Tulsa, OK

Why Tulsa Ballet's Artistic Director Marcello Angelini Pushed Ahead with Ambitious Works in the Middle of a Pandemic

Kristyn Burtt

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Jun Masuda in Dorothy and the Prince of Oz, February 2020.

Photo credit: Kate Luber.

This was not how Tulsa Ballet's Artistic Director Marcello Angelini expected to celebrate his 26th season — in the middle of a global pandemic. But if there's one thing he's learned in his over two decades at the helm of the Midwest ballet company is that it's important to "exist between the past, the present and the future."

That motto has served him well as he's brought in renowned choreographers to mount world premieres of new works at Tulsa Ballet. Angelini understands that audiences love "The Nutcracker," which was created in the 1892, but he wants to push the boundaries with fresh pieces for the next century. "I think it's our responsibility today to create new works so that people a hundred years from now can enjoy that," he says.

To make that happen in 2020, Tulsa Ballet had to quickly pivot to accommodate the regulations demanded by the dancers' union, American Guild of Musical Artists, as well as Board Certified Infectious Disease Physician Dr. Lauren Brett Jaggers, who they hired to make sure all COVID-19 safety protocols were enforced.

"We are working in pods — eight dancers in each studio," Angelini explains. "We start in the morning, with 36 or 37 people taking a ballet class, but they're learning in different studios. We're all connected via Zoom."

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Tulsa Ballet Artistic Director, Marcello Angelini.

Photo credit: Jeremy Charles.

That morning alone the artistic director was running "from studio to studio" to give in-person technique critiques and had logged "1.19 miles to teach one single ballet class." That's an incredible dedication to keeping Tulsa Ballet operating during challenging times. Angelini is making sure his dancers are working safely to get their stamina back because "they were out for six or seven months" at the start of the pandemic. That means cutting the number of hours they train Monday through Friday — it's been slimmed down to "five hours a day" to keep the dancers from getting injured as they work their way back to their optimum dancing shape.

There's also the mental health aspect to the unprecedented situation of a pandemic and Angelini admits, "It's a problem for everybody." Dancers already having a short career life span as a dancer, and with the last nine months cutting into their performing opportunities — he's calling them "the lost generation of dancers." For that reason, the artistic director is pushing ahead with outside-the-box ideas to keep Tulsa Ballet working.

"I don't want them to lose the season," Angelini explains. "As much as possible. I want them to continue their career and the progression through their career."

Continuing forward is exactly what Tulsa Ballet is doing with an exciting repertory ahead — first up is "The Lost Nutcracker." It's not their traditional holiday fare, but the company is mounting three new pieces from Dark Circles Artistic Director Joshua L. Peugh, Tulsa Ballet Resident Choreographer Ma Cong and Italian choreographer Luciano Cannito with limited capacity and socially distant seating as a step in the right direction to getting things back to normal.

"The plan after 'The Lost Nutcracker' is to probably do another small show at the end of February, maybe beginning of March," he says. "And then at that point, we will have to start working together for the bigger shows that we moved to the end of May."

If all goes according to plan — with vaccinations forthcoming and the pandemic hopefully dwindling — Tulsa Ballet has an exciting line-up for the spring with "Vendetta, A Mafia Story," choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, and a new version of "Carmen," choreographed by Cong. That would pave the way for an ambitious new ballet in the fall about the Tulsa race massacre of 1921, when a race riot broke out and a white mob attacked Black businesses and residents in the Greenwood District.

"I like to push the boundaries every now and then — and this one is going to be pushing big time," says Angelini. "The Tulsa massacres were horrifying, but we're not just going to talk about the massacre. We're going to focus on the fact that within 10, 15 years, the Black Wall Street in Tulsa had a resurgence and it reached its peak actually in 1935, 1938. So you can destroy it, but it always comes back and it comes back more powerful than before."

That's exactly why people should be paying attention to the work of Angelini and his company of dancers at Tulsa Ballet. They've developed into a major ballet company yet they still don't get the recognition they deserve because of their geographic location. The media are focused on what happens on the East and West Coast while ignoring the creativity blossoming in the Midwest.

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Tulsa Ballet, Tchaikovsky: The Man Behind the Music, March 2019.

Photo credit: Kate Luber.

"This is a company that tours all over the world. This is a company that the major international publications in Europe and South Korea, call us one of the Top 5 most interesting American ballet companies, one of the Top 10 ballet companies in the United States, one of the best companies in the world," Angelini says passionately.

He finds it's "easier" for them to be recognized outside of the U.S. because they don't have any preconceived notions about the city of Tulsa. Angelini is beyond confident about the capabilities of his dancer and the choreographers they hire to continually put out top-notch work for Tulsa Ballet, so the lack of "visibility" for his artists is his "biggest frustration."

"Tell me which company in this country, 14 or 15 years ago, decided to spend $6.5 million to build a theater built around the concept of creating new works by choreographers. We created 14 works by some of the top choreographers in the world here in Tulsa," he explains. "We create them here. Then we export them somewhere else, but the world premiere happens here in Tulsa. Plus, we have the classical repertory of a ballet company, too. When I interviewed for the job 26 years ago I was told, 'The fact that you are in Tulsa doesn't mean that you have to be provincial.' "

It's the reason why Angelini continues to "push the boundaries" for Tulsa Ballet — not only for his dancers, but for the Tulsa audiences who have come to expect the company's world-class artistry.

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Kristyn Burtt is a commercial dance journalist, TV host and producer. She was the West Coast correspondent and host of "To the Pointe" on Dance Network for five years. Her coverage of "So You Think You Can Dance," "Dancing With the Stars" and "World of Dance" is popular with dance fans across the globe. Kristyn's love of dance began early in her life. She trained at the Boston Ballet School, danced with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in "The Nutcracker" and won a dance scholarship to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. She currently serves on the American Dance Movement’s Marketing & PR Committee and is a member of the Television Academy and SAG-AFTRA.

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