Beth McLeish grew up a student by day and a professionally trained ballet dancer by night.
“I never had time to be with family or have any sort of normal life as a kid,” McLeish said.
Today, she is the founder and artistic director of a hidden gem: a Fort Wayne educational institute that allows young dancers the opportunity to have the best of both worlds.
The Project Ballet Academic Conservatory is designed for young elite performers to spend mornings learning reading, writing and arithmetic until 12:45 p.m., when they can begin training.
“So our concept was that by creating an all-in-one type of organization that our students could get their ballet training as part of their school day and be done at a normal time and still be able to have a normal family life and a normal kid life,” McLeish said. “That was our vision.”
The majority of students stay onsite to study ballet while the other portion go off to train in their specific performing art or sport.
“About two-thirds of the students are classically trained here, but then we also have many students who are either elite musicians or tennis players,” McLeish said. “We have a great relationship with the Fort Wayne Figure Skating Club. Many of their high-ranking skaters are coming here to this school.”
Growing in size
This model appears to be successful. According to McLeish, when Project Ballet was founded in 2004 they took in eight students. Now, their program has grown to serve a variety of young performers from grades three to twelve with an addition of an after school-hours program for children as young as three years old.
“We have grown to 450 students that are directly enrolled here at Project Ballet,” McLeish told Whatzup.
Back in 2004, the organization started with just McLeish and her brother. Today, while her brother is no longer a part of the organization, Project Ballet employs more than 20 people. This talented staff is made up of esteemed academic instructors.
McLeish said this is another way which her organization enriches the community.
“We have brought in a lot of talent to Fort Wayne,” she said. “Many of our teachers who are in our ballet or academic department are not native to Fort Wayne and they have come here to work here at the amazing school.”
The organization recently wrapped up a capital campaign and they are about one year into operating in their newly renovated facility in the Northcrest Shopping Center.
From the hard work and dedication from their staff and board and the generosity of their donors, Project Ballet was able to create a space specifically outfitted for their needs.
“It is something that still feels really fresh and new around here,” McLeish said. “We have four really large studios, a wing for all of our classroom activities, really spacious, and beautiful lobby for our parents to wait in and a cafe area. It’s been really exciting to have a space that better supports our mission and our organization.”
Not only has the institute grown in size, but it has also built up quite a reputation. Bringing in world-class choreographers to train their young dancers, Project Ballet sends alumni to go on to top universities and professional dance companies.
McLeish said watching esteemed alumni return to teach students is one of the things that makes her most proud of the institution.
“Seeing alumni who are making names for themselves in this profession and coming back now and teaching our students and who are opening doors for our students at the different places that they are working, that is one of the best parts that I have seen in the past 15 years is this alumni network,” she said. “What an impact our little school here in Fort Wayne, Indiana, is making on the national ballet community.”
McLeish also said she is proud of the top-notch performances her students are able to provide to the local community.
“We find it really important for our students to be performing relevant, inspiring, challenging works.”
By bringing in highly esteemed guest choreographers, Project Ballet ensures their students are receiving the very best training and bringing professional performances to Fort Wayne and eventually to a national audience.
“Being able to grow our organization to the point where we can perform works by master choreographers has been really crucial to the growth and to the improvement of our training here for our students,” McLeish said.
“What they’re performing here at Project Ballet mirrors the work that they perform on the professional stage.”
Project Ballet alumni go on to receive scholarships and perform at top-tier dance schools such as Pacific Northwest Ballet Professional Division, Ballet Chicago Studio Company, and IU Jacob School of Music.
From there, many go on to contract with professional dance companies like New York City Ballet, Ballet Austin, and San Diego City Ballet.
With a long resume of nationally significant alumni, Project Ballet has made a name for itself as an elite educational and training institute.
“We have a couple of kids in particular who are 13 or 14 years old who are really well known on the national level and are being looked at as really promising upcoming artists,” McLeish said. “It is exciting to work with kids like that, especially when they have been here since they were 3 or 4 years old. After 10 years of working with them to see them on the verge of a professional career is really exciting.”
Building an audience for dance
Hosting elite-level ballet performances in Fort Wayne is just one way Project Ballet leaves their stamp on Northeast Indiana. The institute sees it as their responsibility to educate the community and build an audience for dance.
McLeish said Project Ballet and other organizations like Fort Wayne Dance Collective are accomplishing this by working together to encourage community members to learn about their specific organization and then experience others.
“It’s really a way to build an audience for a less popular art form in Fort Wayne and to start to create that opportunity for people,” McLeish said. “Dance is so unique because you can’t go to a museum to see dance. You really can’t watch it on film or on the internet to adequately experience it. You have to see it live.”
Community members have the opportunity to see 13 different and remarkable Project Ballet stage performances each year.
Currently, the dancers are rehearsing and preparing production for their spring concert series in May. Folks in Northeast Indiana can also enjoy Project Ballet this year in their premiere as the official Nutcracker performance at the Embassy.
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