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Dancers guided by a deep respect for ballet's director

Ryan Le and Jessica McElvaney rehearse a scene from, "Momotaro."
Ryan Le and Jessica McElvaney rehearse a scene from, "Momotaro."(Courtesy photo./Homari Aoki)

It was quite bustling in the upstairs dance studio during a recent rehearsal. Volunteers were furiously sewing costumes on dancers while director Misako Aoki was guiding them through a combination of her story-telling steps.

“Momotara,” a one-act ballet featured in the company’s program on Sunday, Jan. 17, at the Jim Rouse Theatre, is, indeed, a welcome to spring. Like the cherry blossoms about to bloom, Misako’s company is a barometer of warmer days.

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There’s more than a whisper of dance history in this mirror-covered studio.

Four decades have passed since The New City Ballet, opened its doors in the Village of Harper’s Choice. Patrick Frantz, a young, ambitious dancer fresh from the Paris Opera Ballet, directed the short-lived company with his wife, Rebecca Hoffberger, who currently runs the American Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore.

By the early ‘80s, John “Kinderman” Taylor and TV star Peter Lupus from “Mission Impossible” turned the second floor of Joseph Square into the infamous Disco Palace. This time, however, it’s not Donna Summer’s sounds that will accompany the dancing but lovely strains from faraway Japan.

While the disco craze lasted only a few years, Misako has successfully managed her studio classes since 2002. Five years later she created her professional company, filling the place with passion, determination and vision – much as Columbia’s first dance leaders once did.

So what keeps a dance studio flourishing in these difficult financial times for the arts?

We all remember kids taking tap dance classes during the depression and World War II – think Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. But Misako is a ballet teacher who preservers this European art form with a “Japanese twist” fresh and honest. Her company dancers believe it is her “quiet tenacity” that keeps them on their toes.

“Her teaching offers a better quality of dance,” said Amanda Willingham, a company soloist who shines in the jazzy “Swank,” a collaborative work by guest artist Charles Able. “We all want to please her,” said Misako’s protégée, who earned a graduate degree in Math during her ballet training.

Melissa Lineburg, a tall classical ballerina who joined the Misako Ballet Company in 2011, dances with four other companies in the DC area.

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“I am always available for Misako who has taught me so much,” said Lineburg, who performs an exquisite solo variation from “Paquita” in Sunday’s show.

And then there’s Jessica Markiewicz, a whiz turner, high jumper and super-talented dancer who earned her undergraduate degree from Goucher College and her MFA from the prestigious New York University.

She nods in agreement for the praise of her mentor, Misako.

The director quietly beams when asked about her dancers. “We believe a high standard of excellence in dance training helps the student develop not only physically but also in a manner with which they can build their self-disciple and positive attitude in all areas of life.”

Two of Misako’s former students have returned to their roots to perform in Sunday’s concert. Maddie Chen, a sophomore at the University of Maryland, danced at Misako’s studio for 10 years, “The college’s long winter break made it possible to learn my part in the ballet,” said the 19-year-old dancer with more than a hint of admiration for Misako.

Erin Rao, a 2018 Atholton High School graduate and now freshman at UMCP, was invited to dance during the Christmas holidays when she asked Misako to lend her props for a college production. “This is special, very professional and I’m proud to be a part of the ballet.”

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“Momotaro” is based on a Japanese folk tale about a boy who comes to Earth in a peach and finds family, friends and adventure. It’s a family-friendly work that incorporates Misako’s gift for recalling favorite tales from her homeland.

Jessica McElvany, an original member of the Misako Ballet Company, sums it up best at a rehearsal.

“I like how she puts together a story ballet...sweet for the little ones yet geared for strong dancers,” McElvany said. “I came to take classes with Misako soon after I graduated from UMBC…and I never left.”

McElvany’s 6-year-old son will perform on stage with her as the little boy who changes the world through love and good deeds.

“I like to pop out of the peach,” said Ryan Le, a first-grade student at Clements Crossing Elementary School.

The Misako Ballet Company presents “Momotaro” and other works this Sunday, Feb. 17, at 2 p.m. at the Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake High School, 5460 Trumpeter Road, Columbia. Japanese green tea and snacks from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults; $15 for seniors; $12 for students and children. Tickets may be purchased at misakoballet2019.brownpapertickets.com. Call 410-884-9690 or go to misakodance.com.

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