Editor’s note: Tessa Gaffney is a graduate assistant in the Arts Admin program at the University of Akron. This is the first in a series of interviews with notable UA alumni.
The Dance Program at The University of Akron would not exist without Jane Startzman.
First, some background: Heinz Poll, principal dancer with the Berlin State Opera Ballet, ballet master of the National Ballet of Chile and Ballet de Jeunesse Musicales de France, and teacher at New York’s National Academy of Ballet, came to Akron in the late ’60s at the invitation of five teachers from dance studios in the area.
Initially in town for a summer intensive, he decided he wanted to stay here and build a dance company, as he could get from New York City to Akron and back in a day. The summer intensive eventually evolved to become the Dance Institute at The University of Akron, and Ohio Chamber Ballet was developed into an extremely polished, respected and widely traveled dance company.
A Cleveland native, Jane Startzman joined at the end of 1968, after participating in the summer intensive and auditioning for the company. She was an apprentice for a year. In 1970, when Jane and seven of her contemporaries were set to graduate high school, they found themselves facing a dilemma: they wanted to continue dancing with Heinz Poll and their parents wanted them to go to college. A generous benefactor and patron of the arts, Ellen Herberich (whose husband, Charles, was a major donor in the fundraising drive that resulted in E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall) came forward with scholarship money for the eight dancers, and the Dance Program at The University of Akron was born.
The initial faculty consisted of Dance Institute teachers, company members and Heinz Poll himself. The University of Akron provided generous support in the way of free use of studio space for the company in return for having Heinz Poll permanently in residence, along with his partner, world-renowned lighting designer, Thomas Skelton. Ohio Chamber Ballet, and later, Ohio Ballet was soon touring around the nation with the byline “in residence at The University of Akron” on all promotional materials, making the company one of Akron’s greatest exports.
Jane and her peers took classes during the day and rehearsed for the company at night. By the mid ’70s, they were touring extensively: five weeks in the fall, five weeks in the spring. In order to earn their bachelor’s degrees in four years, the students completed homework while they were away, and they received credit for the touring itself. Jane joked, “We were actually doing what the heck it was we were supposed to be getting a degree to do. We kinda were doing it the reverse way, which was really unusual, and an interesting thing for them all [the professors and administrators] to figure out.”
To Florida and back to Akron
Upon graduation from the UA Dance Program, Jane left the company for two years. She moved to Florida, joined the Tampa Ballet, learned Hawaiian dancing, and tried on several different hats, until Heinz Poll asked her to come back.
“When I was a dancer [with Ohio Ballet], I really got to stretch my repertoire a lot. I got to do everything from Laura Dean, to Paul Taylor, to Balanchine,” she said. “I mean, lots of different really masterful choreographers and pieces.”
After a hip injury in the early ’80s, Jane retired and was promoted to Company Manager of the Ohio Ballet. She was in charge of bus schedules, hotel reservations, and dancer per diems – all of the operational things that directly affect the artists and artistic staff. “In the beginning, it was really scary, because as a dancer, you don’t speak, you do what you’re told, and coming into a profession where you have to talk to people on the phone, you have to negotiate, I was terrified,” she adds. But after two tours of meeting with promoters, she gained confidence in her ability to facilitate between administration and dancers as well as be an advocate in the boardroom.
“One thing I would tell dancers, if you do have a career in dance, you’re going to get to that place where you ask yourself, ‘What the hell am I going to do now?’” Jane asked. “I thought I was going to dance forever. I never thought I would have those skills [but] what you learn when you dance, it translates into everything if you just let it.” Dedication, perseverance, attention to detail, refusal to give up: these are the things dance teaches you, and the reason dancers are an asset to any business or community.
Jane remained in this position until the early ’90s; when Heinz Poll left, she stayed with Ohio Ballet for one more year before moving on herself. Fascinated by history and houses, she next pursued real estate, before a Volunteer Coordinator job opened up at the Akron Civic Theatre. As luck would have it, Howard Parr, executive director of the Civic, used to be executive director of the Ohio Ballet while Jane was Company Manager. (It is definitely a small world in the Akron arts scene.) Currently, she holds the position of director of Events for the Civic Theatre, planning every event that happens at the famous venue. She is also director of the Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival, a tribute to her mentor’s lasting legacy.
A marriage of parks and dance
When Heinz Poll danced in Chile, he was inspired by the company’s tradition of bringing serious programs to indigenous people in remote mountain villages. Heinz and the rest of the National Ballet would lay down pieces of plywood and perform in the center of the community, a free offering of art. “It was something the villagers had never seen before and they loved it. It was a sharing of culture,” she explained. When he brought the idea of a no-cost outdoor presentation to Akron, critics balked, asking who would foot the bill. “Everyone told him he was crazy, but he was accustomed to accomplishing what others thought impossible.”
The festival’s first performance was in Cascade Plaza on wood that was, literally, borrowed from the lumberyard of a stagehand’s father. It was extremely successful. From then on, the city signed a contract with Ohio Ballet to produce an annual festival at three different Akron parks, called “Summer Festival.” It caught on so well that at one point, Ohio Ballet was traveling to 10 different parks in Northeast Ohio, from Ashtabula to Warren. Referred to affectionately as “the chain gain,” the team built the stage on site, making innovations when necessary (such as placing salamander heaters under the stage to address the dew that would drip from the trees and endanger dancers), sometimes tearing down overnight by the headlights of their truck in one location and setting up by sunrise in the next.
Summer Festival continued until Ohio Ballet disbanded in 2006. That year, Jane spoke with Dave Lieberth, the Chief of Staff for then Mayor Don Plusquellic, who had a personal interest in preserving the festival as his daughter was a dancer. A core group of enthusiasts, including Jane, Dave, Neil Sapienza (former director of UA School of Dance, Theatre, and Arts Administration), Margaret Carlson (producing artistic director of Verb Ballets), David Shimotakahara from Groundworks Dance Theatre (who will be guest-choreographing in this semester’s Spring UADC) and a few other local names in dance deliberated and collaborated to create the “Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival.” Since there was no more Ohio Ballet, the new format would feature a different professional company each weekend for three weeks. Each location became a chance to celebrate a new neighborhood and allow them to take ownership of their portion of this cherished event. This year will mark the 47th season that the city of Akron has sponsored the event, providing free admission and high quality dance performances for all.
Before Heinz Poll came to Akron, (and Jane remembers this, she would like to point out, because she was here) there was no dance. There were local studios, but the university program didn’t exist, and E.J. Thomas had yet to be built.
Today, The University of Akron Dance Program is named one of the most sought-after dance programs in the country by Dance Spirit magazine and has been accredited by the National Association of Schools of Dance since 1986. Students have access to outstanding facilities, renowned and caring faculty, and stellar guest artists and residencies, such as Parsons Dance, Abraham in Motion, and Urban Bush Women. UA’s Guzzetta Hall is home to the Dance Institute, still going strong offering recreational and pre-professional programs for students ages 7 through high school, and the National Center for Choreography, only the second of its kind in the country. Martha Graham, Hispánico Ballet, and other companies of note, beg to be asked back for the Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival.
Heinz Poll is responsible for making Akron a destination place for dance.
As we bring our hour-long interview inside the beautiful Akron Civic, one of only five remaining atmospheric theaters in America, to a close, Jane Startzman asks, “How do you keep a legacy alive?”
Her answer: That’s our job. The storytellers, the ones who remain. We must seek solutions, break boundaries, and never, ever give up.