New England Ballet Theatre (NEBT) is on a mission to provide high-quality performances and inspirational educational programs and cultivate an appreciation for dance throughout the community. MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price spoke with Rachael Gnatowski about how and why she and Co-Founder Emily Orzada decided to form a dance company in Hartford.

NAN PRICE: Why open a ballet company Hartford?

RACHAEL GNATOWSKI: Most artistic directors are further along in their careers, in their 40s or older, so the fact that Emily and I are two young women in the middle of our performing career is unusual. We met and became friends while dancing for a ballet company in Indiana in 2017. We both got offered jobs in Hartford, so we moved here together. Then, through a series of events, we decided it was the right time to start our own company. We launched our nonprofit in January 2020, just before the COVID-19 shutdowns.

The ballet world, just like the rest of the world, is going through a lot of changes and shifts. There are a lot of discussions about what needs to change in the ballet culture. Emily and I have had conversations with our peers and colleagues for years about things we like and dislike and we what we want to create as we get older and step into leadership roles.

With everything happening, it felt like the dance world is ready to see change. With the shutdowns happening, many people started having the same conversations about things like representation in companies, choreography censorship, and contract issues. So, we felt validated knowing people were ready for those changes. After having some of those discussions, that’s when we decided we’re going to do this. We’re going to lead and we’re going to start a company.

NAN: How are you building your dance troupe?

RACHAEL: We’ve been very building very quickly. We hired some dancers. There are about seven of us, and we have an artistic advisor who’s a big part of NEBT. We also applied for nonprofit status and we had a plan for our first season. Then, once theaters were closed, we evaluated and made more plans.

Now, we’re focusing on building new productions and commissioning new ballets to be made. That was something Emily and I realized: The same choreographers are getting hired over and over and the same ballets are being performed over and over. We wanted to hire new choreographers, put on new ballets, and show people that ballet can still be fresh and innovative.

NAN: What guidance did you have as you were building the company? Did you reach out to any local resources?

RACHAEL: Pro bono partnership has helped with the filing and Jacqueline Coleman, Senior Community Impact Officer at the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, provided some guidance and advice. Our artistic advisor is a mentor to me; he’s also helped a lot with advice and guidance in the artistic realm.

We also joined the Hartford Chamber of Commerce because, as a new organization in the city, we knew it could help us make valuable connections.

NAN: What’s next?

RACHAEL: Our second season begins this fall and we’re excited to announce we’ll be producing four major shows. We’ll be performing two ballets by Artistic Advisor Christopher Fleming: The Myth and the Madness of Edgar Allan Poe in October and The Little Prince in May 2022. We’ll also be turning our film The Fantastic Toyshop into a full-length ballet in December and our final show in March 2022 will debut new works created by three emerging choreographers.

We also recently created a branch of our company called The School of New England Ballet Theatre. The school’s director, Victoria Manning, will be launching a trainee program this fall dedicated to helping aspiring students bridge the jump between pre-professional training and a professional career. These dancers will perform with the company for select shows including The Little Prince and The Fantastic Toyshop.

Watch The Fantastic Toyshop:

Our big goal in the next few years is to find and create our own space.

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New England Ballet Theatre (NEBT) Co-Founders Rachael Gnatowski (left) and Emily Orzada (right) perform at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. (Photo courtesy Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
NEBT company dancer Stephanie Kellogg and student dancer Aniyah Bembry perform in The Fantastic Toyshop. (Photo courtesy Jeff Holcombe)