Once upon a time there was no ballet. At least, not in LaGrange.
And one person is responsible for a crucial first step that changed that.
The story begins on a bright day in September 1980, when I walked into the office of Walter Murphy, the new president of LaGrange College.
The also new Lafayette Society for Performing Arts had a remarkable and gifted ballet teacher, Elizabeth Turley. It had a dedicated group of volunteers, including Matsy Deal and Hawley Smith, who had made the brave and visionary transition from the Mutual Concert Association to LSPA.
And it had a very special group of young dance students.
Cue the violins and oboes. All good stories need a crisis.
Ours was that we had no place to rehearse or to perform. And no money to do anything about it.
Without hesitation, Dr. Murphy offered us classroom space at LaGrange College. When we outgrew the space in Henry Hall and Mariotti Gym, he gave us the balcony classroom in Price Theatre. We added mirrors, and the faculty added dance to the curriculum.
And then Dr. Murphy offered Price Theatre for the group’s first performances.
That first company was called The LaGrange College School of Ballet.
In 1983, the first Nutcracker was performed at Christmas, with Janie Parker and Dorio Perez, two of Elizabeth Turley’s friends, in the roles of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Nutcracker Prince. Both were principal dancers with the Houston Ballet, and Parker was the first American woman to win a Gold Medal at the International Ballet Competition.
It was a triumph. And people who were lucky enough to be in the audience that year still remember the finale, when a sleigh rose into the fly loft.
Terri Codlin, who served many years as artistic director and today is still a volunteer with the ballet, recollects “the long, hard work of dads building sets and working out the mechanics of that sleigh, and mom’s sitting out in Price Theatre during rehearsals with needle and thread bringing the magic of the Nutcracker to life.”
Eleven-year-old Markette Mallory, now Baker, was the first Clara. Today she serves on the Board of the Lafayette Society. Baker says, “We all had such fun. Even my brothers and their friends, none of whom took dance, performed in the party scene. It took a huge community effort, and it only happened because Walter Murphy opened the college’s doors.”
And what I say is that those early years brought out the best in us all. It taught young students persistence and grace. It taught them discipline. It gave them, even as children, a chance to give something to their hometown: ballet.
The program has grown. Today The Lafayette Dance Academy is led by the talented Amy Orr as artistic director, and the teachers instruct many more students than in those early years.
Three years ago, as the 30th anniversary of the ballet approached, Terri Codlin, Markette Baker, and I met to discuss the forlorn state of many of the costumes, some of which saw the stage first in 1983. We asked former dancers and parents to help us, and we raised $30,000 to replace the costumes. You can see them this year when the Nutcracker is performed at the Troup High Auditorium on December 6, 7, and 8. Tickets are available at LSPA at 214 Bull St.
The happy ending to our story is that thousands of children have had their lives enriched by dancing or by seeing those dancers perform.
Both Walter and Marianne Murphy have continued to support the arts, in all its forms, for more than 30 years. We will celebrate how far we’ve come and how grateful we are with a Gala in their honor on Nov. 23.
Just in time for the Nutcracker.