Coaching pre-professional dancers for 35 summers

When Angela Whitehill moved to rural East Burke, Vermont, in 1975, it was so her husband could open a bed and breakfast. But when she spotted a spacious barn within a hilltop estate, she was seized by a dream of her own. “I knew it would be the perfect place to start the next Jacob’s Pillow,” she says. “I became obsessed with it.”

When the property was sold a year later and repurposed as a conference center, she leapt at the opportunity. Over the course of a four-hour meeting, she persuaded the new owner to fund a dance program for the summer of 1978.

“I told him the people who were coming to the conferences would be paying a lot of money for a month out in the wild, and they might want something to do on a Saturday night,” she says. “I suggested he turn the barn into a theater, and we could charge for tickets to pay for the floors and that kind of thing. And that’s exactly what happened.

Since Burklyn Ballet Theatre’s inception 35 years ago, the six-week summer intensive for dancers ages 12–25 has grown from 19 to over 200 students. Whitehill credits its progress to the consistent quality of her instructors. For the first few seasons, faculty included David Howard, Cherie Noble and Alexander Bennett. “All the money I ever had went into the teachers,” she says. “I wanted those kids to have the best in the world.”

Now held at neighboring Johnson State College in Vermont, BBT offers three mandatory technique classes daily, and dancers attend seminars, additional technique classes and rehearsals in the afternoons and evenings. They perform a different ballet each weekend, and though it’s an intense schedule, the program is a draw for students who relish onstage opportunities, Whitehill says.

Her daughter-in-law Joanne Whitehill  took over as artistic director in 2005, but Angela hasn’t completely retired. In addition to guest teaching during her visits to BBT, she focuses on her costume-making business, having honed her sewing skills as the program’s sole costume mistress for several years.

Today, her company Not Just Tutus has made costumes for Nutcracker Key West, Long Island Ballet Theatre and dancers competing in the Youth America Grand Prix and the Helsinki International Ballet Competition. “I miss teaching terribly,” she says. “I just walk in like a matriarch every once in a while. But Joanne’s doing a wonderful job.”

 

Photo courtesy of Angela Whitehill

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