DDP Talks To…Sara Clayborne and Emily Hartka, Co-Directors of Charlottesville Ballet

Founded in 2007 with a unique mission for dancer wellness, Charlottesville Ballet is the only full time professional dance company in the Charlottesville area. Co-Directors Sara Clayborne and Emily Hartka are committed to elevating professional ballet with a healthy working environment for the artists.

• The professional company is comprised of dancers from all over the United States and abroad– from Virginia to California, Brazil to Japan. Charlottesville Ballet has no rigid physical aesthetic for its dancers and all body types are celebrated. Charlottesville Ballet’s Trainee Program welcomes dancers as they transition from advanced students into professional artists.

• Charlottesville Ballet Academy (CBA), the official training school of Charlottesville Ballet, opened in July 2011 and is a nonprofit center for dance education serving over 600 students throughout the Charlottesville area. CBA offers training in all dance genres for ages two through adult and offers performance opportunities for young dancers alongside the professional company.

• CB Moves, CB’s community engagement programming has expanded to create access to dance for all in the Charlottesville community.

Charlottesville Ballet’s professional company presents performances and events in Charlottesville, Lynchburg, and throughout the Central Virginia area. Look for programming designed just for children in the Family Series, eclectic mixed-repertory performances, and the annual holiday production of The Nutcracker. Charlottesville Ballet carries out its mission through eclectic live performances, educational children’s events, collaboration with local artists, and community engagement throughout the region of Central Virginia.

The DDP team had the pleasure to talk with Co-Directors Emily and Sara about Charlottesville Ballet’s founding and their commitment to community engagement and supporting the holistic development of students and professional dancers.

We were thrilled to have an opportunity to glean some insight into a small female co-founded ballet company for our DDP Talks To… series. Join us in learning about Emily’s and Sara’s leadership during the pandemic, their focus on the Charlottesville community, and their support of marginalized voices and storytelling.

Dance Data Project®: Tell us your personal stories and backgrounds.

Emily Hartka: I grew up in Roanoke, Virginia and fell in love with dancing at a young age. I trained at my home studios and attended the usual prestigious summer intensives, but also trained on scholarship at the Dance Theatre of Harlem at the age of 15 which was a transformative experience.  I was always academically minded (eg: a total nerd who attended a Governor’s school for math, science, and technology), but I never thought I would actually want a career in ballet. After graduating from Virginia School of the Arts, I went on to dance as a trainee with the Richmond Ballet, which is where I met Co-Founder Sara Clayborne. After a three year “gap year” I finally enrolled in college at the University of Virginia (UVA) and graduated in 2012 with an interdisciplinary major in Nonprofit Management.  During that time, I had created the Charlottesville Ballet and was serving as administrator, dancer, and director. In 2014, I left the stage for another absence and had two consecutive ankle surgeries, which is when I started focusing on our marketing and development strategies for CB to grow. I returned to performing for one last hurrah before officially retiring in 2018. Performing has always been a passion, but my work behind the scenes with development, project management, and arts administration has been the driving force behind why I continue to love working in the arts.  

Sara Clayborne: I grew up in New York, and didn’t actually start dancing until I was 13! Even though I started late, I quickly grew to be quite serious about ballet, attending Professional Children’s School in NYC and dancing with NY Theater Ballet before traveling to Richmond to dance as a Trainee. After my time as a Trainee, I studied modern dance more thoroughly, working with Starr Foster Dance Project in Richmond. I am Vice President of the Community Investment Collaborative, a NASM certified personal trainer, and have been key in creating the Ballet’s health and wellness programs in partnership with Caitlin Lennon and our Medical Director, Dr. Heather Snyder.

DDP: Walk us through the founding of the company. As you might know, our founder Liza Yntema attended UVA and was among the fifth class of women to graduate. Why did you choose Charlottesville, and what makes the community unique? 

EH: In 2007, Sara and I were living together in Richmond. I was applying to college and was accepted to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA. Both of our older brothers had attended and Sara was teaching in Charlottesville, but we knew that this community had never had any type of ballet company. We had been talking about this crazy idea to have a new kind of ballet company–one that truly valued people as human beings and operated more like a modern dance company but with a classical aesthetic that celebrated dancers of all shades, shapes, and sizes. We wanted to see if we could create a healthy company that uses scientific research and has sound/ethical business practices to improve the art form. We started, at first, with a small ensemble of dancers who were incredibly talented, but soon we realized that we were just creating this “rehab” for artists who could come and find happiness after they had been “broken” at ballet’s prestigious training schools. We realized that we had to start from the ground up, and we founded Charlottesville Ballet Academy (CBA) in 2011, which has been a huge driver of growth for the organization.

SC: When we were brainstorming places we could start our own dance company, we really wanted to see if we could create a dance company that was actually health focused–we felt that lots of organizations stated they were “healthy” but that the reality was very different. Emily had decided to attend UVA the following year, so we picked Charlottesville! It is a wonderful community–they have professional opera, a symphony, a big university–but didn’t have a professional ballet company at the time. It was a perfect fit!

DDP: What’s special about being a female co-founded company.

SC: I think that Emily and I serving as Co-Directors is a very unique model in the ballet industry (versus the typical Artistic Director + Executive Director), and it’s extremely rare to have an organization where leadership includes Emily, Keith Lee, and me, as well as an incredible team of women (leading both the professional company and Charlottesville Ballet Academy). Our organization has an ethos of believing in our artists and giving them experiences outside the stage and promoting for part-time administrative roles from within, so that dancers have a career transition plan in place and can bring so much more to the table once they understand the operations of a nonprofit organization. 

DDP: What trials and tribulations have you experienced running a company through the pandemic?

EH & SC: We are young, small, and mighty.  Charlottesville Ballet started in 2008 in the midst of the great recession and we have always been agile–never had massive gifts or government grants funding us! $1.2M annual operating budget pre-Covid in just 12 years of existence, which is insane growth that typically takes orgs 30 years.

When the pandemic first hit, we were in the middle of a series of performances of Snow White. We had just finished our touring shows at The Academy Center of the Arts in Lynchburg, and we had actually even started our “load-in” at The Paramount in Charlottesville when we made the call to cancel our shows. It felt so surreal in that moment, and we had no idea what the future would hold. We shut down our operations and Academy, but within 2 weeks, we were fully up and running on Zoom with 100 classes a week operating virtually. I think our ability to pivot and problem solve so quickly really helped us to maintain our student body and our community’s trust in us. 

We were able to come back, physically distanced and masked, in-person by summer of 2020, and managed to successfully run a hybrid academy for the summer and entire 2020-21 Academic Year. I think one of the hardest parts has been the lack of ability to have live events and performances. We did host a slew of virtual and live streamed events that were successful for artistic purposes, which were important to keep moving forward.  It’s so challenging as a performer to be performing to a screen, and administratively, the smaller companies just cannot take on these massive film production tasks and expect to live stream with the same great content as bigger ballet companies.

DDP: Would you tell us about your support of female choreographers?

EH & SC: We have always been enormously supportive of women in leadership and choreographic roles in the ballet world. As two young female founders ourselves, we know all too well the feeling of someone writing you off before they even know you because of your age or gender. Since our inception, we’ve had many female choreographers from all around the country, and it’s so important to give people the space and resources (time, studio, dancers) to create. Some examples include Audrey Fenske, who was our first resident choreographer; Rainey Jarrell, who created a dance theatre work in the early days of the company about women and the roles they played during WWII called Letter To My Love, which wound up being one of our most popular pieces we have ever performed; Mary Steward Hein; Rachel Seeholzer; Julia Mitchell; Shannon Alvis; and Maggie Small.

DDP: What do things look like for the immediate future?

SC & EH: Right now, we think one of the hardest things is trying to figure out how to plan for the future. We appear to be over the hump, so to speak, but it’s still so challenging to try to figure out what the guidelines will look like, and what the pandemic itself will look like a month from now, a year from now, etc. We are optimistic that we will be returning to live performances with our professional company soon, but are focusing on restoring our education programs as we rebuild post-COVID.

DDP: Any exciting news or upcoming commissions you’d like to share?

SC: We are planning a big mixed repertoire show for May of 2022 with a theme of Unity with several new works choreographed by Keith Lee. Keith has been an integral part of our organization since the beginning, working as Associate Director, Resident Choreographer, and most recently, with the added job title of Director of Diversity & Inclusion. It’s so important to us that we continue to work on access and inclusion, for our organization and for our city of Charlottesville.

EH: When Sara and I founded this company 13 years ago, we knew the world of classical ballet could be better, and we had a vision to create a company that would not overtly discriminate against people (specifically dancers based on their shade, size, or shape). At the professional level and especially at the historic dance institutions, I think leaders are finally having conversations about “aesthetics” and acknowledging the bias inherent in the classical ballet tradition. I would love to see more people of color in companies and dance schools, however, these are elite athletes and the resource commitment to get a person from a young child studying dance to a professional athlete is pretty intense. For lots of institutions (and even for some internally here at the Ballet), there may be a sense of “otherness” felt by dancers or patrons of color. I think representation does matter–whether it’s watching our company artists from across the U.S. and the world, taking classes with students of all backgrounds at the Charlottesville Ballet Academy, coming to a sensory-friendly show, or taking a Movement For Parkinson’s class. We hope our efforts are helping to change perceptions and to build an organization that represents our community.

DDP: What’s your hope for the future?

SC & EH: We want to work to diversify the performing arts, expand knowledge of our organization within our community, collaborate with other organizations in our community, continue to expand access to arts and arts education. To us, “diversity” has a broader definition than just race–especially in classical ballet, there are biases for socioeconomic backgrounds and genders and body types and physical abilities. Ballet is still perceived as a predominantly white, upper-middle class activity for little girls who are able to jump and twirl around in a tutu. That’s great, but not at all the scope of what dance can be and who it can serve. We want to put processes and programs in place to change these perceptions and to make our dancers and students and patrons feel not only “welcomed” but feel a sense of true belonging. This art form is for everyone – no matter where you come from, what language you speak, or what your age or ability is. Everybody can dance!

Visit Charlottesville Ballet’s website here. You can follow them on Instagram and Facebook.

Photo Credit (for images from top to bottom of post, all courtesy of Charlottesville Ballet):
  1. Sara Clayborne and Emily Hartka, 2019
  2. Charlottesville Ballet in Letter to My Love | Choreography by Rachel Seeholzer | Photo by Keith Alan Sprouse, 2011
  3. Charlottesville Ballet in A Fairy Tale Gathering | Choreography by Emily Hartka | Photo by Keith Alan Sprouse, 2017
  4. Charlottesville Ballet Ireland in Cinderella | Photo by Meredith DeAvila Khan, 2019
  5. Sara Clayborne with Students | Photo by Meredith DeAvila Khan, 2020
  6. Feleacia Quezergue in Choreography by Emily Hartka | Unity Days, 2019