Southern stars on Richmond’s stage
Three Richmond Ballet dancers reminisce about their friendship and Nutcrackers present and past.
Inside the Canal Street studios of the Richmond (Virginia) Ballet, three dancers are enjoying a short break during rehearsal of the biggest show of the year, The Nutcracker.
The trio, Shira Lanyi, Maggie Small and Thomas Ragland, have performed in the Nutcracker together for more than 15 years. It’s somewhat rare in the ballet world that three friends, who trained together as kids, wound up working alongside one another in the same company.
“To have a history with people that I do, it’s really great because we share so much and we know each other so well,” said Small, who was four when she started at the School of Richmond Ballet. She’s now in her eighth season with the company.
Richmond natives Lanyi, Small and Ragland, arrived at the dance school from different paths, at different times. After their training, they could’ve gone on to a bigger city to dance, but they chose to remain in the town where their careers began.
Richmond Ballet’s Shira Lanyi. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Though Richmond is far from the dance hub of New York City, many artists have made successful careers and homes in this gem of the Old South. In a place that’s historically well known for breeding writers (such as Edgar Allen Poe and David Baldacci), Richmond Ballet is a making a name for itself on the national and international arts map.
Homegrown talent, like these three dancers, inspires hope in American regional ballet. After seeing the company’s Nutcracker in 2010, New York Times Dance Critic Alastair Macaulay declared in his “dream version of America, every state has at least one Nutcracker this good.”
Every state should have a ballet school that feeds into a professional company with the talent and diverse repertoire of Richmond Ballet. And Judy Jacob, who runs the School of Richmond Ballet, and Stoner Winslett, Richmond Ballet’s artistic director, have created a successful place where young dancers in this Southern city thrive.
How they got here
Lanyi is a curly-haired beauty bursting with an impressive sense of poise. Even in street clothes, it is evident before she takes a step that she’s a ballet dancer. She began taking class at eight and, much to her dismay, the precise, regimented classes were nothing like dancing around the piano at home. “I was late my first day,” she said. “My (ballet) shoes weren’t sewn. I was a total mess and, honestly, I didn’t like it.”
Richmond Ballet’s Stoner Winslett (right) working with Shira Lanyi. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
But she pressed on and found herself enjoying it. Eventually, Lanyi bonded with Small at the school and the pair discovered their shared bunhead tendencies. “I was very lucky because I was with a bunch of girls who loved ballet and dancing as much as I did,” Small said. “Everything we did was relating to ballet in some way or another. We were the epitome of bunheads.”
Outside of class, the girls had sleepovers at each other’s houses, where they’d stay up late and make home videos on a camcorder. “We called them the pointe shoe murders, we still have them and we watch them on occasion,” Lanyi said laughing. “We’d pretend there was a murderer that used a pointe shoe to kill people.”
Fast forward to today.
As the two perform Balanchine’s Serenade during the company’s 30th Anniversary show, they brush by each other onstage in their pale blue tutus. If one of their childhood memories suddenly came to mind, it seems it’d be hard for them not to burst into laughter.
By the time Lanyi was a high school senior, she craved a future dance career. At 18, she was accepted into the University of Virginia and offered an apprenticeship with Richmond Ballet. After serious consideration to both, she decided to defer college enrollment for two years. That, she figured, would give her enough time to decide if working for a professional company really was her dream job.
Richmond Ballet’s Maggie Small on the cover of Dance Magazine. Photo by Sarah Ferguson.
After two years, Lanyi was offered a full-time dancing position with the company, so she put college on an indefinite hold. That choice didn’t come easy as she’s from a highly-accomplished family, who make education a priority. Her father is a Stanford graduate and a surgeon, her mother’s a biologist. One sibling is an investment banker, another is an architect, and a third is an attorney.
“I discovered [dancing professionally] is amazing and when else am I going to do this in my life? Lanyi said. “There are so many opportunities to go to school later in life. There are not so many opportunities to be in ballet.”
A different path
Small is a breathtakingly athletic dancer with a star-like quality about her. Whether she is dancing in the corps in Aiello’s Rite of Spring or as one of the women in Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free, she stands out onstage. And she’s graced the cover of Dance Magazine. “I feel super, super lucky that I grew up in a place where there was a school that fed into a company where I had people to look up to,” she said.
She started at age four and hasn’t looked back.
Maggie Small with Thomas Garrett in the studio. Photo by Sarah Ferguson.
As a high school junior, she was offered a two-year trainee position in the company. This meant she had the chance to try out life as a professional dancer even before graduating. Her daily schedule was packed. She went to high school in the morning, then attended company class and rehearsal from 1:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. each day. In the evening, she also took academic classes at the community college so she would graduate on time. “It was definitely a lot for someone that age,” she said. “If I was willing to kind of fall asleep on my books every night, I knew I was up for whatever life as a ballerina might be like.”
After graduating high school, Small’s mother urged her to attend college, so she studied dance at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. But she soon realized there’s no substitute dancing eight hours a day with a company versus dancing in college. “I wasn’t getting as much from being in school as I was from being in the company,” she said.
So after a year, she moved back to Richmond where she worked as an apprentice before being offered a spot with the company.
Knowing she wanted to pursue a ballet career in her hometown, Small did things a little bit differently. She didn’t attend summer intensives elsewhere as many dancers do, but opted to train with Richmond Ballet’s Ballet Master Malcolm Burn. “I always stayed in the summer to work with Malcolm because I always thought he was so wonderful,” she said. “Now I get to work with him every day.”
Maggie Small. Photo by Sarah Ferguson.
This season, during one of the first Nutcracker rehearsals, Burn coached Small and her frequent partner, Fernando Sabino. Watching in the studio, during a lift in the finale of the ballet, the familiarity in their relationship is apparent. After just a few quiet words and glances between them, Burn had given her a correction and it was almost immediately applied.
Ballet is for boys
When Small and Lanyi mention fellow dancer Thomas Ragland, you can hear amusement in their voices. It is easy to see why he’s so well liked, the way he bounds into the room with his long legs, immense smile, and slight Southern twang in his voice. “It’s something about when I hear music,” Ragland said. “I still to this day, I’m like, ‘I’m ready to dance!’”
After seeing Alvin Ailey Dance Theater on TV as a kid, he convinced his mother to let him enroll in dance classes. He began taking tap, ballet, and jazz at a school outside Richmond and competed with the nearby City Dance Troupe. When one of his teachers noticed how serious he was about dancing, she told him and his mother he should enroll at Richmond Ballet’s school. In his first year, Jacob and Winslett selected him as the prince in the Nutcracker. “The funny thing about that is the year before, we saw the Nutcracker and my mom said, ‘You can be one of those little boys on stage,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I can!’”
Richmond Ballet’s Thomas Ragland. Photo by Sarah Ferguson.
That performance in the Nutcracker is both Lanyi and Small’s first memory of working with Ragland. “He was so sweet, just the nicest kid,” Lanyi said.
As a teen, Ragland insatiable love for dance evolved and he seemed to take every artistic opportunity available in his hometown. He attended Henrico High School, just outside of Richmond, and participated in the school’s Center for the Arts Program. He danced at the ballet school on a scholarship and continued competing with City Dance Troupe throughout high school.
After graduating, Jacob asked Ragland to join the trainee program that fall. When Burn began setting Classical Symphony on the company apprentices, he asked Ragland to dance with them in the show.
Winslett came to the showcase and, like most who see him perform, fell in love with Ragland’s incredible smile. At the end of the season, she offered him an apprenticeship with the company. Lanyi also started her apprentice at this time, and, like brother and sister, they embraced the opportunities and tackled the challenges together.
Thomas Ragland. Photo by Sarah Ferguson.
For Ragland, as an apprentice in a ballet company –– coming from a competition background –– he had to learn the nuances of performing in a team-like setting. “I was so used to competitions and I wasn’t used to the professional business,” he said. After two years as an apprentice, he moved up to the main company.
The best part for Ragland was performing with dancers he looked up to, both at the school and the company. When he started, despite his initial nerves, his fellow dancers helped him every step of the way, and now they’re like family. Looking back on his journey, Ragland says he can hardly believe that he gets to dance for a living.
Richmond Ballet in Stoner Winslett’s The Nutcracker with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, Dec. 14-23, Richmond CenterStage’s Carpenter Theatre, www.richmondballet.com.
(Top photo: Richmond Ballet’s Shira Lanyi and Thomas Garrett as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier in Stoner Winslett’s The Nutcracker. Photo by Sarah Ferguson, 2010.)