By Jan Mercker

When the American Ballet Theatre launched its first post-shutdown tour, organizers chose just eight cities and towns around the country. Thanks to Loudoun-based entrepreneur and philanthropist Sheila Johnson, Middleburg made the list.

ABT’s Across America Tour rolls into Middleburg on Monday, July 19 on the final leg of a cross-country tour before returning to home base in New York.

For ABT Executive Director Kara Medoff Barnett, who’s on tour with the company, the joy of performing live and engaging with audiences around the country is hard to describe.

“It was truly exhilarating for the artists and the audiences. … Everything about it was glorious. To hear the sound of live applause again—I can’t begin to express the adrenaline that was pumping,” Medoff Barnett said after a recent performance.

The company remained productive during COVID shutdowns, but hitting the road is “in our DNA,” Medoff Barnett said. During the pandemic, dancers and choreographers were able to come together safely in 11 “bubble residencies” inspired by the NBA. During the past year, the company created 22 new ballets, which were filmed and shared digitally.

“That was an important way to continue to serve our mission, which is to create and to present and to extend the repertoire of classical ballet and share it with the widest possible audience,” Medoff Barnett said. “That said, we’re all about the live performing arts. We miss the magic of that energy exchange that happens between artists and audiences who share a space. … The company has been itching to get back out on the road.”

ABT has been a touring company since its founding in 1940. Dancers and crew have been getting on buses since the 40s and built up to traveling companies of 90 dancers and a support crew of 40 people before the pandemic. The post-shutdown tour is on a smaller scale, but the magic remains. 

ABT Across America is crossing the United States in a caravan of six sleeper buses and three production trucks. The tour features a group of 20 ABT dancers and 28 support crew traveling 3,100 miles to perform outdoors for socially distanced audiences. The tour kicked off July 1 in Lincoln, NE, and hits Iowa City, Minneapolis, Saint Louis and Charleston, SC, before arriving in Middleburg. Across America wraps up with a final performance at Rockefeller Center in New York City on July 21.

Medoff Barnett said organizers were looking for host venues with flexibility and creativity as they planned the tour. 

“In the end the eight selected cities are the cities where our partner shared massive passion, shared an adventurous spirit and shared an agility and flexibility that allowed us to find the ideal route, timing and context so that the stars could align,” she said.

Middleburg snagged a show thanks to Johnson, the founder of Salamander Hotels & Resorts who also serves as an advisory board member for ABT’s RISE program. The company’s Representation and Inclusion Sustain Excellence program works to advance diversity in the training pipeline for ballet students, teachers and include a diversity of viewpoints in its activities and programming. 

With plenty of outdoor space, Johnson’s Salamander Resort was a perfect spot as the tour makes its way up the East Coast for a return to NYC.

“We’re honored and excited to be one of just eight stops on this incredible tour,” Johnson said. “I am always looking for ways to integrate the arts into the programming we offer at Salamander Resort and Spa, and believe these performances will provide a truly one-of-a-kind experience for our guests.”  

Hosting ABT is just the latest step in Johnson’s ongoing efforts to put Middleburg on the map with cultural programming.

“[Johnson] is a champion for ensuring that America’s cultural treasures, leading artists and most extraordinary ensembles and institutions … reach and encounter and inspire audiences in small towns as well as in big cities. You shouldn’t have to go to New York City or Chicago or LA to see great art. There should be and can be world class art in other parts of the country,” Medoff Barnett said.

The tour is a chance for ABT to showcase new programming developed during the pandemic. The tour features Lauren Lovette’s La Follia Variations, a work for eight dancers set to music by Francesco Geminiani, Jessica Lang’s Let Me Sing Forevermore, a pas deux blending ballet and jazz vocabulary set to songs sung by Tony Bennett and Darrell Grand Moultrie’s Indestructible Light, a celebration of American jazz.

Medoff Barnett added that another of the company’s goals is making ballet more accessible on a financial level. Admission for most of the shows on the tour is free or by donation. Tickets for the Middleburg show include suggested donation amounts of $10, $25 and $50. All proceeds will go to the Middleburg Community Center’s arts program.

“Our firm belief is that excellence shouldn’t be exclusive. … There’s a misconception that there’s something about ballet that’s intimidating. The truth is that it’s an incredibly human art form that is instantly understandable,” Medoff Barnett said. “One of the driving goals of the ABT Across America Tour is to provide access to the power and the dynamism and the diversity of ABT artists and to bring them into communities and introduce kids and families and audiences to these superheroes in their own backyards.”

The American Ballet Theatre performs at Salamander Resort Monday, July 19 at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. Tickets are by donation with proceeds going to the Middleburg Community Center. For tickets and information, go to salamanderresort.com/abt-across-america.