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Boots & Ballet “From Montana to Denmark and Back!” and “Tumble Weed Two Step.”

by Joyce Johnson

Yellowstone Ballet Company (YBC), Director Kathleen Rakela and I had a great interview last Tues, 6/6. Three decades of stories, history, challenges, imagery and generations of dancers flashed by, like…. the stuff of great novels, but my column this issue spotlights YBC and the wonderful upcoming performances in Bozeman, Boots & Ballet, on June 24, and Paradise Valley on the 25th.

Livingston’s own ballet school and non profit company is a star in our bold big sky, and its heart? Rakela, “who has been challenged with obstacle after obstacle just to share her love of ballet with us folks.” And I add, to help develop talent, and the spirit of dance in our youth. Boots and Ballet is a colorful variety of classic, contemporary and western ballet dances with an international cast. Like leather and lace, it sounds bold, fun, diverse, independent, and funny. Very “Montana” if you ask me.

“Tumple Weed Two Step,” is a featured dance in the Boots & Ballet show this summer. It is the creation of YBC’s former student, Fiona Lee, who at present dances with the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen. Fiona, a student from rural Livingston made it to one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the world…and she took Montana with her. In an interview asking her what Tumble Weed is about: Fiona said,... "The piece is a homage to the settlers exploring a new frontier and the unique culture that sprung from that period of Manifest Destiny. I watched some classic Western movies and listened to a lot of American folk music as I was creating the piece. I wanted to bring some Montana spirit to Denmark through a lens that international audiences would be familiar with. Outside of the United States, most people’s knowledge of cowboys is through media and music. My choreography is a blend of Hollywood’s portrayal of the Wild West as well as my own experiences growing up in Montana."

Fiona and Rakela

“Tumble Weed” was performed in Denmark last summer, and is one of the dances on the program that will be presented in Boots & Ballet. Besides "Tumble weed" the western dances include "Yippie-Yi-Yo" and "Don't Fence Me In" with music by the Paradise Players. These will be original choreography for the dancers while they are in Montana. Classic pieces too. Please go to their website and see more, and better get tickets asap. In the meantime here is my small leap into the story:

The Great Leap: I was 8 years old, and taking skating lessons which included ballet lessons. That last fateful class I had learned and practiced was the Ballet move where you take three steps, leap & pivot & extend leg, for which Rakela gave me a French name, but lets just call it the Leap. When my turn came to do it on ice, I slipped, landed on my knee and had to be carried off, wailing. I recommend the Leap be learned running off a diving board, with a war cry, or at least on the dancefloor with knee and elbow pads. But I didn’t skate again until moving to Bozeman 35 years later and saw people skating on a flooded tennis court, and later, every day on Sacadewea Pond. I copied the good skaters and was able to do the Leap very sweetly which I called doodles, instead of figures, without even going airborne, so I am healed, and complete. Back to real ballet:

YBC’s Artistic Director (and dance mom) Rakela, patiently listened to my above...witness, and smiled a little, then brought me back to real ballet right here in “river” city, by declaring that Ballet is the foundation for almost all dance, even Tap [which I did too...until I sprained my big toe!]. Ice skating is ballet on ice of course, and amazingly, pro sports uses ballet training too. Rakela captured my attention when she began to flow the story of her own life of Ballet. My first heart-fill was her humble praise and affection for, and focus on, all those who mentored her, and all who she was supported by, danced with, trained, worked with, cared for, and loved and was loved by. And then the dramas, joys, painful challenges, and yet... the ever present little coincidences and miracles that became big game changers—like the birth of YBC:

One day 33 years ago, strolling up B Street, Rakela stopped in front of a store front called “Katie’s Ballet School.” She wandered in, of course, and,“cut-to-the-leap,” was soon invited to take it over, which she did and three years later YBC was born in that tall brick building at 109 So. B street, the one with with the famous monumental sized ballet figures painted by Kathleen’s husband, Rick—a multi-talented, hard worker, who danced before he became the creator of the YBC’s stage sets, and many paintings around the studio. I salute you, Rick Pittendorfer.

Obstacles? Rakela continued: “I started the ballet school at the worst possible time when not only was there a distrust of anyone moving here from California, but a stunning news report: The railroad that put Livinston on the map pulled up stakes in the largest expanse of locomotive shops E. of the Mississippi. The New York Times reported "Burlington Northern announced that they would be closing the Livingston locomotive repair shops and moving to facilities in Burlington, Iowa.” Workers bailed out. Hundreds of union jobs evaporated. Houses sat on the market. Businesses folded. The population dropped 4.2 percent between 1980 and 1990. (People didn't have money for ballet lessons when they couldn't even put food on the table.)

Cut to the Leap: Covid of course then closed the ballet school down, but like many of her fellow townspeople, Rakela is rebuilding, and with bells on or shall we say boots? I keep hearing the French national anthem “March on march on!” in my head these days, and my eyes sting. At present YBC has about 35 students, aged from 3 ½, (the Teddy Bear Class) to advanced levels and ages of Ballet and contemporary dance students. Rakela showed me racks and racks of glittering, gauzy, clever and fun costumes, created by the incomparable Designer and Seamstress, Mary Irwin of Paradise Valley, who for countless years designed, and sewed all of the performance costumes, and never charged for them. [I am tempted to join the Teddy Bears and shall not stand out much being still a kid,...just tall with white hair.] Mary passed away a few years ago but is, and will always be, remembered, loved, and missed as one of the most productive, and charitable contributing artists, even did a walk on in the Nutcracker—a privilege to have in the YBC “family.” We friends, supporters, parents, patrons, artists, the curious and just plain dance lovers will fill the theater, and Ballet will fill up our spirits. A kind of family all. Dance on Dance on!

[Get tickets NOW for Bozeman on June 24th, or here in the valley on the 25th. Tickets are available online at tickets for children 5 to 12 with an adult ticket purchase for the Willson Auditorium show only. This option is not available for the Owl’s Rest Event Barn in the valley, due to very limited seating. The show is not recommended for children under age 5. For more information email or text 406-224-5031.]


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