History of Ballet in Cleveland

CLEVELAND BALLET refers to three ballet companies in the city’s history. The first Cleveland Ballet (alternatively known as the Popeloff Ballet) was incorporated in 1935 by RUSSIAN émigré dancer Sergei Popeloff and became inactive in 1942. The second ballet, created in 1972 by Dennis Nahat and IAN HORVATH, lasted in Cleveland until 2000 when it moved to San Jose, and eventually closed there, in 2016. The third and current ballet was formed in 2014 by Russian-American businessman and Odessa native Michael Krasnyansky and his wife, Puerto Rican-born artistic director Gladisa Guadalupe. This current Cleveland Ballet, based at PLAYHOUSE SQUARE, has earned critical acclaim and is now (2019) one of the fastest growing ballet companies in the nation.

A character dancer with Anna Pavlova, Sergei Popeloff had been teaching DANCE in Cleveland since 1921. Based in Cleveland’s Carnegie Hall, Popeloff’s Cleveland Ballet was officially incorporated in 1935 and held its first performance in February of that year. Entitled A Russian Fantasy, this performance was a two-day winter recital and art exhibition at the Higbee Children’s Theater, sponsored by the WOMAN’S HOSPITAL. In April of the following year, the company appeared alongside the new orchestral group, the Clevelandaires, for a joint performance at SEVERANCE HALL. Richard Rychtarik, the Prague-born set designer for the CLEVELAND PLAY HOUSE, the CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA, and eventually, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, was officially named the set designer for the ballet that same year. Earlier, Rychtarik had won acclaim for his set designs on the American premiere of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District in Cleveland, performed by the Cleveland Orchestra under the conductorship of ARTUR RODZINSKI. The ballet had a very successful run in the city during the late 1930s and early 1940s and was widely praised by Cleveland’s leading newspapers. HERBERT ELWELL, the Music Critic for THE PLAIN DEALER, noted that the ballet demonstrated great potential to be one of Cleveland’s major cultural institutions. However, despite its promising start, the company became inactive by the beginning of 1942. That year, Popeloff began teaching dance at Billy Tilton’s Dance Studio in the HIPPODROME. After WORLD WAR II, he returned to independently teaching dance, this time at Playhouse Square, from 1946 to 1952. However, by this time, Cleveland Ballet company performances had completely ceased. Although active for only six full years, the original Cleveland Ballet laid the foundation for its successors.

In 1972, the second Cleveland Ballet was formed by Dennis Nahat and Ian Horvath. Its first public performance was staged at the HANNA THEATER on November 16, 1976. Within a few seasons, taped music was replaced by the OHIO CHAMBER ORCHESTRA, and in 1981 the company presented its first full-length story ballet, The Nutcracker, which quickly became an annual Cleveland holiday tradition. Full-length productions of Coppelia, Romeo and Juliet, and Swan Lake were added to the repertory. The company became known for its eclectic style, performing these standards of the classical literature alongside many modern works. In 1984 Horvath resigned as co-artistic director, leaving Nahat solely responsible for the company as well as for the direction of the School of Cleveland Ballet. The same year, Cleveland Ballet moved to a permanent home in the STATE THEATER in Playhouse Square. In 1986 it established a co-venture with a second base in San Jose, California, where the company became known as San Jose Cleveland Ballet. Its greatest triumph came as a featured ballet company during the 1990 Edinburgh Festival performing The Overcoat with the late Rudolf Nureyev. Despite generous support from institutions and individuals, financial problems forced the company to seek innovative methods of survival. Following a successful campaign in 1992 to retire $4 million of debt, Nahat arranged a partnership with Atlanta Ballet and Ballet Nuevo Mundo de Caracas in which the two companies would share productions and dancers. The Ballet continued to struggle financially throughout the 1990s. After a failed tour of the costly 1999 production of a new evening length ballet, Blue Suede Shoes, and subsequent financial crises, the organization's board of trustees made the decision to cease operations in September 2000, just prior to the organization's 25th anniversary. Artistic director Dennis Nahat and several other members of the company moved to San Jose where, in 2004, they continued to perform as the San Jose Ballet. Nahat was ousted by board chairman John Fry in 2011 amid internal tensions. In 2013, after an interim period led by Raymond Rodriguez and Wes Chapman, José Manuel Carreño became the new artistic director of the company, which assumed the name Silicon Valley Ballet. However, despite this promising new start, the ballet was unable to overcome its financial difficulties and permanently closed in 2016.

The current Cleveland Ballet was the vision of Gladisa Guadalupe, a ballet dancer and alumna of the School of American Ballet in New York, where she studied under George Balanchine. She co-founded the new ballet with her husband Michael Krasnyansky in 2014. Its first performance in October 2015, Past. Present. Future, was held at the Ohio Theatre at Playhouse Square. The performance proved to be a commercial and critical success and paved the way for the ballet’s next performance in spring 2016, Coppélia, choreographed by Ramón Oller. This show received rave reviews and performed to sold-out houses. The ballet built on these initial successes with subsequent successful performances, offering a mixed repertoire of the classic and the modern. It also re-introduced regular holiday performances of The Nutcracker, a seasonal tradition in Cleveland. In 2017, the ballet became a resident company at Playhouse Square. Now entering its fifth season, the fast-growing ballet is quickly emerging as a major player on Cleveland’s cultural scene.

Updated by Pietro A. Shakarian
The Ohio State University