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'The Nutcracker' performance dedicated to ballet devotee

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Dance Arts Theatre's "The Nutcracker," now in its 27th season, has raised nearly $200,000 for Children Miracle Network Hospitals.

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By Kim Grizzard
The Daily Reflector

Friday, December 7, 2018

Over nearly three decades of “The Nutcracker,” it is hard to imagine that anyone saw the Dance Arts Theatre production more than Jeane Welch.

She watched the first performance in 1985 when her daughter, Marty, was a dancer. She was in the audience when her granddaughter, Holton, twirled across the stage in her final performance in 2012. But in the years in between, Welch was known to have attended the ballet every year, every single performance, even the dress rehearsals.

It is not unusual for mothers and grandmothers to seize every opportunity to see their children and grandchildren dance. But for Welch, it wasn't just about family. In many ways, ballet became an extension of her family.

“Everyone called her Mama Jeane,” said Sherryl Tipton, founder of the North Carolina Academy of Dance Arts and artistic director of Dance Arts Theatre, the studio's pre-professional dance program. “It was like a family.”

North Carolina Academy of Dance Arts mourned the loss of a member of its dance family in January, when Welch died at age 85.

“The Nutcracker,” which marks its 27th season this weekend with performances in ECU's Wright Auditorium, will dedicate the Sunday performance to Welch's memory. Family and friends have made contributions to Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, which receives net proceeds from “The Nutcracker,” in her honor.

It might seem like an unusual choice for a company to dedicate a performance to a woman who never set foot on the stage of “The Nutcracker.” But Tipton said Welch played a vital role behind the scenes.

“She did change the face (of dance in the area), in a lot of ways,” Tipton said. “She did change the complexion of what we've been able to do.”

Welch, a native of Williamston, never took a single dance lesson. While as a teenager, Jeane McLawhorn and then-boyfriend Jack Welch sometimes won local jitterbug competitions, Jeane would have loved to have studied ballet if she had been given the chance.

“She always dreamed of it,” Marty said. “Her family was so big; it wasn't cost-effective for them. She told me she used to just stand in front of the mirror and twirl around.”

When Jeane and Jack married and had a family, they supported their children's artistic pursuits. Marty was among the first students enrolled when Tipton opened her dance studio. Jeane sewed her daughter's costume for her first role in “The Nutcracker.”

But after Marty went away to college, Welch continued to find her seat in the audience for the production. She also began to travel to watch ballet performances elsewhere.

“I was the last one to leave the house,” Marty recalled. “I said, 'Mom you need to get a hobby.' I meant like book club or something. She started taking off to New York.”

Welch become a patron of American Ballet Theater, attending performances in New York almost as regularly as she had gone to see ballet in Greenville. She went to dress rehearsals and had a chance to meet dancers backstage.

“She took them in like her own children,” Marty said. “After their performances, she would offer to take them out to dinner. She just loved them and loved their art and loved to talk to them about it.”

Welch got to know famous people in the ballet world, including Mikhail Baryshnikov, who once stunned Marty by greeting her mother by her first name. She also struck up a friendship with dancer Benjamin Pierce, who was beginning his professional career with American Ballet Theater.

It was Welch who extended the invitation to Pierce, later a principal dancer with the San Francisco Ballet, to come to Greenville as a guest artist in Dance Arts Theatre's “The Nutcracker.” Pierce's performance as Cavalier was a leap forward for the Greenville production, opening the door for artists like Veronica Lynn and Julie Kent to follow.

“At that time Julie Kent was the prima ballerina,” Tipton said. “(Jeane) made the connection to the top. It would be like bringing Michael Jordan in.”

The Welches invited the dancers to stay in their home, treating them like their children. Marty recalls that some of the dancers would return months after the winter performance, joining the family on trips to the beach.

The family also hosted the annual cast party following each season's final performance of “The Nutcracker.”

D.H. Conley High School senior Reagan Bullock, a student at the N.C. Academy of Dance Arts since age 3, remembers attending those parties as a child, having a chance to mingle with guest artists and always taking a group photo on the staircase of the Welch's home.

Reagan recalled being amazed to learn that Kent, now artistic director of The Washington Ballet, had posed for photos on that same staircase after “The Nutcracker” several years ago.

Hillary Weismiller, who was in the same dance class as Holton Welch, said that as a young dancer, she was unaware the Jeane Welch had so many connections in the ballet world.

“She was down to earth,” Weismiller said. “But had it not been for her, I don't know that we would have found those kind of people. She kind of opened the door for the start of all that.”

This year's production of “The Nutcracker” continues that tradition with guest artists Timour Bourtasenkov, former principal dancer and founding member of Carolina Ballet; Richard Krusch, who has worked with American Ballet Theatre and the Hungarian National Ballet, World Ballet Competition bronze medalist Rammaru Shindo; and Yevgeny Shlapko and Margaret Severin-Hansen of Carolina Ballet.

The ballet will include a cast of 120, some of them too young to remember how Welch was always in the audience for every performance.

“I don't know why she did it,” Tipton said of Welch's ongoing support. “She just did. She would come to dress rehearsals when she knew no one, just to be a part of it. I think it just touched her heart.

“She was bringing to this community opportunities that may not have been possible at the time without her relationships,” she said, “and she enjoyed knowing that people were going to have an opportunity to perhaps feel the way she felt sitting in the auditorium.”

WANT TO GO?

Dance Arts Theatre will present “The Nutcracker” ballet at 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at ECU’s Wright Auditorium. Net proceeds from this event will be donated to the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals to benefit the James and Connie Maynard Children’s Hospital at Vidant Medical Center. Tickets are $35 for adults and $28 for children. Call 328-4788.

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