In 1978, Laurie and Michael Byrd founded The Florida Ballet as a small performance company with a mission to enhance the quality of life in Michael’s home community by bringing dance to Jacksonville. The first several years were extremely successful: The small company of nine dancers regularly sold out performances and toured throughout Florida. The company’s original practice space was located in the back of the Ivey’s department store in Downtown (now the JEA building). As The Florida Ballet’s success continued, the need for a more permanent space became apparent and the organization acquired a building on Forsyth Street, across from the Florida Theatre.
The company’s most successful performance years occurred between the years of 1983 and 1989. Unfortunately, after the loss of government grants and corporate funding during the recession, the performance company could not be sustained and was dissolved. Because of Laurie Byrd’s professional background, her teaching became highly requested and was a source of stability and continued opportunity for the organization during this period of financial hardship. Consequently, the general focus of The Florida Ballet towards the educational and training aspects of classical ballet was re-established, and The Florida Ballet Training Center was formed.
The loss of funding during the recession and the passing of Michael and then Laurie, in 2014, brought The Florida Ballet to the brink of collapse a couple of times, but each time the organization endured.
In September 2018, The Florida Ballet will celebrate its 40th anniversary. Today, the organization has flourished into a multi-faceted institution, encompassing the original Training Center, conservatory and graduate programs, and a superior outreach department serving thousands annually throughout the neighborhoods of Jacksonville and beyond.
Advancing our mission to enrich and inspire the community through the art of classical ballet, we provide quality instruction for students ages 3-21 at the Downtown studio and new satellite location in Mandarin, together with outreach opportunities at numerous Title 1 schools, and accessible, collaborative community performances.
With the change in focus from being a performance company to dance education, The Florida Ballet is now mostly known for its training of serious minded dancers and providing the quality foundation needed to pursue the dream of professional dance.
However, the organization continues to develop full-circle and is evolving back to fulfill its dual function as a service organization, not only as a dance education facility but also as a presenter of performance and outreach opportunities that maximize the visibility of dance in Jacksonville.
The Florida Ballet hopes to maintain this momentum by getting back to our founding roots as a small, regional professional dance company and to provide community members of all ages the chance to experience the joy and magic of live ballet. Under the direction of Artistic Director Linda Reifsnyder Jenkins, the initial steps toward this goal are to expand upon the offering of full-length family performances. For the first time in over two decades, a 2018/19 season of family-oriented performances will be presented: The Magic Toy Shop, The Nutcracker, and Alice in Wonderland, will all be performed at the UNF Fine Arts Center’s Lazzara Theater.
In addition to a performance season, The Florida Ballet continues to demonstrate a philosophy that reaches beyond its mission of excellence in dance education and performance; affirming the ideology that everyone matters and striving to offer relevant opportunities that are both inclusive and outward looking, mirroring themes found within the community. Working individually, as well as collaboratively, The Florida Ballet reaches as many as possible through varied and meaningful ways such as in-school residencies, community demonstrations, and after-school enrichment programs.
In its 40th year, The Florida Ballet can look back on a long history of dance in Jacksonville, a history that has seen it take different forms and different approaches. From the very beginning, The Florida Ballet sought to awaken and uplift the human spirit, for both audiences and artists. As we move forward into what hopefully will be our next forty years, we do so knowing that dance has a vital and meaningful place in Jacksonville and our world. It has the power to inspire and motivate, make us happier and healthier, and to change lives for the better. Dance inspires the creation of supportive communities, provides opportunities, fosters diversity, and develops creativity, ultimately making our city a wonderful place to live.
By Martha Lemire, Executive Director