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A Midsummer’s Dream – Albany Berkshire Ballet celebrates its 50th

It’s a full moon in the deep summer woods. Puck is out tonight, laughing invisibly with anyone who feels an unexpected rush when the air stirs. It smells warm and sweet and green before the rain, and the ferns are shoulder high. Lovers are looking for each other in the dark.

In August and September, Albany Berkshire Ballet will perform the full-length ballet of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A growing corps of professional dancers will perform new choreography to Mendelssohn’s music, in the company’s first full summer production in 14 years.

In its 50th year, the Albany Berkshire Ballet is expanding. It is growing a full-time company, creating partnerships with colleges and choreographers, and planning year-round performances.

Madeline Culpo became an artistic director when it was rare, even unheard of, for a woman to lead. (“The only reason I was able to do it is that I didn’t know it was impossible,” she says, laughing.) Culpo had studied at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and at Juilliard, and at 21 she returned to in Pittsfield to teach. She founded the Cantarella School of Dance in 1955. As her young dancers grew, the school grew to support them, and in 1969 she founded the professional company, which later became the Berkshire Ballet. In 1989, the company expanded by establishing an additional studio in Albany, New York, and its name changed again to Albany Berkshire Ballet.

Culpo and her husband raised six children in Pittsfield, and she has influenced generations of students. They are surrounding her now to carry the ballet company into the future.  Mary Talmi lived up the street and began dancing with Culpo when she was eight. “This was a second home,” Talmi says. “You were here four or five nights a week and on Saturdays. And you didn’t want to be anywhere else.”

Talmi returned to the ballet company this spring as associate artistic director, as more of Culpo’s former students have helped to form a new board and generations of dancers are getting in touch, excited and full of memories. “To be in something like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to have kids involved in the arts, lifts the whole family into an experience away from the laundry and the hassles,” Talmi says.

The company has lived through the steady decline of GE’s manufacturing in the 1980s and 1990s, and through the economic challenges of the last 10 years. And it has expanded widely. Culpo’s performances traveled to New York and opened the summer of 1978 at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Company (the first time the international festival in Becket had ever included a local company), and her students have gone on to perform with the American Ballet Theater and the Boston Ballet.

Culpo has taught at Jacob’s Pillow and across the country, and received three choreography fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her company has worked with top choreographers including the world-renowned Bill T. Jones. Over the years, the Albany Berkshire Ballet has commissioned work by the spare minimalist Laura Dean and performed choreography from Charles Moulton, who has worked with Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Project among many others, and Philip Jerry, a leading dancer with the Joffrey Ballet in New York.

This year, the Albany Berkshire Ballet has also given new energy to a company of professional dancers. Since January, Anna Acker, Ruslan Sprague, Marie Buser, Vincent Brewer, and Lisa Iannacito have formed the Ballet’s core company, paid full-time to teach, dance, and create new work. The company is making it part of its mission to give dancers employment, Talmi says, to keep them here in the Berkshires, living here, bringing up children, and doing the work they love.

Paula Weber, who created the new choreography for this summer’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, also danced with Albany Berkshire Ballet before becoming a dancer, a professor, and assistant director for the Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company in Kansas City, Missouri. Teaching and choreographing around the world, Weber will fit in this production between trips to Budapest and China.  

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Helena and Hermia hold on to love and honesty, in the face of raging fathers and kings. And they walk out into the moonlight, where the spirits set dew in orb spider webs.

It is a comedy—beautiful, funny and friendly for children, Talmi says. “People can laugh with the dancers at love’s vagaries and mix-ups. We have a king and queen, a love potion, a forest and fairies and creatures mixed up together, confused young lovers and the insecurities in young love.”

She is exploring possibilities for performing outdoors in Pittsfield in August. The new production will be performed against a backdrop architect Thurston Munston created when the company first performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1987, adding new color with costumes by Sam Meredith, who has performed in the original Broadway cast of Swan Lake and with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet.

Culpo imagines company dancer Vincent Brewer leaping like a young birch. “We’re reaching for the sky,” she says, drawing in the people around her with a gleam of mischief and awe.

  Albany Berkshire
Ballet will perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Egg in Albany on August 23, the Academy in Northampton on August 31, and the Colonial in Pittsfield on September 7, all at 7:30 p.m
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