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Racing to the ballet

4/16/2004

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.