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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Ballerina's Birthday — Appreciating Gifts That Can't be Wrapped

Katherine Neumann—known as "Katie" to her family, friends, and fans—turns 20 years old today and has been living her passion since the age of four. She began as a toddler in a tutu who started dancing around the house about the same time she started to walk. Even though she trains for hours every day, she told me, "I would love to have dance be all day and all night and have that be my life." The more I learn about her, the more I am sure that wish will come true.

Katherine Neumann                                                          photo by Maks Zakharov

The little girl from Olympia who pretended to be a ballerina is now Principal Dancer Katherine Neumann with Dance Theatre Northwest. She will star in the lead role in Paquita when DTN presents excerpts from this classical ballet as part of the school's annual recital on June 23, 2012, at Mount Tahoma High School in Tacoma. In the past, she danced lead parts in Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty, plus many other roles in other ballets. Neumann teaches too, and has a lesson for all of us, about the power of gratitude, dedication, and dreams.

Regardless of what surprises may come to her on this birthday, Neumann believes she has already received plenty of priceless gifts of a nonmaterial kind. Those gifts came from her loving and supportive family and what she thinks of as a second family—the people involved with Dance Theatre Northwest, especially Artistic Director Melanie Kirk-Stauffer, principal trainer and choreographer, who is respectfully called "Mrs. Melanie" by her students.

"I could not wish for a better mentor," Neumann told me in a recent interview. "I call her my ballet Mom. She really is like a second Mom to me. She’s done so much for me over the years.
"Mrs. Melanie has so much experience. She’s always keeping up to date with teachers all around and the latest studies. It’s inspiring to have a teacher who is always trying to learn more herself. It makes you want to learn more too."
Katherine Neumann             Photo by David Main

Concerning the upcoming presentation of Paquita, Neumann said, "The music is beautiful, and the dancing. And of course, with Mrs. Melanie and her history, it makes it even more meaningful to dance it and learn it from her. So it's very exciting." Her comment referred to the fact that, years ago, Kirk-Stauffer danced the lead role in Paquita with the Tacoma Civic Ballet, at age 17, drawn from the corps de ballet to do this part only three weeks before the performance. She went on to have an impressive career.

Under Kirk-Stauffer's tutelage, Neumann's training included a main focus on Royal Academy of Dance Teaching Syllabus through level 6. Now only twenty years old, she has had:

  • 16 years in classical ballet training
  • 10 years pointe training
  • 7 years of partnering training
  • 11 years of tap and jazz training
She took part in four student dance education trips to New York with Kirk-Stauffer, where she attended classes at the Broadway Dance Center, Joffrey Ballet School, Steps on Broadway, City Center, and New Dance Group. Neumann also took Master Classes with Finis Jhung, Robert Atwood, Francesca Corkle, David Howard, Ludmila Raianove, Diana Cartier, Sheila Barker and Shea Sullivan.

Kirk-Stauffer told me, "Katie is exceptional in that she is very determined to succeed and is flexible enough mentally to help work through new choreography with ease but also capable of refining her classical work to include every detail. On top of that, she is a fabulous performer."
Katherine Neumann featured in "Paquita"
 Photo Courtesy of Dance Theatre Northwest by Maks Zakharov
In addition to all her dance training, Neumann has excelled academically too. Through Washington State's Running Start program, she began taking college classes while still in high school. She graduated from North Thurston High School in June of 2010 with High Honors and from South Puget Sound Community College in March of 2011, also with High Honors. She also received the Willian J. Shurgot Memorial Scholarship in Humanities.

During our interview, I said to Neumann, "You have all this hard physical work and time spent, and dedication to your goals. What is it that keeps you inspired?"
"I love pushing myself," she answered. "The thing about dance is that there is always something that you can be working to improve upon. There’s never an ending. I love that it’s infinite.
"You can be working on something for months, and then one day suddenly you get it, and it’s there. Just that feeling of accomplishment after working so hard . . . there’s nothing like it. When you get to perform and share that with everybody, it’s just wonderful."

Then she talked about Dance Theatre Northwest, what this non-profit organization has meant to her, and why she thinks it matters to the whole community:

"Dance Theatre Northwest is a special place. Besides the high quality training you get there—you really don’t get that kind of training anywhere else in the community—you have all these wonderful role models and build these great relationships. And you learn all kinds of life skills at DTN too. It teaches you discipline. It teaches you dedication. It teaches you time management and hard work, how to hold yourself, carry yourself and respect yourself. It teaches you how to be a good person.

"Mrs. Melanie is a fantastic role model. And Miss Vadne (Associate Director Vadne Domeika), our other teacher, is a really great role model too. They’re both very supportive of all the students. And there’s a lot of community service we all do together, going to retirement homes and schools, which is wonderful too. It’s great to involve the teens and the younger kids in that community service. It teaches them a lot about respecting and giving back to their community."
Paquita Pas Deux   Chhay Mam and Katherine Neumann    
Photo courtesy of Dance Theatre Northwest, by Maks Zakharov

Neumann hopes Paquita will draw a large crowd, and not only from among those who already love ballet. "Part of the art form of ballet is to make it look effortless and easy," she said, "but it’s really a very challenging art form. I would love for more people to see and appreciate that and enjoy the beauty of it too."
I don't know for sure what wish Neumann will make when she blows out her birthday candles today, but I can guess from her closing remarks: 

"I’m working on hopefully going to New York in the fall. Mrs. Melanie has been kind enough to take me to New York a few times over the years to study there with different teachers and kind of experience the life of a dancer in New York. I absolutely love it. I’m hoping in the fall I can move there and start to pursue a higher level of it and see where that leads me.
"I love ballet. It’s where my heart is. I just can’t imagine life without it."
Happy Birthday Katie! May all your wishes come true, and may all the gifts you've already received serve you well in life.
You can order your tickets for Paquita today, through this link to the DTN box office.   Sat. 23rd 2:30pm - Sat. 23rd 7pm
Or Call 253-778-6534            

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