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Monday, April 12, 2021

A Haunted Celebration: Dance Alive celebrates 50-year anniversary

<p>Fhillip Teixeira lifts Carla Amancio during Dance Live National Ballet's first performance of “A Haunted Swan Lake” of the season Oct. 25, 2015, at Riley Arts Center in Ocala. Teixeira and Amancio, both principal dancers from Brazil, play the king and queen.</p>

Fhillip Teixeira lifts Carla Amancio during Dance Live National Ballet's first performance of “A Haunted Swan Lake” of the season Oct. 25, 2015, at Riley Arts Center in Ocala. Teixeira and Amancio, both principal dancers from Brazil, play the king and queen.

Judy Skinner still dreams about it.

She’s young again, walking across a gravel parking lot and kicking dust before she steps through the old doorway.

Inside, she walks on the wooden dance floor her mother once leapt over.

She begins to dance.

In 1953, it was her mother who danced across the floor, leading students in the repertoire of ballet. But now, it is Skinner and her sister, Kim Tuttle, who guide dancers through the steps of timeless performances as the directors of Dance Alive National Ballet.

With 11 dancers from across the world on contract, the company will celebrate its 50th anniversary today at the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts with a performance of "A Haunted Swan Lake." The Halloween-themed rendition of Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet "Swan Lake," for which tickets cost between $15 and $40 and begins at 7:30 p.m., is a chance for Skinner and Tuttle to be both inspirational and creative for their audience, and most of all, their dancers.

"You can see them," Tuttle said. "They’re just feeding off that creativity."

• • •

It was once a basement.

But now, behind the Publix on Main Street, it’s a dance studio.

Now called Pofahl Studio, it became a second home for Skinner and Tuttle after they moved to Gainesville in 1953.

With their mother, Mary Ellen Pofahl, a dancer, and their father, Kimbel William Pofahl, a tenor, Skinner and Tuttle were born into a life of art. Their mother’s ballet classes were a constant, even as their father’s job outside of art brought them from Minneapolis to Gainesville. It was why Skinner and Tuttle learned to dance before they could read.

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"We were fed it, I guess you might say," Tuttle said.

After the move to Gainesville, their mother continued to teach classes in Pofahl Studio and trained the founding members of what was then the Gainesville Civic Ballet.

In that studio, both girls debuted as ballerinas. In that studio, both girls found a career.

After their mother passed away in 1985, Skinner and Tuttle took over both the studio and the ballet. While the studio name remains the same, the ballet eventually became Dance Alive National Ballet to reflect their desire to grow beyond Gainesville.

"This is all I ever wanted to do," Tuttle said with a laugh.

• • •

In 1972, Tuttle had to choose between a biology final and a performance of the "Nutcracker."

It wasn’t the first time Tuttle performed the "Nutcracker." At 9 years old, it had been her first performance after taking lessons for about six years.

But she was there when the curtains rose, choosing ballet over the final that would have earned her a UF diploma after seven years of college.

"I was married, and I was going to school full-time," she said. "I just couldn’t get it done."

But at 67, having written more than 100 ballets and a children’s book, Tuttle has never looked back.

Almost every Tuesday and Thursday, she sits in front of her company and watches rehearsals. While a bad back ended her career and a double hip surgery earlier this year limits her movement, Tuttle still guides the dancers through her choreography with humming and waving arms.

"I like putting things together," she said. "I love seeing art flourish."

Supporting her from behind the scenes is Skinner, the quieter and older sister. After 18 years as a public-school teacher, she now oversees the funding of the company and arts education programming. While she occasionally choreographs, she often spends more time talking about her sister than her own accomplishments.

"For me, it’s very different than for Kim," Skinner said. "I like creating order. She’s at a different spectrum. She’s like all over the place."

But while Skinner said her sister is the real visionary, Tuttle said both of them possess the passion and the talent their mother once had.

"A lot of people don’t inherit that kind of talent," she said. "We both inherited it."

• • •

Before rehearsal Thursday, Fhilipe Teixeira was on his phone.

But then the music began to play, and he became a king.

Tuttle looked on, scribbling notes and calling out to the dancers as a rock ‘n’ roll rendition of Tchaikovsky’s music blared through speakers.

"He’s your son," she said as Teixeira shook the prince’s hand. "Be a little friendlier."

The first time the company performed "Swan Lake," it was in 1991 during the opening of the Phillips Center.

The version they have been rehearsing for the past six months has the same elements — a woman transformed into a swan, an evil magician, a lovestruck prince and a backdrop filled with a lake and mountains — but this time, Tuttle added a Halloween twist.

"Ballet is sometimes viewed as a anachronism — the past trying to stay alive in a world to which it no longer relates and belongs," Julia Ponomareva, a principal dancer and the white swan, wrote in an email. "This will never happen as long as the ballet world continues to produce Kim Tuttles."

Now, in the first act, there’s a costume party instead of a formal ball, rock ‘n’ roll and jazz instead of classical music and the evil magician swings above the stage on a harness.

Andre Valladon is the magician swinging from the harness, flipping and swinging across the stage during the final rehearsals.

Here, he’s not afraid.

"The jitters come when you get on the wings," he said. "It never goes away."

It is not the first time Valladon has broken ballet tradition. Growing up in Brazil, Valladon said he was the only boy in the country pirouetting and practicing on pointe.

"Because I was a freak of nature, it kind of made me special," he said.

Valladon and his wife, who met in Brazil as dancers and are now principal dancers with Dance Alive, are not the only dancers in the company who left their home country for Gainesville.

For Ponomareva, it was the chance to leave Russia and venture into new lands and new dance styles.

As the principal ballerina and the main female character, she falls in love with her real-life husband, Alexsey Kuznetsov, as they twirl and leap across the stage.

"It is easier to trust and love to dance on stage when you experience these feelings in real life," Ponomareva said.

For Valladon, performing with the small company is more personal, like being in a family.

This is why UF student Sarah Beth Thompson, 20, said she is excited to be a part of the company. The family, youth and community sciences junior has been performing with Dance Alive since middle school.

"It’s really fun to be able to dance together for other people," she said. "It’s something that I’m very grateful for."

• • •

At any given time, the company’s dancers may be rehearsing for multiple plays.

"Her brain is always on fast-forward," Skinner said of her sister. "Even when she’s fried, it’s on fast-forward."

Currently, the company is rehearsing for "Requiem," "Ladybug Action Hero" and "A Haunted Swan Lake." By November, the company will begin rehearsing the "Nutcracker."

The focus today, however, isn’t on the future plays or even on the 50th anniversary.

It is on Swan Lake.

Tonight, from backstage, Skinner will watch the magician fly, the swans leap and the audience cheer.

Then she will go home, and she will dream again.

Contact Martin Vassolo at mvassolo@alligator.org and follow him on Twitter @martindvassolo

Finding a dance partner was always difficult for Julia Ponomareva.

She was tall — about a head taller than everyone else.

But when she met Alexsey Kuznetsov — a fellow dancer about her same height — while dancing with the Croatian National Ballet, she found a partner she’d stay with long after the curtains came down and the crowd went home.

The two have been married for almost four years, but it seems like they’ve known each other much longer, Kuznetsov wrote in an email.

"You always want to be the best for your partner in everything, including ballet," he said.

In "A Haunted Swan Lake," they fall in love at center stage. The final image the audience sees before the ballet comes to a close is their embrace — a piece of choreography that doesn’t need rehearsal.

"I love to dance with Alex," Ponomareva wrote in an email. "I’m always confident in him both on stage and in life."

But, after practicing a routine for months with the same person, tensions sometimes rise.

"Working together very closely with just one person is quite difficult," Ponomareva said. "What happens in ballet practicing, especially if two people are in love, is that the slightest critique is taken very personally and is therefore extremely hurtful."

Yet while Julia and Alexsey have found the necessary balance between love and ballet, another couple remains on opposite ends of the stage.

Andre Valladon and his wife, Carla Amancio, are both from the same city in Brazil: Belo Horizonte. The two danced for the same companies there and sent joint resumes to Dance Alive National Ballet in 2008.

Although they share a bedroom, Valladon and Amancio don’t share any dance routines together during "A Haunted Swan Lake." When they do dance, in rehearsals or other ballets, the two argue in Portuguese for extended periods of time.

"Kim tends to pair us up with separate people," Valladon said with a smile.

— Martin Vassolo

Editor’s note: Ponomareva and Kuznetsov requested email interviews because English is not their first language.

Fhillip Teixeira lifts Carla Amancio during Dance Live National Ballet's first performance of “A Haunted Swan Lake” of the season Oct. 25, 2015, at Riley Arts Center in Ocala. Teixeira and Amancio, both principal dancers from Brazil, play the king and queen.

Yaima Mendez, a Dance Live National Ballet principal dancer from Cuba, practices at Pofahl Studios on Oct. 29, 2015. Mendez plays a big swan in the company’s “A Haunted Swan Lake.”

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