Unearthing a Trove of Minnesota Ballet Stories

By Georgia Finnegan

Time flies, but so does all of life. Since my last blog, October Blues, I took a break from blogging, and instead focused my time and attention on researching and writing ballet’s history in Minnesota.  I’ve gathered research in all its forms—print, digital, audio, and video.  Now’s the time to put the hammer down and write. Time to ignore the intimations of spring that draw me outside.

I am a neophyte in historical nonfiction writing. With this first foray into nonfiction, I feel the yoke of accuracy on my shoulders.  Yet, I also feel the ebullience of digging deeper than deep into research and unearthing a trove of fascinating and untold ballet stories—some to be told; others not.

The last few sentences in my blog, October Blues, ended with this reflection: “I often pause in the midst of my writing and reread and rewrite a sentence several times, or rewrite a whole paragraph asking myself, ‘Is my writing descriptive enough? Is it historically accurate?’ I also hear my grammarian father’s voice, as if he were standing near and coaching me, “Georgia Ann, remember, writing is rewriting and do not get discouraged.”

Rosie the riveter

Confidence, not discouragement, directs me to March On. My writing coach tells me to write more. My soul sister tells me to put my butt in the seat. One of my colleagues at Afton Press, well versed in blog know-how, told me, “You can do it.”  I responded with an arm and fist up, channeling Rosie the Riveter energy.  I also channel my grandmother’s energy; a Rosie the Riveter at Armco Steel in Butler, Pennsylvania.  As I march on, here’s a sneak peek of two sample artist stories, the likes of which you will find in my book project.

The Night the Champagne Cooled Backwards and other Minnesota ballet stories.

Briton Rivière’s painting of Una and the Lion

It’s early March in Minnesota, and a morning chill of fifteen degrees upstages the first glimmers of dawn’s light. In the dark, I slowly make my way down the stairs to the kitchen. My early morning ritual—down the stairs wrapped in a warm robe, to the kitchen, light the candles, and start brewing the coffee.

I shiver as I pull up the collar of my robe. The chill reminds me of some folk wisdom in the old adage, “March comes in like a lion, goes out like a lamb.”  Darkness wraps me against the cold wintery morning.  Quiet darkness, lit only by a few flickering candle flames. Sanctuary. I place my back against the radiator, grounding myself in its warmth, awakening me to rambling thoughts.

On one such morning, my early morning musing recalled celebrating my January birthday with two dancer friends. Outside, nestled around a fire pit, we snacked on fruit, fig jam, and macarons.  Champagne remaining chilled in its snow bank ice cooler.  We raised a cold glass to unique birthday celebrations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

of champagne and snacks for an outside gathering

Ballet memories abounded; a corps d’esprit that binds us forever together.  We laughed, reminiscing how one night, after a late ballet class, we sat on the building’s fire escape.  We had a bottle of room-temperature champagne for beverage and some nuts for nutrition and energy.  As we talked, envisioned, and planned the upcoming ballet production, our champagne became chilled.  To this day, we recall that story and say, “the night the champagne chilled backwards.”

Everything is beautiful at the ballet

A myriad of ballet memories, etched forever in my mind’s eye, fuels my energy to keep on writing Minnesota’s ballet history. One salient memory occurred during production week for The Sleeping Beautyone of ballet’s golden reserves of classicism. 

Administrative minutia held me, the producer, hostage at the ballet studio’s small office.  The phone rang, and I hesitated, not wanting to be tethered to its ring.  I answered, however, with a rushed and terse “Hello.” A fragile and brittle voice of an elderly woman asked, “Are there any tickets remaining for The Sleeping Beauty ballet this weekend?”  I replied that a few tickets remain, and I asked her how many she would like.

She needed only one ticket.  Audaciously I asked her why she wanted to attend the ballet alone.  Paraphrasing a line from the Broadway musical A Chorus Line, she unabashedly answered, “Everything is beautiful at the ballet.”  For this elderly, possibly lonely ticket buyer, attending the ballet seemed to be a peak artistic experience for her. For many people, The Sleeping Beauty, a gem of classical ballet, and a veritable marriage of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s music and Marius Petipa’s choreography, remains a ne plus ultra experience.

Let’s say you attend The Sleeping Beauty in a city’s historic and renovated theater with its gold-gilded décor and chandeliers lighting your way to the ushers.  An usher takes your ticket, checks your seat location, and directs you to your well-positioned seat close to the proscenium stage where every detail of the ballet can be seen.

As you glance through the playbill, the theater’s house lights slowly darken, signaling the audience to quiet their voices, listen, and look. The stage curtain remains closed as a hushed silence descends over the audience.  Ears open to hear the tuning of the orchestra’s instruments.  The Overture, French for the opening—a musical herald for the opening of a ballet.  The main curtain opens as the Overture finishes. The Sleeping Beauty ballet begins with its shimmering costumes, exquisite dancing, and stunning sets. Everything is beautiful at the ballet.

dancers by Erik Saultis

My findings and browsing through historical documents, and also listening intently as I hear dance artists’ stories, brought to my conscious surface a kaleidoscope of colorful facts, myths, and stories about ballet’s beginnings in Minnesota. Leonardo da Vinci’s voice from the ancient past speaks to us, even in our twenty-first century: “In rivers, the water that you touch is the last of what has passed and the first of that which comes; so, with present time.”  So, with ballet.

Georgia Finnegan served as the Advancement Director for Minnesota Dance Theatre in 2017-18, and currently as an advisor to its Board of Directors. With over 30 years in the nonprofit industry in Minnesota, she focuses on education, and arts administration. Georgia, founder of Saint Paul City Ballet (renamed St. Paul Ballet in 2014), continued its growth and development for sixteen years, garnering foundation, corporate, and individual donor support. Georgia works with her husband, Erik Saulitis, a dance photographer, helping market his business, Danceprints. She is a firm believer that the arts, in partnership with corporate, business, and community support, augment the economy of a city and increases the vitality and aesthetic beauty of its community.

Share this post