An Inspiring Career in Dance

  • Written by  Stephanie Allen
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Tidewater Women’s Stephanie Allen spoke with the founding artistic director of the Richmond Ballet, Stoner Winslett, who celebrates her 35th year with the company this season.

TW: Hi! Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me today. Let’s jump right in. You have accomplished so much throughout your career. What inspired you to become a dancer?

Stoner Winslett: My mother was tall, and I’m tall for a ballet dancer: 5’ 8 1/2”—and she took me to a little combination class—half-hour tap, half-hour ballet—because she thought I should learn to stand up straight. That was the beginning, and there hasn’t been an end yet!

TW: Did you ever think that you were going to be so successful?

SW: The things that I’ve been able to do have far exceeded my imagination of anything I thought I would have been able to do.

TW: What is your favorite part about performance?

SW: I do a lot of the choreography so I’m responsible for everything you see on stage. Everybody thinks: “Oh, it’s so much fun, you get to pick everything.” Of course, that is fun, but there is a stress level to it—of trying to make sure that you pick ballets that the audience is going to like and [that] show the dancers to their very best and give professional development and growth opportunity. And then there’s the money aspect of trying to pay for it all, so it is a great privilege to do what I do.

TW: Absolutely. In your own words, tell me why you think performing arts is important for young people?

SW: The former course director James Erb—he’s deceased now—used to say that being part of an arts project for children gives you all the good things of sports except you don’t have a winner and a loser. I love dance the best because it has all of the physical challenges of sports, but it’s about using that instrument, yourself, for human expression and communication. For young people to have a chance to dance, they learn things about their bodies they would have never known.

TW: You are the founding artistic director of the Richmond Ballet. Before you came in, it was just a student company. Why did you decide to start a new professional company in Virginia?

SW: When I came here in 1980, the school of Richmond Ballet had been around for five years. What the school did when it was founded was bring professional ballet teachers to the Richmond area. So when I’d been here for 4 years, we realized that there was no place in the entire Commonwealth to get a job as a dancer. There was no professional ballet in the state. We thought, “Isn’t that a shame that all our best dancers are running off to other states and countries?”

TW: That’s really great. And you also began a Minds in Motion program? Can you tell me a bit about that?

SW: After the professional company had been around about 11 years, the state and community in Richmond were giving us a lot of support... I just thought, “We need to be doing more and giving back.” I thought about all the children in this community who don’t know anything about dance so we started Minds in Motion, a 4th grade program. Every 4th grader takes it, just like science, math, or reading. It’s not an elective… and they just love it. The beauty of dance is it’s a communication tool, so you can dance about anything. You can dance about love or sadness, or this year we’re focusing on Jamestown, so you can dance about the founding of Jamestown!

TW: That’s such a good opportunity for young people to be involved in performing arts. So, transitioning to The Nutcracker, which will be here in Norfolk Dec. 4-6, there are so many different adaptations, and your version has come up as one of the best and a family favorite. Tell me your story of The Nutcracker.

SW: I did a lot of research on the original E.T.A Hoffman story, and I did a lot of research into the score, and a lot of people don’t realize that The Nutcracker is a commissioned score. Who was I to challenge that? So I choreographed that with the original intention in mind. The music tells the story, and it’s really important to me that the story is reinforced as a dream.

TW: What has been your most memorable performance throughout your career?

SW: When my son was 14, he’d been to a lot of Nutcracker performances in his life and he loved Act I with the battle and mouse king and all that, so when I re-did it, I tried to spiff up Act II. When the curtain hit that night, my son said, “Mommy, I never thought anyone could make Act II as good as Act I!”

TW: That’s sweet! My last question for you is, what is the most important thing our readers should know?

SW: We were so flattered and so honored to be invited to come down there with Nutcracker. As the state ballet of Virginia, we feel an obligation to share all over the state, not just Richmond. I hope the community will turn out and support us because it’s a monumental undertaking to bring it down there. It’s a wonderful happy marriage of goals here for everybody.

Richmond Ballet: “The Nutcracker” – December 4-6, 2015, times vary. ($) Chrysler Hall, 215 St. Paul’s Blvd., 757-664-6464 (N)

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