Racing to the ballet

Updated: April 16, 2004, 2:59 PM ET
Associated Press

ROANOKE, Va. -- The race has gone for almost an hour, and dancers in bright jumpsuits have started to crash in their midair leaps like a squadron of misfit superheroes.

Choreographer Jenny Mansfield frowns. They're supposed to look like race cars, she says, not superheroes. Two weeks before the debut of her new ballet, her dancers still haven't mastered the part.

"C'mon, you've got to get your arms right," she calls out, demonstrating with a complex twist and flex of her wrist.

Dancing ballet in this small Southern city of 95,000 can be a mind-bending experience. Hoping to reach a wider audience in Virginia's Appalachian highlands, Mansfield's Roanoke Ballet Theatre company has had dancers pirouette to bluegrass music and prance along the sides of buildings, suspended from ropes.

Her latest creation, a ballet for NASCAR fans, aims directly at a potentially huge audience that's been especially hard to get into the theater.

"In this business, you've got to take chances," Mansfield says as her dancers start swirling around the track again. "The 'Nutcrackers' of the world don't interest me anymore."

Mansfield's "NASCAR Ballet" will play April 15 and 17, just in time for the April 18 Winston Cup race in nearby Martinsville. Just maybe, she says, race fans will take a break from the action and venture north to see something that's new, yet familiar.

At the wave of the starting flag, 30 dancers will round an oval-shaped stage to new age music punctuated with the sounds of revving engines. Their suits will be festooned with logos from the show's sponsors. Above, three giant TV screens will show the action from different camera angles while a local sports anchor gives a live play-by-play.

"My friends say, 'What kind of dances are you performing now?' and I say, 'NASCAR,"' says dancer Unur Gunaajav, 35, a Mongolian native who previously worked in Russia and for his country's national ballet. "They say, 'What? What are you doing?"'

Gunaajav, who will be playing the part of the pace car, and most of the other dancers knew little about NASCAR before signing on to the show. At rehearsals, the dancers passed around a "NASCAR for Dummies" book, learning the finer points to one of America's fastest-growing sports. They watched videos of Winston Cup races in their spare time. Some even cracked open the sports section of the newspaper.

"It got my blood boiling," dancer Liza Fritz, 35, says. "The intricacies of the car, the way they maneuvered around each other - NASCAR became beautiful."

NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter is interested in seeing how the dance turns out. "Though, to be honest," he says, "I've attended the ballet only a couple of times.

"But I guess our sport is a lot like a ballet. There are a finely tuned series of quick movements at pit stops, or while making passes on the track."

For a former railroad hub, located 190 miles southwest of Richmond at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains, Roanoke has an unexpectedly well-established artistic tradition.

It is home to the longest continuously running symphony in Virginia. Opera, theater and ballet companies have operated for decades with the financial backing of a private arts foundation, and numerous painters and sculptors have shown their work for years in lofts above the farmers' market.

A new 900-seat performance hall and a museum dedicated to locomotive photographer O. Winston Link opened recently in the city. The art museum also plans to build a $50 million center for galleries and an IMAX theater in the next few years.

Mansfield, a 35-year-old modern dancer who could power an office building with her enthusiasm, leans forward and grins as she recalls the first time she played bluegrass at a ballet: "The audience went crazy. They were hooting and clapping, just going insane."

She left Washington, D.C., for Roanoke nine years ago, hoping to shake up its ballet community. But it wasn't until her bluegrass ballets a few years ago that she began to understand the size of her potential audience.

Fiddle and banjo music courses through western Virginia - home to Ralph Stanley, the Carter Family Fold and the Galax Fiddler's Convention - like a heartbeat.

Soon after, Mansfield started thinking of NASCAR. "I realized it was ridiculous for us to just present things and expect people to come. You've got to go out and find what people want to see and present it in a dance format. It just makes sense."

At one of her rehearsals, dancers in purple, blue, yellow, green, orange, pink, red and silver jumpsuits whirl around the track, in lifts and leaps. They need to build enough stamina to keep this up for a 90-minute show.

After a few revolutions, a dancer in silver falls to the floor. It's a crash -- a choreographed one this time -- and a pit crew of teenage girls meets him in the center. He's lifted, then rotated off stage as the crew log rolls underneath. The race continues. After jockeying for position, the cars are off again.

"I always thought NASCAR was for guys with beer bellies who ate chicken wings and watched too much TV," dancer Beth Deel, 30, says. "Just like ballet, people automatically assume what it is before they really learn about it. My opinion has changed now."

Fritz hopes that the NASCAR drivers themselves have a chance to see what the dancers have done.

"This is a love letter to them," she says.


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press