Cincinnati Ballet’s Zack Grubbs and Sarah Hairston

Sarah Hairston

Sarah Hairston leads children during a 2014 “Ballerina for a Day” program co-sponsored by The Cure Starts Now. (Photo by Jennifer Denham)

From stage to studio

By David Lyman

Zack Grubbs isn’t sure when the reality of his new life will sink in.

“Will it be when we take the stage for the last time?” he wonders. “Or when the curtain comes down on our last show? Maybe it’ll be the day after that. Or the next week, when everyone else is in the studio, rehearsing, and we’re upstairs in our offices.”

After 14 years with Cincinnati Ballet, Grubbs – a senior soloist – is retiring. His longtime onstage partner, principal dancer Sarah Hairston, is retiring as well. She arrived a year before.

For those who have watched Cincinnati Ballet for any length of time, these departures will be impossible to miss. Pick nearly any of their performances during the past 15 years and one or the other was probably in a featured role.

Sara Hairston and Zack Grubbs Cincinnati Ballet’s 2014 “Symphony in C”

Sara Hairston and Zack Grubbs Cincinnati Ballet’s 2014 “Symphony in C” (Photo by Peter Mueller)

This might seem like dreadful news for the company, but in reality, a couple of pieces of good news are tucked away amidst these changes.

One is that Grubbs and Hairston haven’t quite left the stage yet. They will give a series of farewell performances as part of Cincinnati Ballet’s “Director’s Cut” series, Sept. 16-17. They will perform selections from “Raymonda,” with Level 7 students from the company’s Otto M. Budig Academy, with a few members of Cincinnati Ballet’s second company taking the corps de ballet roles.

Why the students? Well, that’s related to the other good news, likely to have a significant and lasting impact on Cincinnati Ballet.

On Aug. 1, Hairston and Grubbs stepped into new roles as the dean and principal, respectively, of Cincinnati Ballet’s academy.

“It’s definitely going to be a new life,” says Hairston who – at 35, a year younger than Grubbs – is one of the senior members of the company, both in age and longevity. “But this is something I’ve been thinking about for a couple of years.”

One of the hard realities of being a professional dancer is that, just as your non-dancing contemporaries are hitting their peak working years, you’re nearing the end of your dancing career. It’s not something teachers discuss when you start taking dance as a child. But as dancers move through their 20s, and various parts of their bodies start to betray them, planning for the future becomes increasingly urgent.

It’s not that Hairston and Grubbs were in a rush to leave the stage – either probably could have performed another year or so – but the transition to civilian life was something they had discussed for several years.

“Two or three years ago, we were talking about what the other wanted to do after our dancing careers,” recalls Grubbs. “She was like, ‘We need to open up a studio.’ It was a great idea, but it’s not something you set up in one day. You have to plan for it.”

And plan they did. Hairston taught regularly at the Budig Academy and at Oliver Arana’s Northern Cincinnati Youth Ballet studio in Mason. Grubbs, too, had been teaching in the Budig Academy.

Zack Grubbs

Zack Grubbs

With the departure last year of Sabir Yapparov, the former principal of the academy, Grubbs – injured at the time – picked up as many classes as he could.

Both Hairston and Grubbs seemed to fit comfortably into the demands of dance education. They were accessible to parents and nurturing to students. And both were open with Cincinnati Ballet CEO/artistic director Victoria Morgan about wanting to become more involved.

So when Morgan broached the idea of them assuming control of the academy, the progression seemed natural. It didn’t hurt that they will have former soloist Dawn Kelly as assistant principal and Ginger Johnston continuing as director of academy operations.

“It’s a great team,” says Grubbs. That’s not just idle talk. Kelly, who retired in 2013, brings an extraordinary knowledge of classical ballet technique. And Johnston was Morgan’s assistant for many years, working with strategic planning and helping organize many of the celebratory elements of the company’s 50th anniversary season.

There is plenty of work for all. The academy is already huge – roughly 500 young students and another 350 or so adults. But they want to grow the operation, no easy feat in the company’s limited space.

“I think my main goal right now is to get our academy recognized nationally,” says Hairston, “and to get our kids out there performing more.”

Then, she rattles off another list of things they hope to accomplish. She’d like the academy to have a greater presence in the Youth American Grand Prix, an annual competition open to dancers 9-19. And to have a larger and more respected summer intensive program.

Sarah Hairston

Sarah Hairston

She may be just a few weeks into the job, but Hairston already sounds like the boss.

Ultimately, the goal is for the academy to be a source of performers who can move into the company. It’s a formula you see in the world’s most noted dance academies. What better way to make sure a company has a steady stream of fine dancers than to train them yourself? It happens every so often in Cincinnati, but not often enough for Hairston.

“If we do our jobs the right way, we have students who will be the future trainees and Cincinnati Ballet II members,” says Hairston. “Already, I can look at the Level 7 dancers and see dancers that Victoria will want. But we have to give these younger dancers more chances to perform. Oh, and did I say that was a goal, too? All I can say is get ready for an exciting time in the academy.”

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