July 8, 2020
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Ballet Beauty

Gretchen Smith begins a new spring season with the New York City Ballet
Gretchen Smith performs in Western Symphony, a ballet created by New York City Ballet co-founder George Balanchine.

Tears welled up in the hazel eyes of 10-year-old Gretchen Smith as she scanned the casting sheet for the Evansville Dance Theatre’s annual production of The Nutcracker and didn’t see her name. Then her mother told her she was looking in the wrong place — her name was at the top, next to the role of Clara, the little girl who gets a toy nutcracker for Christmas that turns into a prince who takes her to the Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

From that moment on Gretchen was hooked, and ballet became her passion. Now 22 years old, for the past four years she has been a member of the New York City Ballet (NYCB), one of the nation’s most prestigious dance companies. This year’s spring season, which began April 29, consists of 40 ballets, including seven world premieres. The NYCB is unique in that it performs a different ballet every night, which means that Gretchen has moved from dancing as Clara to performing a different role on stage every week from Tuesday to Sunday. Those roles — in addition to dancing with the corps in almost every performance — have included featured or understudy positions in eight shows such as Rosalia in West Side Story Suite, the Tenderness Fairy in Sleeping Beauty, three roles in Swan Lake, and yes, a demi-soloist in The Nutcracker.

The tall, lithe, dark blonde Evansville native has pirouetted and jetéd not only at the ballet’s home at Lincoln Center but at acclaimed performances in London, Paris, Copenhagen, and Tokyo. But the longest journey was from Evansville to New York, and not an easy one either for Gretchen, or her parents, Will and Lori Smith, who agreed with pride, but trepidation, to allow their young daughter to leave home at 15 and enroll in the School of American Ballet (SAB), the official training academy of the NYCB.

Will Smith, a partner in Universal Operating, a family-owned independent oil producer with rigs throughout the Tri-State, says, “Letting her stay up there at 15 — losing her early — was the hardest decision I ever made. But I have no regrets.”

“It’s not like on the East Coast, where people are used to packing their kids off to boarding school,” says Lori Smith. The decision raised some eyebrows among friends and neighbors, but the Smiths, a family of faith, prayed on it and decided “God had given her a gift, and she had a right to pursue her dreams.”

By that time, Gretchen already had built a solid foundation for dance, thanks to excellent teachers at the Evansville Dance Theatre (EDT), who encouraged her (starting at age 12) to attend summer ballet camps in Indianapolis, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, where she also learned to live on her own.

Gretchen cites former EDT artistic director Don Tolj, ballet master Patrick Hinson, and ballet mistress Adahli Aranda-Corn for teaching her the fundamentals and encouraging her to go further.

Aranda-Corn, who now runs her own ballet school in Lexington, Ky., quickly realized that Gretchen was “very, very special. She put her heart into it every day. She always had a smile on her face, eager to learn and do more.” Aranda-Corn, who danced professionally in her native Mexico before being wooed to Evansville as a principal performer and teacher, says the life of a ballerina is very hard. “It almost chooses you,” she says of a career that from the audience appears all gracefulness and beauty but which results from long hours of grueling, sweating practice, including recovery from injuries.


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