By Jennie Szink, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer
On April 13, nine Dayton Ballet company members graced the stage at the Dayton Art Institute to perform an original piece, Sisters. Their antique hand-sewn costumes, the location and the voice of a company founder coming through the speakers took the 300 people in attendance back in time. The setting was 1937, when the Schwarz sisters’ “Experimental Group for Young Dancers” performed for the first time, and gave roots to a rich history of ballet in Dayton.
The Dayton Ballet was founded by two sisters, Hermene and Josephine “Jo” Schwarz, who were raised in a home with Jewish values and an appreciation for the arts.
The sisters were born in Dayton — Hermene in 1902 and Josephine in 1908 — to Hannah and Joseph Schwarz. They opened the Schwarz School of Dance in their home in 1927, and charged a dime per lesson.
In the ’30s, Jo moved away to study ballet and dance in Chicago, New York and Europe, and danced on Broadway. She returned to Dayton after she was injured during a performance, and she and her older sister opened Dayton’s first ballet company in 1937. This year marks its 75th anniversary.
Bess Imber, who would later become associate director of the Dayton Ballet, took her first ballet lesson from “Miss Jo” in 1945. She was 6, and memories of the self-discipline and self-expression the sisters instilled in her have carried through the years.
“Even when we were very little, Miss Jo made us feel as if we were important artists,” Imber said. “We’d gather around the piano and listen to the classical music we would dance to. She would take us to the Dayton Art Institute to see the exhibitions and would read us poetry. She made sure our parents took us to Cincinnati to see live dance performances, and we’d read biographies of dancers and give reports. She wanted us to be well-rounded artists.”
Though it sounds as if they wouldn’t have time to do much dancing, Imber said Jo treated each practice as if it were a performance and students had to repeat steps over and over until they flowed.
While Jo ran a strict but creative class, Hermene did everything behind the scenes with precision. She handmade all of the costumes, handled the secretarial work and also lent her artistic ability. They wanted their company to be the best in the nation, but it wasn’t all about the technicalities of dancing.
“Miss Jo wanted you to leap as high as you could, but the spirit you had when dancing was more important to her,” Imber said. “Here we were, just some kids off the streets of Dayton, and she taught us to be artists.”
The Dayton Ballet — now part of the newly formed Dayton Arts Alliance with the Dayton Philharmonic and Dayton Opera — is one of the oldest professional ballet companies in the nation, younger than only the New York City Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet and the Atlanta Ballet. They did, and still do, travel around Ohio to perform. In 1959, the Dayton Civic Ballet became a chartered member of the Northeast Regional Ballet Association. In 1979, the company changed its name from “Dayton Civic Ballet” and became the fully professional Dayton Ballet.
Over the years, the sisters developed many students who went on to become professional dancers in New York, among other places, and attracted many professional dancers, like Jon Rodriquez.
“I studied at the Royal Ballet in London, danced in Europe and with a Spanish company in Madrid,” said Rodriquez, who later became co-director with Imber. “Though I danced many places, I never saw classes led like Miss Jo’s. She was the first person who gave merit to the craft of choreography, and what she did affected all of the dance classes in the United States. Now, anytime you see an intensive summer dance class, including a professional company’s, there’s usually a choreography class.”
The Schwarz sisters’ influence on the Dayton Ballet has continued even after Jo retired as director in 1980, and invited a past student, Stuart Sebastian, to assume directorship. Over the last 30 years, the company has had other directors, received national praise and performed internationally, in Jordan. Also during this time, the sisters passed away: Hermene in 1986, and Jo in 1994.
In their memory and to celebrate the successes of the ballet, the company has special performances planned for the 75th anniversary season. The season opens Oct. 18 with Past and Present, which will include Mozart Dances, choreographed by Sebastian, the world premiere of a new work by choreographer Amy Seiwert, and Sleepy Hollow, choreographed by Karen Russo Burke, artistic director for the Dayton Ballet. The year’s performances also include The Nutcracker, Cinderella and Celebration! Also new this year, as a result of the Arts Alliance merger, will be live accompaniment by the Dayton Philharmonic at some performances.
Burke said she’s most looking forward to Celebration, which will include a film montage and tributes to all past directors and choreographers.
“I’m excited to honor our past directors, including, of course, the sisters, and show the public the whole typography of choreography we have had,” Burke said. “I encourage people try to go to one thing to celebrate the anniversary, and I think they’ll get hooked and come back.”
Sue Gruenberg, who is chairing the 75th anniversary events, said she’s already received calls from past dancers and students across the country who are interested in being involved in some way. She stressed the importance of the arts, not just to remember the past, but to build Dayton’s future.
“To enhance this community and to draw people to live here, the best things we have going for us are the arts,” she said.
“As long as we keep this cultural piece of the city going, we’ll have interesting people moving here, and a reason for people to move here. I think the arts enhance the life in this city. I’m honored to be part of this celebration to carry on the sisters’ legacy and carry what they started in this community.”
For the 2012-13 season schedule, go to www.daytonballet.org.