The ballet class danced before a long mirror as the accompanist on the piano set the tempos.
Norbert Nirewicz, a member of Roanoke Ballet Theatre’s professional dance troupe, talked his fellow dancers and students through the exercises. “Changement, changement, changement and cut,” he said. “You got it, girlfriend.”
Mid-class, his boss, RBT executive and artistic director Sandra Meythaler, popped in wearing a denim jacket and sneakers. She’d just come from teaching a master class in Latin dance at Washington & Lee University.
Roanoke Ballet Theatre is in the midst of its 40th anniversary performance season, and Meythaler is the main reason RBT gets to celebrate that milestone. Head of the nonprofit since 2007, she took over when the institution had experienced a leadership and enrollment crisis and struggled to stage one show a year.
In her early years , she projected confidence that she didn’t always feel, she said, but it’s paid off. In their 40th season, which began in fall 2019, RBT will put on 19 performances, culminating in “Sleeping Beauty” on June 6 in Jefferson Center.
The professional company Meythaler founded in 2012 has 14 dancers, and the ballet school has 14 teachers for about 135 students.
“All this was just a dream so many years ago,” she said. “We are, I think, in our golden times.”
Meythaler said the advice she gives to other arts organizations having difficult times is, “Never give up if you love what you do, if you have a good product. If you don’t have a good product, you need to spend time in building a good product.”
According to Will Smith, a dancer in RBT’s professional company who doubles, as he put it, as “unofficial Roanoke Ballet historian,” Meythaler is RBT’s ninth director and more or less tied for longest serving with founding director Barbara Muller.
Muller, a former partner in the valley’s 92-year-old Floyd Ward School of Dance, created a proto-company in 1978, intended for dancers interested in intense study of ballet. The next year, her troupe evolved into Roanoke Ballet Theatre, putting on performances at venues like the Roanoke Civic Center and Roanoke College’s Olin Hall while rehearsing at Floyd Ward.
But in 1989, Muller sold her interest in Floyd Ward and the next year stepped down as artistic director at RBT, precipitating the first of many leadership shakeups .
The ballet stabilized and reached new heights after Hollins and George Washington University graduate Jenefer Davies became executive director in late 1995. Under Davies’ leadership, RBT became a member of Center in the Square, the Roanoke nonprofit created to provide low cost or rent free housing to arts organizations.
Davies also experimented with aerial ballet, choreographing a high-flying 2002 performance using rock climbing ropes on a five story wall above Kirk Avenue.
RBT made international news in 2004 with “NASCAR Ballet,” featuring dancers who simulated race cars to a commentary by NASCAR drivers and a sports announcer.
Davies stepped down as executive director in 2006 and went on to found Washington and Lee’s innovative dance program.
Five years before she left, Davies ensured RBT’s longevity by recruiting Meythaler, a principal ballerina with the National Ballet of Ecuador who had just moved to Southwest Virginia with her family. Meythaler didn’t expect at the time that she would end up as RBT’s director.
Saturday, in RBT’s studio at 1318 Grandin Road S.W., the company rehearsed some passages from “Sleeping Beauty.” Two of the professional dancers, Nick Holtz and LeeAnn Elder, also practiced a pas de deux from “Don Quixote,” which they’ll perform Feb. 15 at the studio in the latest of the ballet’s quarterly “Black Box” shows.
As rehearsals went on, Meythaler practically bubbled with excitement over the new developments she could report. Rolando Sarabia, a nationally known ballet dancer once called “the Cuban Nijinsky,” now with the Washington Ballet in D.C., has signed on with RBT as artistic consultant. The Roanoke ballet is planning its second Gala of the Arts, bringing together the arts organizations RBT has collaborated with throughout the season.
She was especially excited about recruiting James Sudbury, a pianist who will provide live music as the school’s students learn.
“It’s a beautiful romance between music and dance,” she said. “They go together.”