Tag Archives: Omaha Academy of Ballet

Nichol Mason Lazenby

April 22, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Nichol Mason Lazenby left the L.A. Contemporary Dance Company to relocate to Omaha less than two years ago, she knew nothing of her new home and had decidedly low expectations regarding the breadth and depth of any opportunities that might await.

“I had no familiarity with the Midwest, let alone Omaha, and I panicked a bit at the thought of moving here,” says the southern California dancer/choreographer who had been a professor at the University of Arizona and now teaches at the Omaha Academy of Ballet. So Mason Lazenby decided to send out some feeler emails to the usual suspects in the dance community here. Less than 30 minutes later in some cases, she recalls, replies came pouring in from the likes of Creighton University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Omaha may have been a big fat question mark for her, but no question mark is needed when assessing the immediate impact she has made on the local scene.

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This winter found her in performances with both the Omaha Dance Project (at Marian High School’s new Mary Joy and Tal Anderson Performing Arts Center) and the tbd Dance Collective in “Making Space II: An Evening of Curated Choreography” (at KANEKO).

In April she had a hand in choreographing “Vive Paris” at Creighton University and “Evenings of Dance” at UNL. In May she’ll choreograph Heathers The Musical at the Blue Barn Theatre. And she is now preparing for a yet-to-be-named performance of her work in Motion41’s Encore space as a result of her winning last year’s OMAHAgraphy competition.

“I’ve been fortunate to be embraced by the dance community this way,” Mason Lazenby says, “especially the women of tbd.”

She was a guest artist last year when tbd took the Encore stage for its own OMAHAgraphy gig. Lazenby’s “Strange Mercy,” a solo work that she both choreographed and danced, was the showstopper of the evening and drew the loudest and most sustained applause.

“Lazenby’s movements,” this reviewer wrote at the time, “had me conjuring images of Anna Pavlova dancing Mikhail Fokine’s ‘The Dying Swan.’ Except that Pavlova was dancing all the wrong steps. And that she was thoroughly, over-the-top insane. And on acid.”

The art form has always had an intractable power over me. My most spine-tingling encounters with the genre, as was the case with Mason Lazenby and “Strange Mercy” and just as it is with any theater or performance art or opera or visual art that pushes boundaries and pushes buttons, runs along the lines of “I’m not exactly sure how to process what I just saw…but I love it.”

“That’s what’s amazing about modern dance, Mason Lazenby says. It is innate…primal. It can be just as percussive and frantic as it is sinewy, graceful, and luxuriously indulgent.” The key, she adds, is that modern dance is thoroughly experiential. It can be no other way.

“Every audience member will react in their own way,” she says. “It’s a form of communication…a movement-based form of communication. Every dancer communicates in a way that translates their world. And every audience member will experience those movements as framed by their world.”

Visit nicholmason.com to see her work.

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Choreographing a Modern Life

April 7, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Patti Zukaitis often does what is termed plié relevé. The 64-year-old bends her legs down, keeping her knees in alignment over her feet, then she stretches up, up onto her toes as high as she can.

She has reached many heights in her 40-plus years as a dancer, yet she doesn’t see herself a star.

“Patti’s not the type of person who looks to be in the spotlight very much,” says Patrick Roddy, who heads Creighton University’s dance department, where Zukaitis is the other professor.

Zukaitis began classes at age 9, but discovered her true passion for dance as a college student. She studied at Creighton with her longtime teacher Valerie Roche and became one of the first graduates of the dance program.

Roche, a professional ballerina since age 12, drove Omaha dance from the beginnings of Omaha Regional Ballet Academy in spring 1964 into the early years of the now Omaha Academy of Ballet and beyond.

Zukaitis became a teacher at Creighton’s dance program while a student.

“Valerie kind of pushed me in this direction, and I fell into it,” Zukaitis says. “I didn’t have a dream to be a ballerina.”

It was at Creighton that Zukaitis discovered modern dance, a form she has loved and performed since with Creighton and local companies DanceScape and Omaha Modern Dance Collective.

In 1982, Zukaitis’ husband, John, had just finished medical school and obtained a job in New York City, partially because living in New York was a dream of Patti’s. She wanted to attend New York University, and true to form, she entered their prestigious Tisch School of the Arts in a nontraditional way.

“I was so naive,” Zukaitis says. “I called and said, ‘I’d like to enroll.’ I got a secretary who said, ‘Oh. People have been auditioning all spring for this.’”

Heartbroken, her brain pirouetting from the rejection, Zukaitis called her mother, who told her to just march down there and prove to them she was worthy of being in the program.

Zukaitis went to the campus and spoke to the director, who told her to come down for the first day of classes. As it turned out, one student had been accepted, but had not yet committed to the program. “I took a ballet class and I took a modern class,” Zukaitis says. “I was auditioning, but I didn’t realize it.” At the end of that first day, the director offered her the final position in the program.

Their first daughter, Kathryn, now 30, was born while she was in school. Even with a young baby, Zukaitis earned a Master of Fine Arts in dance in 1986.

A second daughter, Lucy, was born in 1988. When their son Jack was due in 1991, the Zukaitis family, cramped into a one-bedroom apartment, moved back to Omaha. Patti returned to Creighton.

“It was almost as though I never left,” she says. “I just contacted Valerie and she said come on over.”

A third daughter, Julie Rose, came along in 1994. 

The professor and mom also taught for Omaha Academy of Ballet with Roche until 2002, when Roche retired after 40 years with the school.

“I told Valerie, OK, I’ll do it [be the director], but I want a co-director,” Zukaitis says.  She and co-director Sheila Nelson led the school for 14 years. They had big slippers to fill. Roche had taken the OAB from a small ballet company to a well-respected academy with a separate performing company.

Zukaitis stepped into the role gracefully and stretched the organization even further. A big part of the job, one which was important to Zukaitis as well as the school, was examinations.

The OAB is the only school in Omaha which uses the rigorous Imperial Society of Teacher of Dancing qualifications. Zukaitis holds an associate diploma through the ISTD and  brought in examiners each year to keep the school ISTD qualified.

Most importantly, the school became an environment where people wanted to bring their children to learn.

Roddy believes Zukaitis herself was one of the big factors in this.

“I think she’s one of the best ballet teachers in town, and she’s one of the nicest people I know.  She’s been an incredible friend and colleague.”

He would know. The two met when he was in high school attending advanced ballet classes at Creighton.

“She uses her knowledge and talents in the best way possible to get her technique across to all ages of people from very young to adults,” he says. “Her musicality is excellent, beyond reproach.”

He considers Zukaitis herself one of his very good friends, and that means a lot to her.

“I used to say when I was younger I wanted to grow up and work with my best friends, and that’s really what I’ve done,” Zukaitis  says. “I love the people I work with, and I have been very fortunate to have worked with them to build the dance community in Omaha.”

This past year, Zukaitis stepped down as OAB director to be with her family. Her daughters are all pursuing performing arts careers while Jack is training to be a firefighter.

“I hope they can make a living doing what they love,” Zukaitis says.

They should succeed.  After all, they have a successful role model.

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Marian Fey

December 3, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Marian Fey moved around a lot as a kid. “I always say my mom’s a gypsy,” she says with a laugh.

But wherever she landed, one thing remained constant: dance.

“I’ve been dancing my whole life,” Fey says from her office Downtown. But it was sometime around middle school that dance crossed the line from “I don’t want to go,” she recalls, “to how many times a week can I go? It’s not enough.” By the time she was in high school, Fey danced four days a week and taught for another two. She danced all the way through college and then taught dance and choreography at the Omaha Academy of Ballet after she and her husband settled in Omaha. “I’ve had that connection my entire life to the arts,” she says. “I know personally the impact that arts education had on me and the engagement it caused me and my family to have towards education.”

Today, Fey is president of the Omaha Public Schools Board and heads the Nebraska Cultural Endowment, a fundraising position she assumed in May after leading the Nebraska Arts Council for a year. Before that, Fey founded The Artery, a small nonprofit that brought the New York-based Dancing Classrooms to Omaha. As she expands her scope, Fey hopes to provide opportunities for more children to get involved in the arts—inspiring their passions and encouraging them to engage in their education.

“There’s such a growing body of evidence about the impact that arts education can have on student achievement,” she says. Other than increasing engagement and parental involvement, sometimes the arts simply provide motivation, she says. “I think a lot of kids—and I wasn’t any different—need a reason some mornings to get up and go to school.” That goes for her kids, too. “For at least three of our children,” she says, “if they hadn’t had music to look forward to everyday at school, it could have been a tough sell getting them up and going.”

Fey’s interest in her children’s education led her to run for a seat on the OPS board in 2011, where she advocates for more arts education. Her tenure has been consumed by searches for superintendents and board structure changes. But despite the setbacks, she says she’s proud “OPS has never abandoned the arts.”

Add her role as elected official to fundraiser, and Fey’s transition from participant and teacher to behind-the-scenes mover and shaker is complete. At the Cultural Endowment, Fey travels around the state building relationships with senators and donors, and she manages a private fund that should reach $10 million (with its public match) by 2016. The fund provides grants to arts and humanities organizations around the state, impacting thousands of Nebraska kids.

It’s a new role, but Fey says she still feels like a teacher articulating ideas and concepts—just to a broader audience. And the passion that stirred her as a child—her reason to get up every morning—will never stand down.

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