The Bristol Ballet at 75: “A Bedrock Institution” in an Historic VA/TN Border Town
By Keith Martin
The regional ballet movement in America is a relatively recent occurrence in the performing arts world with most companies founded in the mid-1970s, ‘80s and even more recently. Bristol Ballet (BB) was created by the late visionary Constance Hardinge in 1948, the same year that the famed New York City Ballet was founded; both institutions are celebrating their 75th anniversary years this season.
By one estimate, there are currently 893 ballet companies in the U.S. that combine to employ 13,157 people, earn more than $916 million in annual revenue each year, and have assets of over $2 billion. An analysis of the entire list finds that a vast majority of these troupes are in major urban areas and population centers with large audiences that can support the art form.
Yet the twin cities of Bristol, Virginia, and Bristol, Tennessee, with a combined population of only 44,500+ residents, are proud that the Bristol Ballet calls their community home.
“Miss Hardinge” began with a school for the training of young people in the art of dance. In 1959, she founded a performing company, comprised of 12 young dancers—10 girls and two boys—between the ages of 13 and 15. This company grew in stature and became a leading regional ballet company in the nation. It has been a member of the Southeastern Regional Ballet Association, had many renowned guest teachers and choreographers, and trained many dancers who have gone on to professional dance careers. In 1965, Maria Tallchief, noted American ballerina and founder of the Chicago City Ballet, visited Bristol Ballet to select a handful of young students to receive Ford Foundation Scholarships to pay their tuition for studies at Bristol Ballet.
In 1966, Bristol Ballet produced the area’s first Nutcracker ballet, which has become a long-standing favorite of children and adults alike. Other productions have received regional acclaim, such as Mountain Ballad, The Cloistered, and Recess—all original works by Hardinge. Noted choreographers have created original works for the company, including Robert Barnette, Richard and Christina Munro, and Norbert Vesack.
Hardinge was named Head of the Dance Department of Virginia Intermont College (VI) in 1972, and the ballet company expanded to include dancers studying at VI as well as local members. The company grew to its largest and most recognized presence during these years. VI’s Dance Department grew to about 60, the most the college had ever seen. Fourteen years later, the company returned to its origins and was largely a regional company of local dancers, still receiving recognition for its outstanding work in training dancers and educating the public about dance.
Bristol Ballet’s mission is to train and educate people about the art of dance, through exceptional ballet training for youth, and through productions for the public. During its long history, the organization has served tens of thousands of young dancers and enthusiastic audience members. Children are the primary focus of its educational efforts; however, educating and entertaining everyone in the public are important.
A year after Hardinge’s death in 1992, the school and company were incorporated as one non-profit entity, run by a board of directors and an artistic director. Michele Plescia returned to the Tri-Cities area in 2004 and became Artistic Director, and upon her retirement on July 1, 2022, became Artistic Director Emeritus and continues today as a part-time instructor. Amanda Hairston and Moira Frazier Ostrander took the reins from Plescia and continue to lead Bristol Ballet today.
A second generation BB dancer and instructor, Hairston began her studies at age three under the direction of Maryann Snyder, went on to study at Virginia School of the Arts, then became a trainee and merit scholarship recipient at Richmond Ballet, where this writer had the privilege of watching her dance in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Giselle, Windows, Sleeping Beauty,and The Nutcracker. Concurrently, Hairston earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Virginia Commonwealth University, joining the BB as an instructor in 2018 and rising to Artistic and Development Director in 2022.
Ostrander, Artistic and School of Ballet Director, grew up in Johnson City and danced with Highlands Ballet in Abingdon, performing in featured roles at Bristol’s Paramount Theater. She attended ballet summer intensives at Nutmeg Conservatory, Louisville Ballet, and Joffrey Ballet School in NYC. Ostrander attended Butler University, where she was a Dance Pedagogy major and member of Butler Ballet, dancing in productions of Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, and Coppelia. After an injury curtailed her dance career, she earned a master’s degree in art history and religious studies from Yale University.
The Virginia Commission for the Arts, during its 50th Anniversary celebration in 2018, recognized Bristol Ballet as “a Bedrock Institution” for its more than 70-year history as a non-profit organization providing quality dance education and entertainment.
Co-leaders Hairston and Ostrander strive to accomplish the BB mission through education about dance, including quality technique, artistry, production, and awareness of other art forms. Classes at Bristol Ballet focus on age appropriate technique, based on the Royal Academy of Dance syllabus and the American Ballet Theatre National Training Curriculum, both of which are recognized worldwide.*
The dynamic duo were close friends before they came to BB, even sharing Bristol’s Paramount Theatre stage as dancers beginning in 2001. In an interview with CML, the pair spoke in unison, often finishing each other’s sentences. “Constance left an incredible legacy for us to inherit, and a tradition that we are both very proud to perpetuate.”
Hairston proudly stated that “all of my BB teachers growing up were taught by Miss Hardinge, a true visionary who I fondly remember watching in class and rehearsal as a young, aspiring ballerina.”
When asked about their plans for the next 75 years, Hairston mentioned the current capital campaign to further renovate and upgrade their facility, a former textile mill and steakhouse that provides over 10,000 square feet of studio and rehearsal space. Ostrander cited expanded outreach programs as a priority, such as BB’s recent performances of The Nutcracker to Southwest Virginia Community College in Cedar Bluff.
“Of course, we both plan to be here for the centennial celebration in our 100th year,” they promised, and in the interim plan “to elevate our performances and the experience of our students to even higher levels.”
Constance Hardinge would be very proud, indeed, of the current leadership team. For more information, please visit their website at bristolballet.org.