Where walls came down: The early history of the Vail Dance Festival (part 1 of 2) | VailDaily.com

Where walls came down: The early history of the Vail Dance Festival (part 1 of 2)

Tom Boyd
Special to the Daily

Editor's note: This is the first part of a two-part series on the history of the Vail Dance Festival. Catch the second part in the Sunday, Aug. 5, edition of the Vail Daily.

alot can happen in 30 years.

Take the Vail Dance Festival, for example, which commenced its 30th year this summer on Saturday, July 28, and runs through Saturday, Aug 11. What began as an opportunistic chance to fill the performance space at the then-brand-new Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater has blossomed into one of the most dynamic collections of dance talent available anywhere in the world.

Today, the festival, which is hosted by the Vail Valley Foundation each summer, is a key component of culture for the Vail community and for the dance world at large.

But in 1989, no one who took part was thinking about a decades-long run. Even a few years in, as an annual dance event in Vail began to take shape in the early '90s, the road to success looked steep and intimidating.

The world of dance had several historic epicenters: New York, Moscow, Paris, Stuttgart, London … and perhaps Havana, San Francisco or Shanghai. The idea of adding Vail to this venerable list was almost laughable. Many critics of the day did, in fact, scoff at the idea. After all, it is many miles — and a lot of altitude — to travel from the Theatre de La Ville to Ford Amphitheater.

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And yet, this tiny mountain town in Colorado, just 23 years past its 1966 incorporation date, set its heart on becoming a summertime epicenter of the dance world and, against incredible odds, somehow succeeded.

The Russians are coming

Today, Russian life is available for all to see via millions of dash-cams and Twitter accounts. But in 1989, any glimpse of life on the other side of the Iron Curtain's information firewall was exceedingly rare.

Then, in 1989, the legendary Bolshoi Ballet Academy dancers of the Soviet Union became authorized to perform in the United States. A performance date scheduled for Houston was cancelled, the troupe had an open date, and this news reached the ear of Jerry Jones, then president of Beaver Creek Resort.

Jones took the idea to a group that included Vail Valley Foundation President and CEO Bob Knous, Vail Valley Foundation Vice President Lissa Macintosh Tyler, Vail Valley Foundation Director of the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater Melody Kenninton and soon-to-be Vail Valley Foundation President and CEO John Garnsey. In late May of 1989, Tyler hopped on a plane to San Diego to find out more and met with manager Mary Ellen Devery to explore the idea of a performance in Vail.

Many credit Knous and Tyler with being the first to understand the long-term value of hosting the world-famous Bolshoi Academy, but who would fund it?

With support from President and Mrs. Gerald R. Ford and Foundation Board Chairman Harry Frampton, Knous rallied a host of patrons that included Oscar Tang, Henry Kravis and Dick Swig, who ensured the Bolshoi Academy could perform that summer in Vail.

Donna and Gil Giordano, Judy and Howard Berkowitz, Marlene and John Boll, Sheika and Pepi Gramshammer and several others were also instrumental in supporting the early years.

"We started preparing right away," Tyler said. "It was shake-and-bake — as often happens with the Foundation, it was like, 'we're not exactly sure how, but we're going to make this happen.'"

Fortunately, Vail already had a few insightful patrons who understood the contribution dance could make to a cultural community. Betty Ford, for example, performed with the iconic Martha Graham Dance Company at Carnegie Hall and later, with her husband, cultivated a longstanding patronage of dance.

Tang, like the Berkowitz' and others, had grown to appreciate the art form at dance theaters in New York City and saw a bright future for Vail, and the Ford Amphitheater, if it could begin a tradition of hosting high-level performances.

"At that time, we had a phenomenal amount of physical activities — hiking and biking in the summer, golf was already becoming a factor — but there was much more work to be done in terms of culture," Tang said.

"I felt that dance would have a good chance to succeed, and I was very interested in seeing the Vail Valley Foundation promote dance as a cultural activity."

At the time, the Bolshoi Academy visit was a one-off performance, a chance to fill the brand-new stage at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater with something special.

"Many people in Colorado had never seen a group of Russian performers," said John Dakin, the Vail Valley Foundation's spokesperson at the time. "There was so much excitement surrounding the Academy's arrival in Vail that school children showed up with small U.S. and Russian flags and homemade signs to welcome the dancers to Vail."

Rain dance

When that fateful first performance arrived, so did heavy rain. At the time, the Ford Amphitheater was not very well covered, and everyone in the audience was getting drenched in the downpour before the performance even began.

Dakin summarized the scene for the Festival's 25th anniversary:

Madame (Sophia N.) Golovkina peered out into the audience from backstage and wondered why all these crazy Americans were sitting in the rain, waiting for her students to perform. If this were Russia, then all of those people would have been home by now, but this was not Russia, and these people weren't leaving.

"They have come to see us," Golovkina announced to her students, "and we will perform for them."

Three sold-out performances later, a special friendship had been formed between the Vail Valley and the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, and Vail was well on its way to becoming a dance destination.

"That first night in the rain, I was in the back of the Ford Amphitheater lawn watching, and Madame Golovkina was backstage with her viewpoint watching, and we both saw that no one left," Knous said. "You just knew right then, this was something special. I mean, not a soul moved off that grass. So that was definitely impactful and became the seed that helped us grow as we moved forward."

The connection between Golovkina and Knous, and between so many Americans and Russians, created an added layer to the festival, so it seemed a natural next step to begin a school. Within days of arriving, Golovkina was working with Knous, Tyler, Giordano and others to help establish the Bolshoi Academy at Vail.

"Madame Golovkina was exactly as I imagined when I met her in Vail," Knous said. "She had a grip on all the performers, all the KGB that traveled with them (because that's the way it was — they were protected the whole time), and she was totally in charge on and off the dance floor."

Golovkina, Tyler and Knous led the charge to create the Bolshoi Academy at Vail, but it was Giordano and her late husband, Gil, who were instrumental in providing funding for the school and later became the main pillars of support that built the Vail International Dance Festival from the ground up.

"We all loved the performances so much, and we wanted to give back," Donna Giordano said. "It was so worth it, and it just kept growing and growing. It was a very special time."

Powerful and lasting friendships were formed. The late Arte Davies put together a series of small social events that broke down cultural barriers and created lifelong memories. The Vail Valley Foundation's Allie Coppeak, arm in arm with Davies and supported by the Fords, encouraged Vail's community to put time, talent and funding behind the fledgling Vail dance community.

The Bolshoi Academy had been a success — its first year, 1990, saw 44 American students take part — but it became increasingly clear to many, including Tyler, that the Vail Valley Foundation needed some additional guidance and expertise.

"It was a fantastic, exciting era, but we didn't know what the heck we were doing," she said. "I was as far from that world as you could get in terms of knowledge or expertise, but we worked with people from the Colorado Ballet, and we had people step in like Ann Powell, founder of the Vail Dance Academy — she was critical."

Then Vail once again benefited from a stroke of luck: It just so happened that Katherine Kersten, the school director of the nationally recognized Milwaukee Ballet, was a big fan of Vail and in 1992 agreed to become managing director of the Bolshoi Academy.

Kersten knew exactly where to go and what to do with this new blossoming of dance in the Rockies, helping begin a new, international, era for the Festival.

Tom Boyd is former editor of the Vail Trail newspaper and current director of public relations and communications for the Vail Valley Foundation.

Vail Dance Festival timeline

1989: The Bolshoi Ballet Academy of Moscow makes its first appearance on the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater stage.

1990: The Vail Valley Foundation and local patrons help Madame Sophia N. Golovkina establish the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Vail; 44 American students take part.

1992: The Bolshoi Ballet Academy at Vail grows to a three-week residency, culminating in four sold-out performances at the Ford Amphitheater.

1992: Katherine Kersten, school director for the nationally recognized Milwaukee Ballet, is named managing director of the Bolshoi Ballet Academy at Vail.

1993: Katherine Kersten, with support from local patrons and sponsorship from Paul Mitchell, helps establish Paul Mitchell International Evenings of Dance.

1993: New York City Ballet principal dancer Damian Woetzel performs for the first time in Vail as part of the Paul Mitchell International Evenings of Dance.

1995: The International Dance Teacher’s Conference takes place in Vail, along with the creation of the Vail International Workshop for young dance students.

1998: Katherine Kersten recommends the commissioning of new works at the event, now known as the Vail International Dance Festival.

2006: Upon Katherine Kersten’s retirement, Damian Woetzel is named new artistic director for the festival.

2007: Celebrate the Beat program has its inaugural year, supported by New York City Ballet principal dancer Heather Watts.

2007: Woetzel introduces UpClose series, Dancing in the Streets and Village Vignettes and Dance for $20.xx, ushering in a new era for the Vail International Dance Festival.

2011: Now: Premieres evening of original programming is launched.

2013: The festival celebrates 25 years.

2015: The Community Arts Access Program is established to provide broader access to the arts for those who might otherwise not attend due to cultural or economic reasons.

2017: The festival simplifies its name to Vail Dance Festival and celebrates a record year in terms of ticket sales, revenue and attendance.

2018: The Vail Dance Festival celebrates 30 years.