There were ballet dancers at BYU before 1971, but they belonged to a student club. Ballet dancing was an extracurricular activity. But all that changed when the university decided it could sponsor an official performing group, and BYU Theatre Ballet was born.

The program was pretty meager in the early years, says Sandra Allen, who was put in charge of it then and is currently associate department of dance chair at BYU. We had a little budget. Most of our works were choreographed by students. But we did have some fine performances.

Still, she says, she looks at where the program is now, some 40 years later, and it is phenomenal.

Current artistic director Shani Robison has been with the program for four years, and she has taken on the responsibility in a way that takes your breath away," Allen says. "She has great choreography and beautiful dancers."

BYU Theatre Ballet will celebrate its 40th anniversary with a full-length production of "Cinderella" Thursday through Saturday in the de Jong Concert Hall. The work features original choreography by Robison, danced to live accompaniment of Sergei Prokofiev's classic score provided by the BYU Philharmonic, under the direction of Kory Katseanes.

The production marks the first collaboration between the ballet and the orchestra since the 1980s, says BYU faculty member Lynn Thompson. "That, coupled with beautiful dancing, will add to the overall appeal of this classic tale that whisks audiences far away to the land of 'happily-ever-afters.' It's a perfect fit for celebrating Valentine's Day."

Another special feature will be a Prince and Princess Party that will begin an hour before each performance in the de Jong Concert Hall lobby. Children are invited to dress up in prince and princess costumes to meet Cinderella, Prince Charming, the Fairy Godmother and all of her fairies. Parents are invited to bring cameras to take pictures with the dancers. To allow children to "experience a live artistic production," all children's tickets to the performances are half-price.

"Exquisite dancing and a delicate portrayal of Cinderella, coupled with a strong, convincing Prince promises the success of the production," says Thompson.

Cinderella and her Prince are portrayed by Megan Conway and Tomas Farnsworth on Thursday and Saturday nights; Jenny Benham and Taylor Stranger dance the roles on Friday evening and for the Saturday matinee.

Paige Hollingsworth, Hillary Fullmer, Natalie Sandberg and Kayla Hoover play the comical stepsisters. Set design is by Erin Dinnell, with costumes by Marsha Russell, and illustrative designs by Kristi Harmon.

The production is a collaborative effort by the College of Fine Arts and Communications, funded by the Laycock Center for Collaboration in the Arts Grant and the Mary Lou Fulton Chair Award. "We are so grateful for these donors," Robison says, "which made it possible to do a full-length production with the Philharmonic."

That collaboration actually started a couple of years ago, she explains, when she and Katseanes talked about the possibilities. "He was interested in doing either 'Cinderella' or 'Swan Lake,' which is such a classic. We felt like we could create 'Cinderella' from scratch, and that would be more fun."

Another collaboration was bringing in Rodger Sorensen, chair of the theatre and media arts department to coach the dancers in their acting skills. "He came offering a fresh theater approach. Dancers are not always the best actors, so it has been exciting to see our dancers become one with their characters. It's been a fun journey for them. It's been so refreshing, I don't think I'll ever do a full-length production without an acting coach again," Robison says.

BYU Theatre Ballet does a full-length production every other year. In the other years, the program comprises smaller, often original, works. "Our repertoire seasons are also stunning," Robison says.

Deciding on programs is "not just about bringing in audiences," Allen says. "It's also about building dancers, providing what dancers need to grow and develop professionally."

And that has always been the case.

It took about 10 years before BYU Theatre Ballet put on its first full-length production, "Coppelia."

"We were building toward that, saving money for that for years," Allen says.

Those early years offered some interesting times, she says. In the early years students made their own costumes. Finally there was enough money to have some tutus made, "and they came back all wrong. They all had ducktails in the back. We were encouraged to use them anyway, as budgets were tight, so the students did what they could to tuck the tails down."

She remembers when they brought Willam Christensen, founder of Ballet West, to the school, "and he gave us permission to use one of his works, 'La Fille Naive.' That was a 40-minute comedy-drama, and was a big step forward for us."

She also remembers one particularly "frightening" night. The dancers were dancing to a taped work, and the sound technician was not happy with the quality, and asked them to find an original copy of the work. They finally located a copy just before opening night. "But when we opened, we found there were 36 extra measures of music. Our dancers ad libbed beautifully," she says, but it could have been a disaster.

Ballet can be challenging in many ways, she says, but that's one of the reasons she loves it. She grew up taking dance lessons from a neighbor. "She taught tap and ballet and jazz dancing before jazz dancing really existed. I loved it all, but I especially loved ballet."

Robison also started dancing at a young age. "I wanted to be a gymnast, but my parents thought I might break something, so they put me in ballet." She danced with BYU Theatre Ballet all through her years at school, but planned on becoming a speech pathologist. "It wasn't until I was a senior that I wondered why I was doing something else, when it was ballet that I loved."

She changed her career path, and has had no regrets. "I love the challenge of ballet. I love the beauty of ballet. It's something you can express with your body, your soul, your spirit. It's such a beautiful way of expressing a God-given talent, a way to connect to heaven."

That's the passion she tries to instill in her students. They learn that "ballet goes beyond movement. It is precise. It is ethereal. It is spiritual."

Allen agrees. "Dancing makes you feel alive. It enhances your awareness of life. It makes the brain work; it is engaging physically as well as emotionally."

And that's what viewers will see in the 40th anniversary production of "Cinderella." To see how 40 years of work and effort "have reached such a high level of quality and collaboration is fantastic," Robison says. "To see how our students grow and progress is a beautiful thing."

If you go

What: BYU Theatre Ballet's "Cinderella"

Where: de Jong Concert Hall, Harris Fine Arts Center, BYU

When: Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 10-12, 7:30 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday

How much: adults, $12; children 2-11, $6

Phone: 801-422-4322

Web: byuarts.comWhat: BYU Theatre Ballet's "Cinderella"

Where: de Jong Concert Hall, Harris Fine Arts Center, BYU

When: Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 10-12, 7:30 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday

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How much: adults, $12; children 2-11, $6

Phone: 801-422-4322

Web: byuarts.com

e-mail: carma@desnews.com