No one has a longer or more illustrious history with the Dayton Ballet than its beloved “Miss Bess.”
Bess Saylor Imber, whose work “Inner Geist,” will be performed at the upcoming 75th anniversary “Celebration!” concert March 21-24, began her dance studies at the age of 6 with Dayton Ballet founders Josephine and Hermene Schwarz. She joined their Children’s Ballet Co. at age 9 and became a principal dancer with their Dayton Civic Ballet in the 1960s.
“Bess was a most gifted and creative dance student as she grew up in our school,” Miss Jo once wrote about her prized pupil, citing her laughter as well as an “intense, undying love for dance, music, poetry, humanity.”
The Dayton Ballet was the center of Imber’s life for more than 50 years. After spending two years in New York and a year in California — studying at the Mary Anthony Dance Studio, The Joffrey Ballet and José Limón Dance Company — she returned to Dayton to become part of a company she loved.
In addition to more than two dozen works she has set on Dayton Ballet, Imber’s work also has been performed by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, The Sacramento Ballet, Tampa Ballet Company and Dayton Contemporary Dance Company. She served as a faculty member with the Dayton Ballet School for many years, and from 1966-1980 was co-artistic director of the company with Jon Rodriguez.
“Bess was and is a quiet calming person,” said Carol Jean Heller, administrator of the Dayton Ballet School. “She was always very soft-spoken, but managed to get the best out of a student. Her modern classes had an energy of high expectation.”
Over coffee and carrot cake, we sat down with Miss Bess to reminisce about her favorite ballet company and the mentors who inspired her.
The early years
Q: How did you first become interested in dance?
A: My mother was a dancer. She was on the vaudeville circuit for two years. She went to Botts Dancing School with Miss Jo and admired her. She longed for me to become a professional dancer and wanted me to study ballet with her.
Q: Did that interest you?
A: Oh, yes! My mother danced when she was pregnant with me and would dance with me in the living room. I just loved the music! Miss Jo started the school in her home and then used the Jane Reece mansion (in Dayton). When I was 6, I studied there.
About Miss Jo
Q: How would you describe Miss Jo?
A. She had vision and was incredible. I can’t emphasize enough what a wonderful gift she gave this city. She was artistic to the extreme, her entire life was devoted to being an artist of the highest caliber… She was disciplined to the point of being absolutely dedicated to dance every minute of her day and devoted to creating a school and a company. She gave up marriage for it.
Q: Did she want her students to become professional dancers?
A: Her vision was to give young people this great love of dance that she had. She felt each of us were unique. Today, they teach technique where all dancers look alike — slim and perfect to the point that you lose your identity. Miss Jo wanted to find your own unique creative spark and develop it. Donna Wood (who danced with famed choreographer Alvin Ailey) is a good example, Miss Jo pulled it out of her. We were all just girls off the street, but she instilled in us this creative uniqueness.
Q: Where did Miss Jo study?
A: She studied in Chicago and at George Balanchine’ School of American Ballet in New York and in Europe, and performed in New York for two years with Doris Humphrey, who was a big name in modern dance at that time. She made $14 a week.
Q: What do you remember about her dance classes?
A: She taught with imagery, not technique. So we were taught how to dance like clouds or gallop like horses. She believed in the movement of art, and we had to learn the history of dance.
Q: What was Hermene’s role?
A: She taught the younger students. She did beautiful costumes, and she was her sister’s emotional anchor. Miss Jo and Miss Hermene made you feel that giving your life to the arts was the highest calling a soul could have. Listening to classical music, reading poetry, looking at paintings and dance, knowing the history and traditions could uplift the human race and bind men closer together into a higher realm. I longed to please God by being the finest artist I could so that I could pass down the inspiration, strength, creativity and beauty that Miss Jo had shown me was in all the arts.
On their vision
Q: What was Miss Jo like as a person?
A: She was on fire all the time; she was driven. She never laughed. She was a visionary, a force. Even when I was little, I knew I was in the presence of someone other-worldly. I felt this way when I saw (famous dancer Rudolf) Nureyev also. Miss Jo was like an octopus going in so many different directions at once — she was involved in creating the Northeast Regional Dance Festival. She went to Washington to plead for Congress to give money to the National Endowment for the Arts. She organized choreography conferences. She was admired in the New York dance scene.
Q: But she always returned to Dayton?
A: She was a pioneer in the regional movement; she believed in community. She had to fight the concept that dance was frivolous. She believed it was noble. And she brought dancers of all races together. She fostered integration, which was unusual in dance at that time. Some of her relatives had died in concentration camps during World War II, and she believed in civil rights.
Q: It does sound like she was pretty tough…
A: She was very demanding. You either loved Miss Jo or you left; you couldn’t take it otherwise. I loved her. When I was little, I didn’t know my left from my right hand and she sent me out of the room and said I couldn’t come back until I knew my right from my left. For a child looking in a mirror, it could be confusing. When we got older, we had to be a certain weight — she would weigh us and if we were overweight, we lost our part.
When you walked into the studio you had to be quiet; the mothers couldn’t talk. There was no small talk. I don’t think Miss Jo knew how to have small talk. When we were sick, we had to bring our own pan to throw up in; you couldn’t stay home unless there was a death in the immediate family or a doctor wrote a note saying you couldn’t get out of bed.
If you were a dancer in the Dayton Ballet, you sat up straight and you didn’t gossip. We were to act like artists at all times and represent the highest form of the profession. It was like being able to watch a Monet painting every time you stepped into the studio; you walked into this world of hers. I feel we were so lucky. You don’t walk into worlds like that anymore.
Q: You became co-artistic director of the company with Jon Rodriguez?
A: Jon brought so many beautiful ballets to the company. And everybody loved him as a superb teacher with combinations in class of great artistic spontaneity. The company would not have flourished without his beautiful ballets and his wonderful, delightful classes.
Jon and I were appointed assistant directors in 1966 and served for 14 years before Stuart Sebastian took over. It was during that time that Jon and I founded the Touring Company, which got funded and we could pay the dancers a little. Jon remembers $25 a performance.
Q: When and why did you stop dancing and teaching?
A: I had an injury and retired at age 57 in 1997. I cried for two years, barely able to leave the house. I had loved it so much. But I was married by that time to a very kind and understanding husband who helped me in all ways.
Q: Tell us about “Inner Geist” that is being performed at the Celebration! concert.
A: There are four dancers — a male and female and their inner spirits. The inner geist is your highest spiritual goal, guiding you to God. The woman and man are dressed in World War I costumes; their inner selves are dressed in white.
My pieces are not entertainment; they are very dramatic. My husband was very ill and dying at the time.
Q: How do you feel about the company’s special anniversary this year and the upcoming concert that will feature your work?
A: I’m very grateful to be included. Miss Jo’s vision was to have a company that would perform and experience new choreographers. She didn’t want a school where you would just learn steps. She wanted a company where you could evolve as artists. The artistic directors who’ve come after her have kept her legacy. The seed that was planted in her living room has grown.
Dayton Ballet history at a glance
1927: Josephine (Jo) Schwarz and her sister Hermene open The Schwarz School of Dance in their home, charging a dime per lesson.
1930s: Jo studies dance in Europe, Chicago and New York and returns to Dayton when she was injured while performing with Doris Humphrey’s modern dance company.
1937: The Schwarz sisters form “The Experimental Group for Young Dancers,” and stage a performance at the Dayton Art Institute. This was the first performance of what is now the Dayton Ballet.
1958: The company restructures as the Dayton Civic Ballet, with a board of directors, and federal tax-exempt status.
1959: Dayton Civic Ballet became a chartered member of the Northeast Regional Ballet Association.
1966: Jon Rodriguez and Bess Saylor became co-artistic directors of the company.
1978: The company drops the “Civic” designation and becomes the fully professional Dayton Ballet.
1980: Stuart Sebastian, a student of Josephine and Hermene Schwarz, assumes directorship of the company.
1990: James Clouser, former artistic director of the Houston Ballet, becomes artistic director.
1993: Dermot Burke, a principle dancer with the Joffrey Ballet in New York, and artistic director of the American Repertory Ballet in New Jersey, assumes the dual role of executive and artistic director.
2001: Karen Russo Burke, a principal dancer for American Repertory Ballet, becomes artistic director.
SOURCE: Dayton Ballet
Dayton Ballet to celebrate its rich history at special presentation March 21-24. Article, Page XX.