Image courtesy Jane Green
Cincinnati Ballet turns 50 this year, and we asked the company’s very first principal dancer, Jane Green, to give us a glimpse back in time. We talk with the former ballerina (and UC’s first graduate to earn a bachelor’s in dance) about the company’s early years, her favorite roles, and why dancers are so superstitious. See her speak at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Rookwood Pavilion at the Cincinnati Ballet 50th Anniversary Celebration discussion panel on October 22.
How did you first get involved with Cincinnati Ballet? Back in 1963, Cincinnati Ballet Company was founded and I was hired as the very first principal dancer. I was 15. By 1970, we were a professional company with 10 salaried dancers.
You must have started dancing when you were very young. Oh I was —I took classes in the old Shillito Mansion at the College Conservatory of Music. By the time I turned 12, I was going every day after school. We lived in Northern Kentucky, so we had to take two buses to get there. I learned how to change into my dance clothes in the back of the bus, pulling my leotard on under my sweater and so on.
What were those early years at the company like? They were wonderful. We were like a family and we’d all go out to dinner after practice and do everything together. It was very hard to date, though—if you tried to bring a boyfriend to a dance event all everyone talked about was dance and ballet, and they’d just be like, “uhhh…”
We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were pioneers. It was an important and huge opportunity. We went on all these fantastic tours and everyone was on our side. We all just loved to dance so much. We had passion and dedication and even after practice none of us wanted to go home. We were fierce.
What were some of the first places you performed? We went to a school in Pikeville, Ky., where no one had seen dance before. This was a mining town: the school had no dressing room, no doors on the bathroom stalls. It was very rustic. We performed in the gymnasium. After the performance, the kids all ran up on the stage and were dancing on their tiptoes in their gym shoes and sneakers. They all just wanted to dance!
We performed a lot at Music Hall and Playhouse in the Park. We were able to attend the famous Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Berkshire, Mass., too, among others.
What was your favorite role as a dancer? One of my favorite roles was as the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Nutcracker. Dame Alicia Markova, a well-known ballerina and teacher from London, taught me the grand pas de deux for the role. I had the lead in the Concierto Barroco, too, which is another of my favorites.
I hear dancers are a somewhat superstitious bunch. Yes, we are! I had a friend who would line up 30 bobby pins on her dressing table and count them every day before putting them in her bun. Some dancers wear one special pair of earrings for every performance. All dancers keep some sort of silly trinket on their dressing table for luck. And never tell a ballerina “good luck” because that’s bad luck. You should say, “Go break a leg,” instead.
How you treat your pointe shoes is important too. I would always sew the ribbons of my shoes on after tying them. If a ribbon comes untied during a performance, you could be fined or fired!
That’s pretty strict. It is. You could also be fired if your hair comes undone—we’d use Vaseline to make sure our hair buns stayed slicked back!
Have you seen ballet change over the last 50 years? Oh yes, definitely. Every 10 years, a new set of dancers arrived. Each year got better: We were doing double and triple pirouettes, now they’re doing six pirouettes and getting stuck on the ceiling and someone has to help them down! I think it’s because the pros have become the teachers. We teach each new set of dancers what we know and it just kind of builds from there.
You recently retired in May after 31 years heading NKU’s theater department. What are you up to these days? I’ve taught dance classes at the Jewish Community Center since 1979, and I still teach two classes there. I also take Pilates and ballet classes, I walk on Wednesdays with friends, and I do freelance choreography. I still haven’t really gotten used to having more time for things besides dance, but I enjoy it.