Pirouettes inspire art at downtown cafe

Saturday, March 21, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Noelle Lelakus holds her arabesque during practice with the Missouri Contemporary Ballet company at Orr Street Studio on Wednesday, March 4. Lelakus is in her first year with MCB.

COLUMBIA — From a relaxed position atop a bar stool, Frank Stack leaned back, watching and sketching with ease. Each graceful gesture from the artist's wrist mirrored the spins and twirls of dancers leaping across the floor.

For weeks now, artists have captured the essence of these stylized actions in preparation for an art exhibit. Drawings, paintings and photographs based on dancers from the Missouri Contemporary Ballet are on display at Sven’s Kafe and Gallery, just outside the dance studio.

View the Art Exhibit

What: Missouri Contemporary Ballet art exhibit

When: Through March 31. Gallery hours are from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m Mondays through Fridays and from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays. 

Where: Sven's Kafe & Gallery and Orr Street Art Warehouse, 110 Orr St.

For information: 875-0840

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Members of the public are invited to view the show and vote for their favorite piece out of the 28 on display. The top three vote-getters will be submitted to the ballet's Board of Directors to select a favorite. The ballet company will commission the selected artist to produce the troupe’s fall poster.

The winning artist will be announced April 10, during the company’s show, “Live,” at Missouri  Theatre Center for the Arts.

The 13 artists whose works are shown have devoted a lot of time sitting at the narrow bar along a wide viewing window that looks in on the dancers. The blue, concrete bar has dots of paint and charcoal smudges.

“I couldn’t tell you on average. Sometimes, maybe three (hours) a day for three days a week,” Stack said of his time spent drawing and painting the dancers.

After an afternoon of sketching the dance rehearsal, Stack stuffed his sketchbook and brushes deep into his bag, noting the dancers’ commitment to perfection. “They can dance longer than I can draw,” he said.

Stack said he enjoys projects with moving subjects.

“I particularly like to draw these athletic, graceful, muscular beauties,” he said. “In a way it’s special because these are artists doing a different kind of art.”

The dancers describe contemporary ballet as less-structured than traditional ballet. Dancer Melanie Auinbauh said it allows her the freedom to “do things you didn’t necessarily think you could do.”

That also calls for endurance. With rehearsals daily from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., physical stamina is a must. It’s hard to miss the dancers’ chiseled calves while they stand en pointe. Even during downtime, the dancers stretch and lift weights to strengthen their athletic bodies.

The combination of self-expression and athleticism appeals to Auinbauh. “When you’re dancing, you get to be both at the same time,” she said.

Evidence of athletic workout is apparent all the way down to the soles of their seasoned footwear. Dark smudges on the pink dance slippers serve as testimony to the many hours spent in rehearsal.

“A lot of the artists did a great job portraying the athleticism and hard work that these dancers put in,” Karen Grundy, artistic and executive director for the Missouri Contemporary Ballet, said.

Kate Gunn, who manages Sven's and curates its gallery, said she’s pleased with the first benefit show there. Sixty percent of the cost of each piece of art goes to the artist, but the rest is divided between the ballet company and Sven's. 

“I think it’s neat that people have a chance to vote on their favorite,” she said. “It’s an interesting and exciting way for the public to be more involved in an art show.”

So, what do the dancers think? Shannon West, the ballet’s resident choreographer, used the artwork to self-assess. “I think we need to learn to point our feet a little more,” she said.

A few of the dancers, who were eating lunch as they talked about the artwork, groaned and giggled at West. Amelia Gandara challenged her. "My feet are pointed in the painting,” Gandara said.

The group agreed the artists were successful capturing the mood and tone of their daily routine. “We all want to buy some of the paintings,” Miranda Atkinson said.

Gandara said she told her grandmother which was her favorite piece. “I was, like, ‘It’s $200,’ and she was, like, ‘It doesn’t matter.’”

The larger setting for the artwork, and for the Missouri Contemporary Ballet, is at Ash and Orr streets and is referred to as the Orr Street Arts Warehouse by building owner Mark Timberlake. Located across from Wabash Station, the building originated as a produce warehouse; more recently, it was a laundry service. Along with the dance studio and Sven's, the building is used by The Beach Salon and Stella Studios.

Opening in September 2008, the Orr Street location has provided stability for the ballet. The professional, not-for-profit dance company formed in 2006 but has struggled to secure consistent studio space.

“Before this, we were gypsies,” Grundy said of the company,which had wandered as far as Jefferson City and Mexico, Mo. With help from a mutual friend, Timberlake approached Grundy about opening a dance studio in the warehouse, and the opportunity sold itself.

Timberlake said that as plans for the studio developed, they got the idea to include a viewing window between it and Sven’s to encourage artists and diners to watch rehearsal.

“They’re performers," Timberlake said, "and performers need to be watched.”

A recent observer was Nancy Palmer. “See? Look at this,” Palmer said, motioning to her husband, Jack. “You can actually sit here and sip coffee or whatever and watch dance practice.”

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