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WMPAC conservatory offers sneak preview into world-class productions

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By Sarah Gianelli EBS Associate Editor

BIG SKY – With the commencement of the Big Sky Conservatory on July 2, The Warren Miller Performing Arts Center is officially in the “create” component of its trifold mission to present, inspire and create. 

WMPAC presents its world-class productions during the high winter season and while it could be said that the organization inspires year-round, it fulfills this aspect through pointed community engagement during the spring and fall. Their summer residency program, the Big Sky Conservatory, brings nationally and internationally acclaimed professionals in the performing arts to Big Sky, to create and develop new work while mentoring aspiring professionals and area youth in the genres of dance, music and theater.

Minneapolis’ James Sewell Ballet, the company that launched WMPAC’s debut winter season in 2013 and the original participant of Big Sky Conservatory, has returned to be professionals-in-residence for the Twin Sky Dance Intensive that runs through July 16. The two-week program offers high-altitude training and performance experience for aspiring young dancers along with a career development opportunity for professionals.

Since its inception in 2014, the conservatory has grown from a two-week dance intensive with four novice dancers to a summer-long program with a choral and theater component. This year the conservatory drew 102 applications, 52 of which were accepted, and 30 mentoring artists. 

“That’s pretty exciting,” said WMPAC Artistic Director John Zirkle. “We’ve turned people away. We have people coming in from all over the country—professors and graduate students from institutions like Yale [University] and Juilliard who are paying to be fellows and work with award-winning professionals and leaders in the industry.”

These working professionals—who come to Big Sky to develop and rehearse their own work-in-progress while providing high-level mentorship—also include the groundbreaking, international choral sensation The Crossing, and a collective of Broadway thespians workshopping a play by resident playwright Caroline McGraw, starring Tony Award-winner and actress-in-residence Michele Pawk.

“For a small little theater to act as an incubator and a producer, that is really how we really define world-class in my opinion,” Zirkle said. “We’re creating work that is being presented in the most respected cultural hubs in the country—that’s New York and Minneapolis right there.”

For Zirkle, who oozes passion for the theatrical arts, the fact that a little mountain town in Montana is attracting some of his creative heroes, and WMPAC is playing a part in productions that will grace the grandest of stages, may be enough. But at the end of each program, the public also gains the opportunity to get a sneak preview into the works developed here, and gets a chance to creatively interact with these top-level performers. 

“The Big Sky community will get to see or experience a brand new piece of work at its inception point,” Zirkle said. “At its headwaters … before it heads downstream to be performed by the some of the world’s most respected artists in the world.” 

On Saturday, July 15, at 7 p.m. the James Sewell Ballet will present new work with live musical accompaniment by the Ahn Trio. On Saturday, July 22, at 7 p.m. The Crossing will perform five new works written by the conservatory’s Choral Initiative composers, including composer-in-residence Gavin Bryars. 

That morning at 11 a.m., The Crossing will host a free workshop and community sing. Another concert with The Crossing, featuring conservatory conductors and different works, will be held at 7 p.m. on Saturday, July 29. And on Tuesday, Aug. 8, at 11 a.m., the public is invited to participate in a free theater workshop with professional New York theater artists.  

“We want to become a headwaters for performing arts in America,” Zirkle said. “That’s a really lofty concept and a really difficult thing to do, but we’ve made great progress in the last four years … for example, we gave James [Sewell] a stage to develop [‘Titicut Follies’] and now it’s a huge success in New York. We helped bring that to life.” 

WMPAC is also advancing its role as a producer, and this year will produce two original plays, one of which will enjoy its world premiere on the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center stage in January 2018.

“It’s kind of our style to move aggressively ahead,” Zirkle said. “To really try to be a player on the national stage—or die trying.”

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