s Nutcracker, says she admires the determination of students at the academy, and has observed first-hand the transformative effects of dance training.
“Dance is the vehicle we use to teach the children life’s lessons. They learn to work with others, to listen and respect others, but most importantly to respect and have confidence in themselves,” Somerville says. “Why wouldn’t you support something like that? Graham and I are so proud and honored to be involved.”
IB’s newly formed Assemblé Guild will present its signature fundraiser, Passport to Dance, on October 5, 2019 at the Hyatt Place Greenville. Forster and Kysselova will attend, as well as guest artists Vinet and Lambert. Eclectic cuisine, a silent auction and a short performance promise a festive evening.
“Throughout history, classical arts have resonated with the soul in a unique way, but they are dependent on philanthropy,” Shoemaker says. “Greenville’s leaders, past and present, have demonstrated the understanding that great art matters. Support for arts organizations is an investment in the city and its future.”
International Ballet is a non-profit 501(c)3 organization. To learn more, visit https://www.internationalballetsc.org.