Summer conservatory plants seeds for WMPAC’s winter season

By Sarah Gianelli EBS Contributor

BIG SKY – With the conclusion of the 2016 Big Sky Conservatory on July 31, the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center fulfilled this year’s “create” component of its mission to present, inspire and create. The annual summer residency program brings together professionals and novices in the three pillars of the performing arts: dance, music and theater.

In the winter, WMPAC presents its flagship series of premiere national performance acts. During the off seasons, the focus shifts to inspiring local talent to take the stage—adults in the fall and youth in the spring. The summer conservatory brings top-level professionals to Big Sky to create and develop new work while mentoring a group of young aspiring professionals in a rare, intimate setting.

“The conservatory provides a very unique learning environment,” said WMPAC Artistic Director John Zirkle. “We’re trying to enable professionals and highly advanced fellows to have a very relaxed conversation on stage, in an immersive environment, shrouded under the cover of the mountains.”

While the conservatory is the least visible of WMPAC’s programs in terms of public performances, it’s arguably the most important. The purpose is to foster creativity that will culminate in finished works, some of which will be presented during WMPAC’s winter season. It also serves to further cultivate the exceptional talent of program fellows, predominantly regional youth aged 12-18, whose names are the next to go up in lights.

Minneapolis’s James Sewell Ballet, the company that launched WMPAC’s debut winter season in 2013 and the original participant of Big Sky Conservatory, returned to choreograph a new work while providing the professional component of the Twin Sky Dance Intensive. This two weeks of training and performance experience for young dancers ended on July 17.

“Working with the students adds a whole other dimension,” said James Sewell, artistic director of the ballet company. “Having the opportunity to work so closely with young dancing artists, encouraging them to see their dancing and the art form in new ways is always exciting. I see this not only benefiting the students but I always see my company dancers growing in significant ways through the development of their own leadership and teaching skills.”

The following week, a revolutionary choral group out of Philadelphia called The Crossing—that went directly to New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts from Big Sky—headed up the Choral Initiative, a concentrated weeklong workshop for participants specializing in singing, conducting and composition.

Wrapping up the conservatory, a cohort of Broadway talent led by Tony Award-winner Michelle Pawk and playwright Stephanie DiMaggio—whose play “Levity” premiered at the conclusion of last season’s workshop—led the Big Sky Theater Workshop for student actors and playwrights from around the country.

Ideally, all of the professional companies that participate in the conservatory’s working and teaching residencies would have a creative loop with WMPAC as complete as James Sewell Ballet.

Since 2014, Sewell has come to Big Sky with his esteemed 12-member company each summer to develop a new work presented during WMPAC’s winter calendar. This season they’ll present an original choreographed ballet set to Felix Mendelssohn’s “Octet for Strings in E-flat Major, Op. 20” to be performed at WMPAC in March 2017.

“It’s a rare treat to witness the process of this level of artistry and see it come to fruition,” Zirkle said. The enduring relationship has proven to be widely beneficial for Sewell and his dancers as well.

“Having a focused time to choreograph with my company on a stage is extremely unique,” Sewell said. “The doors opening out onto the mountains and the mountain breeze floating in changes the spirit and the creative process in ways that are tangible and mysterious.

“One of the biggest benefits, however, is just the feeling that the whole company gets by spending two weeks out in Montana together,” he added. “It deepens friendships and trust, and is a time that the dancers look forward to all year long.”

For more information about the Big Sky Conservatory and a schedule of upcoming events at Warren Miller Performing Arts Center visit