Next Doors: Not the Same Old Song & Dance

It’s been said that the best things come in twos. Here’s a great example of that. 

Phoenix is fortunate to have a couple of great performing arts organizations that bring traditional and classical musical genres to children — the Phoenix Youth Symphony Orchestras and Ballet Arizona’s School of Ballet Arizona. But it wasn’t until a chance meeting in 2019 that the two ended up performing together.

Maria Simonetti & Matthew Casper

It started when Maria Simonetti, school director of School of Ballet Arizona, and Matthew Casper, artistic and general director of Phoenix Youth Symphony Orchestras, ran into each other by chance at a Phoenix Symphony rehearsal, for which Casper was a conductor. 

“It was kind of a miracle in that he was traveling and was not supposed to conduct that day,” Simonetti said. “But he ran this rehearsal, and I thought he was a good conductor. I Googled him and saw that he was also running a youth orchestra. I thought maybe we could do something together.”

Simonetti then went to a Phoenix Youth Symphony Orchestras performance a couple of months later. She was so impressed she sent an email to Casper about collaborating.

“I conducted a little ballet prior to this, just some performances of ‘The Nutcracker,’ but to conduct ballet was very enticing for me personally,” Casper said. “But also, the idea of actually bringing together both arts groups was really interesting to me and something that I had never heard of before. I thought this would be a great experience for all of our kids who are involved in this.”

They started planning for joint performances, which in particular for the young symphony musicians would present a new set of challenges. 

“For the musicians, some of them would never go see a ballet ordinarily, but now they’re going to be involved in the production of a ballet and playing for ballet,” Casper said. “That means learning, in terms of how to react to the dancers, to what’s happening on stage and what support we need to give the dancers. It was a really exciting opportunity for them to learn.”

Casper said that from the standpoint of the orchestra musicians, they learn how physically demanding ballet can be, and the effect their performance and tempo can have on how the dancers perform. For the dancers, thanks to this partnership, they are getting an up-close-and-personal look at how a symphony orchestra performs, something they might only get if they became professionals. 

Everything was coming together perfectly for a joint performance when, of course, COVID hit.

“We were faced with the question of do we keep going forward with this or do we just kind of scrap it?” Casper said. “Luckily, both of our organizations kept going through the pandemic, and we kept our rehearsals going in very small groups. Maria was the same with some virtual and some in-person, so we were able to keep the momentum.”

The two organizations rehearsed outside on basketball courts and other spaces, and were finally able to do their first joint shows — a run of sold-out performances of ‘Swan Lake’ — outside at the Desert Botanical Garden in 2021. Those were followed by performances in 2022 of ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ this time indoors at Madison Center for the Arts.

This year, the organizations will collaborate on performances in November and May. The November performances will likely be smaller and spotlight the string sections of the orchestra, but the May performance — which will be announced soon — will have a larger footprint. 

The big winners in the partnership are, of course, the kids who perform.

“They love it,” Simonetti said. “One girl who graduated said it’s been the best experience for her to dance to live music because when she was little, she studied music and then stopped because she couldn’t do both. So having the collaboration for her was amazing. And I think for some of the musicians, there’s no way they would have been aware of what ballet was about if it wasn’t for this. Now they’re asking me, ‘What are we doing next year?’”

Both Casper and Simonetti said the partnership between the School of Ballet Arizona and the Phoenix Youth Symphony Orchestras is rare — and the only one of this size and scale they are aware of. Parents and audiences have come away from the performances beyond impressed. 

“The funny thing about the very first time we did this is that I think a lot of people came to it sort of expecting a high school band concert with some dancing,” Simonetti said. “But this hopefully showcases the dedication that the staff and boards of these two organizations have in getting these really talented kids out there and making them better at what they do.”

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About Tom Evans

Tom Evans is Contributing Editor of Frontdoors Media and the Senior Vice President at Lumen Strategies
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