New Jewel in the Crown

The Wilmington Ballet Company joins forces with US International Ballet to elevate classical dance in the Port City

By Gwenyfar Rohler     Photographs By Mark Steelman

Elizabeth Hester has a complicated relationship with walls. During her time as a civil engineer she had to learn how to work with them. During her early classical ballet training she was constrained by them. But for the last two decades she has been chipping away at them using a secret weapon: ballet. “For almost 20 years, Wilmington Ballet Company would organize groups to put on productions — all kinds of groups: schools, gymnasts, Special Olympics, Boy Scouts — and we would bring in guest professional artists,” Hester noted. It has been a long process, but two years ago it yielded an unexpected reward: a dream realized. “I met Walter and Ines and founded a professional company.” That is not a sentence that the little girl who started taking dance at the Community Arts Center in the 1970s ever thought she would say. But Walter Angelini and Ines Albertini moved here to found US International Ballet with Hester and perform as the principal dancers and co-artistic directors.

It isn’t just a dream realized — it really is the third jewel in her crown. Hester opened the Wilmington School of Ballet in 1999. This is in addition to the non-profit Wilmington Ballet Company that puts on community ballet productions. “The ballet company had a mission of bringing our community together, which at that time was not heavily arts [oriented], particularly ballet,” Hester recalled. For many people those two accomplishments would have been sufficient. To have started with dance in Wilmington before there was even a dedicated ballet studio, then attended NC School of the Arts and danced professionally would have been a dream realized for many young women. To return home and open a successful ballet school would have been more than many would hope for. But Hester is a woman of infinite possibility, boundless depth and incredible capability. Or perhaps we should just call her a Renaissance woman. After all, on top of her successful dance career, she has an engineering degree from NC State. But still, she dreamed.

“I put one ad in an international magazine because I had this dream and I wanted to see if I could make it work,” Hester explained. “My dream was to create a [professional] ballet company where old rules didn’t apply. The box of it has to look ‘this way’ didn’t apply — and in a couple of really specific ways. One was I really do believe that ballet has to innovate in a way that entertains the So You Think You Can Dance audience, or it is going to die.” Hester noted that the rigor and beauty of classical ballet can remain the structure to support a more awe-inspiring spectacle, but that some sort of openness to fusion and growth was key for her: “I also believe deeply that ballet has a lot of dysfunction in saying only one kind of body type can dance.”

Enter Angelini and Albertini. “They kept sending me information and honestly I thought, ‘These people don’t understand Wilmington.’” Hester read their resumes and couldn’t believe they would leave the markets they had worked in to come here. But Angelini and Albertini were sold after one visit with Hester. “I saw [them] as a way out of my realm. [They] actually did see eye to eye and they made a trip to meet me — and the more we talked, the more our visions were similar . . . honestly, I think that our background being so different, but our values being the same, is what makes it so strong.”

Angelini and Albertini have embraced their time here, including using the opportunity to develop new ballets such as last year’s sold out Vampires at Thalian Hall. For this season they have expanded it to a two-act, full-length ballet, which will return to Thalian Hall in the fall. In addition, this summer they will bring Midsummer Night’s Dream to the Wilson Center and at the holidays the much- beloved Nutcracker, which will also include dancers from the Wilmington Ballet Company. “They are two separate entities, they work together and they have an ongoing professional contracted relationship, and they benefit one another,” Hester says, explaining the relationship between the professional company, US International Ballet, and the Wilmington Ballet Company.

“The basis is ballet,” Angelini acknowledged when asked about their creative work. “But we train in contemporary, modern and other styles. We bring a lot of different other styles together.”

“And character work!” Albertini added. “All kinds of character work.”

“We have 30 professional dancers from everywhere,” Angelini noted. In addition to trainee dancers, there are ten paid dancers. “We audition all around the world. We are in the process to offer student visas.”

All that is part of the behind-the-scenes heavy lifting. What the audience sees — like their original ballet Vampires, not only has more sizzle but is harder to box as classical ballet. “They do for ballet what Cirque du Soleil did for acrobatics. They take ballet and make it awe-inspiring and appealing to the average person.” Hester shook her head and grinned. “Things that even my husband, who was a factory worker and runs the UPS store, says, ‘I would buy a ticket to that.’ I like to say they’re going to bring ballet into the 21st century.”

Gwenyfar Rohler spends her days managing her family’s bookstore, Old Books on Front Street, in downtown Wilmington.

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