Ballet Florida standout Opdenaker launches new company tonight

Written by Sharon McDaniel on 06 February 2010.

It was so hard to see him go.

Dancer Jerry Opdenaker retired from Ballet Florida in 2006 after 14 years with West Palm Beach’s resident contemporary dance and ballet company. He showed so much personality, imagination, even mischief in his dancing -- especially, he confided, when he was unrecognizable; say, costumed as a Cinderella stepsister or Nutcracker Mouse King.

But it’s so good to see him back.

Opdenaker is returning to the stage with the dance company he founded this past summer, O Dance. An organizer and can-do guy from way back, Opdenaker also founded and directed Ballet Florida’s choreographic workshop, Step Ahead. This educational and creative spinoff of his former company invited aspiring and emerging choreographers and lighting designers from the community and elsewhere to see their work onstage performed by professional dancers and appreciated by enthusiastic audiences

The 10-year-old Step Ahead program ended several years ago. Then Ballet Florida went dark last summer after 23 years. But Opdenaker, it seems, already had plans that pick up where both enterprises left off.

At 8 p.m. tonight, O Dance presents its inaugural performance in the Duncan Theatre at Palm Beach State College in Lake Worth. The program includes eight new ballets – among them, four world premieres -- by five choreographers from South Florida, Texas and California. Fifteen professional dancers and eight apprentices will perform, and a talk-back with the artists will follow the program.

O Dance is so new that Opdenaker was surprised when addressed as “Mr. Artistic Director."

“That’s nice to hear!” responds the 44-year-old Pennsylvania native, savoring the moment. “But you know where I am right now? I’m at Home Depot, looking for stuff for sets! So I’m also head carpenter – oh, and nonprofit application writer. I’m wearing very many hats. I’m going crazy right now, but I am so happy!”

The hat-shifting began in summer 2009 when Opdenaker thought of reviving Step Ahead, the annual workshop and performance for emerging choreographers. (He founded it at Ballet Florida in the 1990s and directed it until it ended in 2005.)

“It started as a project, much like Step Ahead,” recalls Opdenaker, who danced for 22 years with Pennsylvania Ballet, Kansas City Ballet and Ballet Florida. “I wanted to continue the traditional program for the emerging artist for choreography and lighting design. But it morphed into something larger.”

O Dance is a step up from Step Ahead, though. It adds a multi-arts component which on Saturday will feature the work of four visual artists. As Opdenaker explains on the troupe’s Web site,, O Dance aims “to provide a forum for dance and visual artists … with the focus on the exploration of dance and theater."

For the inaugural performance, choreographers were encouraged to work with a visual artist or use an existing piece of art for inspiration. Among the artist-to-artist collaborations that Opdenaker encouraged were connecting with a composer for new music or with a video artist to create a new environment on stage.

California-based choreographer Andrea Dawn Shelley, a previous Step Ahead participant with many South Florida connections, is working with local visual artist Liz Atzberger, whose recent exhibit intrigued her.

“Liz took a common object -- zip ties -- strung them together in a web effect, so that they cascaded down and swirled around,” says Opdenaker, describing the Atzberger installation. Shelley, a Miami native, loved the concept, and wanted something similar in black-and-white, combined with an 8 foot-by-8 foot cube, like an open storage facility that you can see through.

Dancer and artistic environment would then merge on stage, says Opdenaker, “with the dancer coming in and out of it, as if it’s a home to get away from or into. (The dancer is able to) play with the art objects that Liz is creating. It’s not like a backdrop; the art is interactive and tactile, and dictates some new dance movements, too.”

Along with the dancer’s costume, hand-painted by Atzberger, the dance-art is one unified concept bringing out the best of both artists, says Opdenaker. Also transforming the stage are works of accomplished visual artists Sinisa Kukec, Nigel Van Wieck and Ann Cadaret. Overseeing the inaugural program and four lighting designers is the familiar Ballet Florida artist and production manager Albert Mathers.

Of Opdenaker’s two works for tonight, one is a revival, the other a new ballet in teamwork with a New York City visual artist/videographer. Other choreographers are Marc Spielberger (Miami City Ballet principal) and Stacey Downs (Palm Beach Ballet Center).

Newcomers include Miami YoungArts modern-dance finalist Austin Goodwin (Plano, Texas) and Spencer Gavin Hering who, as well as Andrea Dawn Shelley, was a former Maximum Dance/Ballet Gamonet dancer. Hering and Shelley are now co-founders of the new company Infinite Movement Ever Expanding (IMEE) in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Among the cast’s 15 exceptional dancers are returning Ballet Florida artists -- retired ballerina Tina Martin, plus Shannon Smith – and Lily Ojea (Florida Classical Ballet), Will Hoppe (Boca Ballet Theatre), Ida Saki (Plano, Texas), Viky Smith (Dance Academy of North Lauderdale) and Maribel Modrono (retired principal, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre). Dancers Paul Thrussell (former principal, Boston Ballet) and Cristian Laverde König (former principal, Milwaukee Ballet) are Step Ahead alumni. The performers also include eight apprentices.

For ever-practical Opdenaker, creating ballets has never been far from his thoughts. Even when he joined Ballet Florida in 1992, he was asking himself what he wanted to do when he stopped performing. But there was a problem: How and where does a performer learn to create?

“There’s no school you can go to,” complained the then-choreographer-in-the-making. With Ballet Florida’s blessing – but no cash – Opdenaker developed the annual Step Ahead program which, around 1996, began reaching out to like-minded dancer-choreographers. It offered a laboratory where they could try out their best ideas and new moves on professional colleagues. Because it was scheduled after each Ballet Florida season ended, the workshop did not have to compete for rehearsal time and space.

It wasn't just the choreographers who benefited from hands-on experimentation. Step Ahead also offered local theater tech students in high school and college the chance to create lighting designs for new ballets.

Step Ahead was a stepping stone for a committed, gifted choreographer such as Opdenaker. One of his new ballets, Coeur de Basque, was presented in New York City in 2003, then by Ballet Florida during its 2003-04 season and Ballet Gamonet in Miami in 2005. The National Endowment for the Arts awarded two Access to Artistic Excellence grants to Step Ahead.

With his polished skills, Opdenaker made it onto some very impressive invitation lists: New York City Ballet’s Choreographic Institute (2005) and the National Choreographic Initiative (California, 2007). Still, Opdenaker knew he had to go farther.

“I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface,” he says. “And with the demise of Ballet Florida and Ballet Gamonet, I’ve lost my choreography lab. I needed -- under the guise of creating a company – to get the pieces that were inside of me out.”

Also, what about works like Coeur de Basque? How would they become better-known without local companies to champion them?

Opdenaker was envisioning the worst: no more performances of his work unless he moved out of state and found another dance company or artistic director to sponsor him. Even without the down economy, he adds, “It’s so hard to convince someone to take you on as a resident choreographer.”

Instead, he says, “(O Dance) just feel into my lap, sort of. So many people are supporting the idea and saying ‘You should really do this -- You are good at this kind of organizing.’”

O Dance has already cleared several hurdles. It is officially a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. It even has partners: the Duncan Theatre and the new Florida Dance Conservatory (co-owned and co-directed by dancer Tina Martin), one of the troupe’s rehearsal sites. O Dance has also formed an alliance with the Center for Creative Education and will become the resident dance company for its upcoming new facility.

So does that mean that O Dance is indeed a new company, not just a new project?

Opdenaker laughs and says: “Palm Beach County is starved for creative dance, and West Palm Beach is getting the progressive edge -- it could become a leader in the art form of dance.

“Right now, this is only one program I have in mind. I would love to see (O Dance) as an ongoing entity. But I’m going to hold back on an answer until I see it on Saturday! I have a feeling it’s going to take off.”

O Dance gives its inaugural performance at tonight at the Duncan Theatre, Palm Beach State College, 4200 Congress Ave., Lake Worth. Artistic Director Jerry Opdenaker and four new choreographers will present new eight works performed by 15 professional dancers and eight apprentices (visit The performance begins at 8 p.m. For tickets -- $27, $10 for students – call (561) 868-3309.

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