From Prague With Love: SW VA Ballet Impresses in Europe

The Southwest Virginia Ballet performing in Prague.

by Gene Marrano

Southwest Virginia Ballet artistic director Pedro Szalay didn’t tell his twelve students, age 14-18, that accompanied him to Prague in the Czech Republic earlier this month that they were going to a competition. As far as they knew, it was just a performance at the New Prague Dance Festival. After all thought Szalay, why put extra pressure on them?

Those students were surprised – but happy, of course, when they walked off with awards for costumes and one of their dance routines. Three years in the making, the trip to Europe (July 2-8) was the first major venture abroad for the 21-year-old troupe, founded by Terri Post. She handed the reins over to Szalay after relocating from Roanoke.

Szalay, who also works for the Richmond Ballet and is a former professional dancer, is in his 6th year with Southwest Virginia Ballet. The troupe will perform with the Nutcracker this holiday season and will dance with the Roanoke Youth Symphony next March. SW Virginia Ballet will also dance during a fundraiser for the Feeding America food bank during a fundraising fashion show at the Patrick Henry Hotel on August 26. There’s a Nutcracker Ball fundraiser for Southwest Virginia Ballet on November 19 at Hotel Roanoke.

Szalay also works with Roanoke City Schools as part of the Minds in Motion program, an SOL-based endeavor that introduces dance and movement to elementary school students, combining that effort with messages on the environment and other topics. This school year the message will be “Dancing Makes Cents,” talking about value of money.

“There’s so much talent [in this region], “said Szalay, noting the handful of Southwest Virginia ballet alums that have gone on to dance professionally. Others have studied dance in college as a major or a minor. Practices for the new season start next month; the troupe is ramping up to 52 students this year from less than 40 last season.

Sometimes competition is healthy but “sometimes it’s unhealthy,” said Szalay, who is Hungarian by descent. He spent part of his child in Uruguay and danced with a national ballet company based in Caracas. “It works both ways.” SW Virginia Ballet teaches students from 10-18 but only his senior company and a handful of parents went with him to Prague.

The troupe also took four workshops while in Prague, including sessions on folk dance and pantomime, learning from some of the masters of the art. “We were the only group that took four classes – I challenged them,” said Szalay. There was a little time set aside for sightseeing as well.

On July 7 they took home the first award, for best costumes, earning a “huge” crystal trophy according to Szalay. Later on came the award for best classical dance company – competing against troupes from Spain, Belgium, Switzerland, Turkey, Israel, Japan, Egypt and other companies from the states. “I’m very proud of what they did,” said Szalay.

Molly Cook and John Canfield took home two of the six awards given out for Best Young Dancers in Prague. Canfield also dances for the national Ballet of Canada, “one of the only Americans accepted,” notes Szalay. “[Canfield] is like a sponge.”

Southwest Virginia Ballet draws students from Buena Vista, Lexington, Lynchburg and other parts of the region; they all come together at a rented studio in Salem every Saturday for a practice. Dancers train elsewhere during the week – as mandated by Szalay.

 “You need to be pushed … [there are] a lot of sacrifices,” said Szalay of the dedication needed to be a top-flight ballet dancer. That dedication paid off in Prague earlier this month.

See www.svballet.org for more information on the troupe.