Throughout time and across cultures, the summer solstice has been a time of giddy celebration. It signifies new beginnings, abundance, and beauty. On this year’s longest day, those who gather at Sleepy Hollow Country Club for the Westchester Ballet Company (WBC) Gala will feel they’ve stepped onto the set of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Young fairies will leap and twirl, food will sizzle, cold drinks will sparkle, and the sunset will spread over the Hudson River like honey.
Westchester Ballet Company is a cultural treasure at the heart of our county, and it needs to be protected. Founded in Ossining by Iris Merrick in 1950, it is one of the oldest and most respected regional, nonprofit youth ballet companies in the country. Merrick was born to Russian immigrants and grew up in Wisconsin before moving to New York City to study dance.
She was accepted into the renowned School of American Ballet where she studied with Michel Fokine, influential Russian ballet master and choreographer. Merrick performed and toured professionally before moving up to Westchester with her children to open her own ballet company.
Today, WBC is known for its annual Nutcracker show, a holiday tradition that draws thousands of Westchester families.
In 1950, WBC was simply a ballet school for those with a serious love of dance. Merrick, then a single mom of three, led the company for 30 years. After she retired, the company was run by a former principal dancer with the Bucharest Opera Ballet Company. Then in 1986, two new artistic directors took over: American Beth Fitz-Logrea and Romanian Jean Logrea, both former principal dancers with Opernhaus Ballet. Under their direction, WBC became a separate nonprofit performing arts organization, with the Logrea Dance Academy serving as its official school.
Much has changed in the past 72 years, both in the arts and in the wider world, but WBC has maintained its high level of classical European ballet training and professional productions.
WBC is made up of about 100 young dancers aged 6-18 from all over Westchester. “Our company reflects the true diversity of Westchester,” Amy Harte, WBC’s Board President, says.
The company is committed to creating accessibility, both in affordable access to its performances and to school-aged children who want to dance with WBC. It strives to promote positive social change in the community and further diversify the art form by eliminating financial barriers.
“I’ve seen tears in people’s eyes as they’ve walked out of the performances,” Harte says. “And I’ve seen kids transformed by the experience of getting that first opportunity to dance in our Nutcracker… They see what a gift it is to perform for many people who’ve never seen a live performance, let alone a live ballet performance before.”
The Gala—which will honor the family of Iris Merrick as well as alumnus Dr. Ari Brandsdorfer, the Montefiore Health System, and Albert Einstein College of Medicine—will include dinner and drinks, awards, a silent auction, and a live ballet performance (an excerpt from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, of course).
Funds raised are critical to preserving the 72-year-old nonprofit performing arts organization. Tickets are on sale through June 11.
Caedra Scott-Flaherty is a writer living in Croton-on-Hudson. Find her at Caedra.com.