Montgomery County native Deidre Byrne remembers her very first ballet performance like it was yesterday. She was a student at the venerable Maryland Youth Ballet [MYB], which was founded in 1971 in former ballerina Hortensia Fonseca’s Kensington basement.
Through the years, Fonseca and her fellow teachers have trained generations of professional dancers — as well as doctors, lawyers, scientists, teachers and other upstanding citizens. Byrne, who learned her first plies from Fonseca at Somerset Elementary School, took the ballet route, dancing for 13 years with the Cleveland San Jose Ballet before returning home to Montgomery County.
But back when Byrne was about 7 or 8, a chance to dance in a Fonseca ballet cemented her love for ballet. “They [the studio] were doing ‘The Enchanted Clock’ and I was not cast … but somebody dropped out and Mrs. Fonseca called my mom and asked if I wanted to do it. I didn’t draw another breath before I said ‘yes.’”
“I remember the costume. I remember the music. I remember everything about it,” she said. “I was hooked. Completely. I loved it.”
These days, Byrne teaches and choreographs for the next generation of ballet students at MYB – now based in downtown Silver Spring, where some 1,600 students take classes in ballet, modern dance, jazz and creative movement.
Byrne wants to make those memories for a new generation of dancers. She is part of a team of MYB teachers who have choreographed and rehearsed a cadre of pre-professional students for the school’s annual spring performance, which takes place Mother’s Day weekend at Montgomery College’s Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center in Rockville. The concert features many of MYB’s talented young dancers in a program suitable for all ages, Byrne noted.
Classical ballet aficionados will appreciate the pure classicism, grace and bravado in artistic director Olivier Munoz’s staging of excerpts, including the illusory vision and grand wedding scenes from the Marius Petipa version of “Don Quixote.” Long a favorite of gala and competition audiences, the excerpts will showcase some of MYB’s top student dancers in corps de ballet unison dancing – in the willowy sections envisioned in Dulcinea’s garden. Then the grand pas de deux between the young passionate lovers Kitri and Basilio will wow with pyrotechnic leaps, turns and balances.
The contemporary ballet “Summer,” created by Christopher Doyle, a MYB instructor and director of the school’s studio company – for invited senior pre-professional students – will be danced to the eponymous section of Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” Doyle originally created the full 40-minute piece for the professional Fresno Ballet, which he directed before his work at MYB.
“For me, it’s always the music,” said Doyle, who spent about a decade as company member of The Washington Ballet. “My ballets don’t ever have a specific storyline. My interpretation of the music, that’s what inspires me.” The summer section is danced by three of the school’s most advanced students – they typically take ballet classes five to six days a week, after their high school classes or home school studies, and on weekends.
It took a while for Doyle to find the right student dancers to tackle this excerpt, choreographed for two men and a woman. “The partnering is very difficult,” he said, “and it’s long [about 11 minutes] and the dancing is hard.”
For children and the young at heart, Diedre Byrne and Kristin Brown-Maki choreographed “Rumpelstiltskin” on the ballet school’s intermediate students, those girls who have begun dancing on pointe – typically ages 11 through 14. “I really wanted a classic fairy tale,” Byrne said. “This one is not as recognizable as some we’ve done, like ‘Snow White,’ but people have heard of it.” It is from the Brothers Grimm, after all.
One important goal for Byrne is to provide as many challenging stage opportunities as possible, a lesson she learned well in her youth dancing under Fonseca’s tutelage. “This one was particularly challenging because … pantomime … like turning straw into gold … was hard to get across,” she pointed out. She and Brown-Maki worked with the young dancers to help them finetune the mime so audiences will understand the story.
Interestingly, Byrne has been told that “Rumpelstiltskin” resembles the many story ballets her Fonseca, created, always with the goal of giving young dancers professional-level stage experience. “I’ve been told,” she said, “that — and it must be an unconscious thing — somehow when I choreographed with Kristin Brown-Maki, that this ballet looks like something Tensia would do. It must be her influence when I was young, but people say we tell the story the way she does.”
Asked to recall what a Fonseca ballet looked like, Byrne elaborated, “She always focused on giving a highly professional experience to young children, to get them on the stage performing at their most technical … really making them more well-rounded dancers.” Equally important, Byrne continued, “There’s more to it than just doing technique … She really encouraged pantomime and storytelling in many of her productions.”
Most rewarding for Byrne, who grew up in Glen Echo, attended Walt Whitman High School and now lives with her husband and daughter in Kensington, is coming full circle. Returning to the school where she first fell in love with dance has been rewarding. “We’ve really seen these kids develop over the past few years,” she said, as she oversaw the 9- and 10-year-old girls put on their first pointe shoes, and now, just a few years later, they’re performing a full ballet on pointe. “I get so excited that I get to help these kids learn how to do it. But Miss Fonseca, she was really brilliant at that,” Byrne said. “I just want to see that everyone has a chance to shine.”
Maryland Youth Ballet presents “Rumpelstiltskin” and More at 1 and 5 p.m. Saturday, May 11, and 3 p.m. Sunday, May 12, at the Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center, Montgomery College, 51 Mannakee St., Rockville. For tickets — $25, $20 for 12 and younger and 65-plus in advance; $27, $23 for children and seniors at the door, visit www.marylandyouthballet.org/performances/sctickets.