By AMANDA BENSEN
Published in The Post-Star (D1) 5/19/07
When choreographer George Balanchine hand-picked Pamara Perry to attend his prestigious School of American Ballet in New York City, the 14-year-old Perry didn’t know how lucky she was.
"I was in a master class taught by Robert Joffrey, and George Balanchine was there — I didn’t know who either of them were, really," she said. "Mr. B spotted me and said, ‘I’d like you to come study with me in New York.’ My teacher said I was too young, wait a year, so
I did. And everyone was like, ‘You turned who down?’ "
Perry was still just 15 when she left her home in Cleveland to attend the school on a full scholarship. A teenager living independently in 1960s Manhattan might seem destined for trouble, but Perry said she was oblivious to everything but dance at the time.
"I never saw anything wrong, I never did anything wrong — I felt like I floated around New York in a bubble," she said, although "everyone around me was on LSD and poppy seeds."
After school, she spent two years with the New York City Ballet’s educational department, traveling around the state to perform for schools and other groups, and was a principal dancer with the Joffrey Ballet from 1966 to 1970. She moved upstate after marrying Rick Leach, whose father was the executive director of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, and soon had two children. Now, she’s married to Tim Hangarter, lead pastry chef at Mrs. London’s.
Looking back, she thinks age 22 might have been too young to retire from professional touring.
"Some dancers go on too long, but I think I stopped a little too soon," she reflected, her perpetual smile fading for a moment. "But then, everything started young for me."
The spotlight may have shifted, but dance still takes center stage in Perry’s life. Now 59, she has been artistic director of the Adirondack Repertory Dance Theatre for the past 26 years. Some of her former students have followed in her footsteps, like Stephen Satterfield, a 20-year-old Glens Falls native who now performs with the Miami City Ballet.
"I feel incredibly lucky to have found her, because there’s really no one else like her around this area ... I mean, she knew Balanchine!," Satterfield said last week, during a break from rehearsal at ARDT’s Glen Street studio.
He and a fellow Miami City Ballet dancer, Kristin D’Addario, will dance as guest artists in the ARDT spring dance concert tonight.
Satterfield trained with Perry from age 9 to 15, when he left to attend Perry’s alma mater, the School of American Ballet. He credits his success largely to Perry’s influence.
"She really pushed me when I was young, was really hard on me," he said. "But she’s really sweet."
Perry’s petite, pastel-clad frame is hardly what you’d call commanding. With sparkling eyes and a long, silvery ponytail, she looks more like a friendly fairy than a tough taskmaster, but there’s a bit of both in her.
"High energy, please!" she called out to her dancers at rehearsal Wednesday night.
As the first note of the practice music pierced the silence, the dancers’ arms flew up in a flurry, not quite synchronized.
"Nope," Perry declared. "You get one chance."
The dancers turned around and tried again, this time lifting their arms in time to the music.
"Better," Perry said, beaming.
Tonight’s performance will feature live music, something Perry has always insisted be part of ARDT’s productions, and, for the first time, it will include an added visual element. Roger Hangarter, Perry’s brother-in-law and a professor of biology at Indiana University, uses time-lapse movies and photographs to depict natural scenes like unfolding flowers and pulsing jellyfish. Those images will play in the background during several of the dances.
"Mr. B would always say, when you watch the ballet, you’re watching the music," Perry said. "This was a challenge, because I had two things to choreograph to — the music and the movie, but I think it turned out well."
Perry said she’s not sure what the future might hold for her, or ARDT.
"I’m 59. I probably could go on forever, but I need to listen to the needs of the community. How long is ARDT needed?" she asked. "That has to do, unfortunately, with money and commitment."
She fears that her particular brand of instruction, which emphasizes personal dedication and hard work, is at odds with the values that young people are learning in other areas of life.
"Ballet doesn’t come quickly, and that’s one of the things people find hard to swallow these days — it’s the fast-food era," she said. "Kids today are too busy, and have too many things offered to them to focus on just one thing and really get it."
Personally, Perry has been so focused on dance that she finds it difficult to imagine her life without it.
"It’s been such a huge passion in my life. I’d have to replace it with something else pretty big," she said.IF YOU GO The Adirondack Repertory Dance Theatre presents its spring dance concert tonight at 7:30 in Queensbury High School on Aviation Road. The performance will include live music by local musicians Jonathan Newell, George Wilson, and members of the Lake George Chamber Orchestra conducted by Vincent Koh, along with time-lapse nature photography by Roger Hangarter. Stephen Satterfield and Kristin D'Addario of the Miami City Ballet will appear as guest artists. Tickets $20 at the door. Call 761-0873 for more information.