Ballet takes up residence on Vermont farms

NEW HAVEN — Megan Stearns is in mid-air. Her back leg is straight, toe pointed, and her front leg is outstretched, hurtling her body toward the ground.
Stearns is a ballerina — she’s danced her entire life — but she’s used to landing on a dance studio’s solid wood floor. Now, in this fraction of a second, while she floats several feet from the Earth, she’ll have to prepare herself to land on an uneven, unknown surface.
Specifically, Stearns will land on the lawn of Philo Ridge Farm in Charlotte. She’ll do it gracefully, with a broad smile on her face. The live orchestra will continue to play, and 20 of her fellow ballerinas, dressed as leaves of lettuce and strawberries, will continue to plié behind her. A sheep will continue to baa in a pasture off to the right.
Stearns is dressed in flannel and blue jean-colored leggings. In this production, she plays a farmer.
This is Farm to Ballet — the first show of the company’s second season. It is led and directed by Chatch Pregger, an instructor at Spotlight Studio in Burlington.
“We were trying to think of ways we could perform that would be interesting to people,” he said.
Photo credit: Tim Barden
In Pregger’s class, adults get ballet training comparable to a pre-professional program, according to Eileen Maddocks, a student of Pregger’s who moved to Burlington several years ago to retire. Stearns agrees, the training is high-caliber, and his students have faith in him.
Enough faith that when he pitched the idea to dance on farms, more than 20 dancers signed up.
Maddocks laughed when she recalled the moment she first heard the proposal, admitting that she thought it was “different.” But it didn’t take much convincing for her to hop on board. 
“I went to the information meeting and everything they said made sense,” she said. “I wasn’t so sure about dancing on grass, but that turned out to be no problem, and the camaraderie within the company — the love and friendship that we all have for each other — that was very meaningful to me.”
This summer, the company has a few additional members, including Drew Grant, a professional dancer for the Carolina Ballet, and Kian Reagan-Caer, a 9-year-old Middlebury boy whose dance teacher knows Chatch and recommended him for the show. He plays a young mischievous goat.
Pregger got the idea when one of his long-time students expressed interest in performing. Instead of the normal recital routine, which attracts mostly family and close friends, she wanted the show to appeal to a broad audience. Then Pregger attended a grilling night at a farm and loved the atmosphere. He married the two things in his mind, and the idea was born.
Next he took the concept to the dancers.
“So I said, ‘Let’s do a farm ballet,’” he said. “And one of the girls said ‘You’re going to call it a farm ballet’? and I said maybe we should call it ‘Farm to Ballet,’ like ‘Farm to Table.’ And that was it.”
The end product is a celebration of farming culture, not only in regards to its joyous choreography, but also in its mission. The proceeds from the $15 ticket are donated to a nonprofit, which is often the farm itself.
“Farming has always been something that I feel is really important, and it’s the most central thing to what makes any society run the way it does,” Pregger said. “We wanted to support something that people could be excited about. It’s a happy project — we wanted people to experience the joy that we feel in dancing.”
Photo credit: Tim Barden
This Saturday, July 30, Golden Well Farms and Apiaries in New Haven will host Farm to Ballet, and they will also be the recipient of the proceeds from the show. Nicole Burke, who co-owns the farm with her husband, Ryan Miller, met Pregger at a mutual friend’s get-together. Later, they put the pieces together and decided to partner up.
Burke and Miller bought the farm when they moved to Vermont in 2012. Since then, they’ve been busy growing four acres of vegetables and offering a farm-share program, which has 32 members so far. They’ve also started hosting pizza nights, where they feature their veggies on pizzas cooked in a clay oven in their sprawling backyard.
“It’s intense,” Burke said. “It’s the dream, but the dream’s a lot of work.”
The funds from Farm to Ballet will go toward a pick-your-own berry garden, which Burke hopes will help people be more connected to the land.
“One of the things I’m most excited about,” Pregger said, “is that the money raised from the show can be used to enhance the community, and in that case, it will create a place for people to pick their own berries that didn’t use to exist, and help the farm to be more sustainable at the same time.”
Since Farm to Ballet’s debut last summer, they’ve attracted some attention and a wide range of partners and sponsors, including Green Mountain Performing Arts and Vermont PBS. Pregger says that the ballerinas, many of whom didn’t expect to perform when they enrolled in his class, were gutsy for jumping into a production that was so unlike anything that’s been done before.
“It was extremely brave of them to take part in something like that, where there were really no models to look at,” he said.
But the dancers are getting used to leaping into uncharted territory. Stearns says dancing on a farm takes some getting used to because it’s so completely different.
“You know what it is? It’s the unknown. When you land at the end of a jump, you never know quite what you’re going to be landing on, which is a little bit scary,” she said. “But there’s also something really exhilarating about it because you don’t have the boundaries of four walls, you have a ton of space out there, and the sky is very high, and it does give you the sense of freedom.”
Saturday’s performance will be held at Golden Well Farm & Apiaries at 1089 River Road, New Haven, Vermont. Doors open at 5 p.m., and the show will begin at 6 p.m. For more information, visit farmtoballet.org. 

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