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Principal dancers Dana Benton, center, and Yosvani Ramos, left, with soloist Nicolas Pelletier, rehearsing a ballroom scene with fellow dancers of the Colorado Ballet for the company's upcoming production of "Lady of the Camellias." (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

For the past 32 years most of Dana Benton’s mornings began the same way — at the barre in a ballet class. Those days, however, are dwindling as she readies to dance her last dance with the Colorado Ballet and move on.

Still, on a recent morning Benton, 40, was at the barre squeezing out some final ronde de jambes. Next to her was Domenico Luciano, 44, a former principal lured back for one more dance with Benton in the 19th century romance “Lady of the Camellias,” opening Friday at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House.

While Benton and Luciano set to leave the stage there were many in the class hoping one day to step into their shoes. At a barre in front of the senior dancers was Sonata “Nani” Ross, a 21-year-old company apprentice. And a little further down the line Thomas Fontana, 22, was working on his tendus.

Fontana isn’t even in the ballet company, but in the studio company — sort of a minor league feeder. Yet he has hopes.

Benton and Luciano will focus on teaching ballet at the company’s Colorado Ballet Academy. Luciano has been full-time there since retiring from dancing in 2019 and Benton has been teaching part-time.

Indeed, Ross and Fontana were Luciano’s students, and at other barres were a few of Benton’s students now rising dancers in the company.

“It’s just great to see them coming up from when they first audition to finally see them on stage,” Luciano said. “It is very rewarding and exciting for us to see that we can provide that for them.”

This is the cycle in ballet, a passing down of steps, details, attitudes from those who have danced to those who hope to dance. The elements are so precise that they must be bestowed hand-to-hand, foot-to-foot. There is no manual on how to be a dancer.

And it always begins as this day began, with ballet class. “You do a ballet class every day of your career, one to warm you up, two to hone your technique,” said Gil Boggs, the company’s artistic director.

Warm up begins with pliés, ends with reverence for teacher

Class begins with pliés, an elevated form of deep knee bends, engaging the core, the hips and the upper body, the arm, and then come tendus, a stretching of the leg out to the side or front, toe pointed to the floor.

Slowly the class, under the direction of the company ballet master Lorita Travaglia, moved to more complicated combinations of steps.

At one point, Travaglia has the room filled with more than 50 dancers raise on demi pointe — tippy-toe one might say — resting on the ball of the foot with all five toes on the floor. Ross tentatively searched for her center. Benton, like hitting a button in an elevator, rose in a snap.

Thomas Fontana, left, joins fellow dancers of the Colorado Ballet as they begin morning warm-ups. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

As the exercises became more strenuous and dancers warmed up, the thermal vests, sweat shirts, sweatpants and leg warmers they were wearing were flung aside. The barres were also carried to the side and the class moved to more demanding pirouettes and jumps.

The class ends with “reverence,” a slow series of bows and curtsies as thanks to the ballet master and piano accompanist and a round of applause. Each dancer went to Travaglia to thank her.

But long before reverence — after just two of the jumps — Luciano ducked out of class.

“I could have finished class, but tomorrow would not be a good day,” Luciano said. How does it feel coming back? “It hurts.”

It was Boggs who entreated him back on stage to play the father of the young man, Armand Duval, who has fallen in love with the Parisian courtesan Marguerite Gautier, played by Benton, known as Camille for fondness for camellias. 

Principal dancer Dana Benton, left, and ballet master Maria Mosina observe Colorado Ballet dancers during rehearsals for the company’s upcoming production of “Lady of the Camellias.” (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The ballet is adapted from the 1848 French novel “La Dame aux Camélias” by Alexandre Dumas fils.

In their pas de deux, Luciano tries to pay Benton to leave his son alone. It is a full-on dance requiring him to lift Benton several times.

“There is this muscle memory, that it’s there,” Luciano said. “But there is a little discrepancy between what you think you can still do and what your body is actually able to do. … It’s a little tricky. I need to be very thoughtful. I cannot just dance as I was dancing five years ago.”

Teaching tailored for each student

Luciano’s ballet journey began in his hometown, Naples, Italy, at the age of 13, a later start for ballet, after his sister began taking classes. “I had that little boy thing, like, oh, it’s for girls.”

Six years later he landed a contract with the dance company of the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Dusseldorf, Germany. “That was my first contract and my first time out of Italy, first time away from my parents,” Luciano said. “Not speaking German, not speaking much English, it was rough. I was not ready.”

At the end of the season, Luciano was offered another contract with the Germany company, but returned home. “Mom, I miss you,” he said with a laugh.

Principal dancers Dana Benton, left, and Domenico Luciano, perform a pas de deux during rehearsals. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

For the next four years he danced with the Ballet of the Teatro di San Carlo, in Naples, until the director of the Tulsa Ballet, who had been affiliated with the Naples opera house, was in Rome holding auditions. The ballet was willing to pay for a visa and a plane ticket for a nine-month season in Tulsa.

“So, I thought, I can take a sabbatical and go to America, it’s just nine months,” Luciano said.

That was in 2004 and he has been in the U.S. ever since, arriving at the Colorado Ballet in 2013 and starting a part-time teaching gig in 2014. One of his first pupils, Leah McFadden, is now a soloist with the company, one notch below principal.

Teaching, Luciano said, requires tailor-made solutions for pupils. “Some people really need a lot of verbal cues. Some students need a lot of musical cues, some visual cues.”

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But as they advance, seeing is crucial. “It is a very visual thing, what you really need to see is doing the steps properly to allow them to really grasp and understand,” he said.

Back in the studio, with class finished, rehearsal for the “Lady of Camellias” began under the direction of the ballet’s choreographer Val Caniparoli.

While Benton and Luciano will command the stage alone, Ross and Fontana will be among 16 dancers in a ballroom scene. Though getting the steps right with their partners is important, equally so is their relation to all the other dancers.

As they dance through the music, Caniparoli stops. “These diagonals are too wide,” he tells the eight couples. Another time he halts the action to move Ross a little farther stage right to give one of the men more room.

Climbing rung, by rung, into the main company

Until she was 13, dancing meant line dancing for Ross, who grew up in Fort Collins. Then she took some ballet lessons and was hooked. At 16, she moved to Denver to the academy’s pre-professional program, where students train full time and mostly go to school online.

There may be no place, except perhaps the military, that is more highly regimented than ballet. From the pre-professional program, Ross became a trainee, moved to the studio company and then won one of the company’s few apprenticeships.

“It’s very competitive, obviously because it’s 20 girls vying for one or two contracts,” Ross said. “That was a really tough year, just mostly mentally, honestly. Trying to keep yourself moving forward.” When she got the apprenticeship Ross saidit felt like a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.”

Sonata “Nani” Ross and other Colorado Ballet dancers begin their morning warm up before rehearsal of “Lady of the Camellias” begins. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Of course, now she is at the bottom of the main company, hoping to move to the corps de ballet, and then to demi-soloist, soloist and then at last to principal. “Yes, I have to work my way back up,” she said.

In the middle of this rung-by-rung climb the COVID-19 pandemic hit, tossing the academy, the company and careers into limbo.

Fontana had been at the Colorado Ballet’s summer intensive program and was offered a spot in the pre-professional program. He had planned to return to Seattle, where he had been taking ballet classes since he was 8, and audition there, but everything was shut down. He took the pre-professional spot.

Like all the dancers, Ross and Fontana were reduced to taking ballet classes over Zoom, not an ideal way to improve or, and this is key, show the powers that be how good you are. It was doubly challenging for Fontana, who had suffered a knee injury just before the pandemic hit.

In the fall of 2021, everyone was finally back in the studio, albeit wearing masks. “It was hard coming back,” Ross said. “It’s going from maybe you get to do one ballet class, in a small space, to doing a six-hour day in a whole big room.”

“It was kind of a shock because my body was not used to this schedule,” Fontana said. “My knee was not used to holding up my body. It took me awhile to come back to where I thought I was improving again.” Nevertheless, he managed to make it from trainee to the studio company. “That was a relief,” he said.

A big part of his progress, Fontana said, comes from Luciano. “When you go through life and people give you advice, but it takes that one person going over it over and over again and it really clicks. That was him for me.”

“Even now he’ll poke his head to the door and he’ll see me and I’ll be doing something and he’ll be like, nope, fix your thumbs,” Fontana said. In ballet even the smallest detail demands attention.

Colorado Ballet artistic director Gil Boggs, bottom left, observes principal dancer Mario Labrador rehearse for George Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations,” which was performed in spring of 2022. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

This is what Boggs, the company artistic director, has been seeking. “When I first got here, the academy didn’t have that ability to cultivate dancers … and it took awhile to get there and then we instituted the pre-professional program.

 “We’ve created a system, like baseball, so I know how to develop this person who is in their early 20s, so that when they get to 27 or 28, they can handle these major roles and move into principals,” he said.

And now the ranks of the academy teachers will also be replenished. “There are some people you know, like Domenico and Dana, who have an urge to pass it on,” Boggs said. 

“And you need to make sure that that desire is there. You certainly don’t want anyone who’s just looking for a paycheck. There’s so much involved in what a teacher needs to bring to students.”

Preparing the final pas de deux while looking toward young pupils

By midafternoon, the corps rehearsals had given way to the principals, with Benton’s Marguerite sitting on a bench, waiting for Monsieur Duval Sr., played by Luciano in a top hat, to enter.

To preserve his family’s respectability, the elder Duval convinces Marguerite, already in failing health, to reluctantly renounce her love for his son. The tension of the scene is expressed in the tension of the dancer’s bodies.

Principal dancers Dana Benton, left, and Domenico Luciano, perform a pas de deux from Act II taking place in the French countryside during rehearsals for the Colorado Ballet’s upcoming production of “Lady of the Camellias.” (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Benton is diminutive — being the resident Tinkerbell  in “Peter Pan” — which in theory should make a lift a bit easier, and in their dance Luciano has to raise her to a prone position on his shoulder.

But tiny or not they carefully go over the move and then over it again searching for the right equilibrium.

At the age of 9, Benton left home in Hamilton, Ontario, for the National Ballet School in Toronto and after studying there for eight years, and one year in Alberta, she found her way to the Colorado Ballet in 2001, making principal in 2014.

“I’m so grateful to have had a career this long and I’m also ready to pass on my knowledge to the academy students,” Benton said.

Such a long career comes with a price, which included bilateral shoulder surgery, knee surgery and foot surgery.

Late in her career, Benton said, she began to relish the dramatic roles, like Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet.” “I really enjoy digging into the acting side and telling the story rather than just being about technique and tricks,” she said.

Come her final dance in April, Benton said she will not go cold turkey on a lifetime of ballet classes.

“I think my body is probably going to be kind of angry at first,” she said. “I heard that if you just stop and don’t do any kind of ballet, your body starts to crave it and it actually hurts worse. So, you need to do a little bit, too, because that’s what you are used to.”

Benton will become another kind of principal now — the academy principal focused on the three upper levels (or grades), children 12 and older.

But already she can see two of her former pupils in company class with her, Bryce Lee and Ariel McCarty, both demi-soloists. “She called us her little Bambis,” McCarty said, in a video interview.

“We’re good friends and they still come to me for advice or help with a role,” Benton said. “They always feel like they can come talk to me and confide in me and I love that kind of relationship in the studio with other dancers.”

When Benton takes the stage for her pas de deux, with Luciano and ones with Yosvani Ramos, a virtuoso principal who is also retiring, the wings will be packed with company dancers watching.

“It’s the best seat in the house,” Ross said, and perhaps a place to dream.

Choreographer Val Caniparoli, left, directs principal dancers Dana Benton and Yosvani Ramos, right, along with soloist Nicolas Pelletier, second from left, as they rehearse a ballroom scene in “Lady of the Camellias.” (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

What will it take for Ross to leave the wings to dance “Giselle” (a favored ballet) or for Fontana to dance the lead in “Don Quixote” (also a goal)?

“As a student, you spend every class trying to perfect your technique, every tendu and plié,” Fontana said. “When you get to this level, it’s like you can’t, you can’t just do the steps anymore. You have to add on that extra level that makes someone want to buy a ticket to watch you dance.”

“Yeah,” Ross said. “It’s not just about the tendus anymore.”

But for now, they’ll watch Benton, Luciano and Ramos from the wings.

“Since this is their last season it’s great to get to watch them,” Ross said.  “I’m really going to be soaking up every last second of their stage time.”

Mark Jaffe

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @bymarkjaffe