Emily Hartka retired from her dance career last year, but she’s only just getting started.
Hartka, a 2005 graduate of E.C. Glass High School and Virginia School of the Arts (VSA), co-founded Charlottesville Ballet with fellow dancer Sara Clayborne in 2007.
Having just wrapped up their 10th anniversary season, Hartka and Clayborne are setting their sights on expanding the company’s offerings in Charlottesville and beyond — including as the resident dance company at the newly reopened Academy Center of the Arts’ historic Academy of Music Theatre.
The residency began earlier this week, when the company performed as part of the Academy’s “Legacies” event, and continues with two sold-out performances of “The Nutcracker” this weekend and, in March, a brand-new production of “Cinderella,” choreographed by Pedro Szalay from Roanoke-based Southwest Virginia Ballet.
Like “The Nutcracker,” “Cinderella” will feature the professional company alongside more than two dozen local children — “so it is a true community production,” Hartka says.
“We’ve had a lot of good conversations about what it means to be a resident dance company and what collaborations can come from that,” Hartka says, listing off the different organizations that they’re working with on “The Nutcracker,” which include the Lynchburg Symphony Orchestra and Cantate Children’s and Youth Choir.
They’ll be holding “Cinderella” auditions for young dancers in January at Lynchburg-based Central Virginia Ballet, an organization Hartka says her company has partnered with since 2015.
Charlottesville Ballet has had a presence in Lynchburg off and on since 2010, when they began coming to town to collaborate with local dance legend Keith Lee.
The company’s dancers have been performing “The Nutcracker” at E.C. Glass High School for the past three years, and Hartka says they’re looking forward to doing even more through the partnership with the Academy.
“The Academy residency is really that relationship, and knowing we have space and we have the space and time to bring all these partners on board. That is the cultural renaissance in downtown Lynchburg … bringing these quality partners together.”
The Academy, for its part, has a long history of dance in the space, which hosted the likes of dance icons Martha Graham, Isadora Duncan and Russian ballerina Pavlova during its heyday.
“When you look at the theater’s history, but also the Fine Arts Center as well … dance has been a critical part of both those organizations,” says Academy Executive Director Geoff Kershner. “We have really made a conscious effort to get dance back into the facility.”
“They, for obvious reasons, love the theater, but [for] reasons that also may not be quite as clear,” he adds. “The stage space is so large in this theater, so for dance, it makes it really fantastic for their work.”
Hartka, a Roanoke native, came to Lynchburg for her senior year of high school to attend E.C. Glass and VSA and remembers seeing the old theater — “that amazing building” — as a student.
She left town after graduation to join the Richmond Ballet as a trainee. There, she met Clayborne and, together, they developed an idea for a different kind of ballet company, which came to fruition with the founding of Charlottesville Ballet in 2007.
“Our whole mission is for dancer health and wellness,” Hartka explains. “I had 10 years of eating disorders and so much pressure in the professional ballet world. It’s finally changing now, and we’re part of this movement of accepting people of different body sizes, shapes and colors.
“[But] that’s such a thing in the professional dance world. I was told, ‘If you lose 10 pounds, we’ll give you a job.’ These are all young women, highly motivated, type A personalities. It’s just a breeding ground for mental health and eating disorders.”
Charlottesville Ballet, which has 15 dancers, “has no rigid physical aesthetic for its dancers and all body types are celebrated,” according to its website.
Hartka says they also offer wellness seminars and free physical therapy to their dancers.
“It’s definitely a re-education for a lot of dancers who have been in the ballet field for years, being told you have to look this way.”
It also ties in with Hartka’s passion for dance, which she says she never exactly found in the classroom.
“There are these technicians who are beautiful. … Every little detail is perfect and that is so required in classical ballet,” she says, adding that for her, “it’s always [been about] being onstage, telling a story, becoming the music. That was always my favorite. [I knew], ‘OK, I have to take class and work on my technique.’ But I’ve always been more [about] the creativity and artistry and telling the story.”