A Jacksonville Gem

The Florida Ballet’s Laurie Picinich-Byrd leaves her legacy in their performance of The Nutcracker

Michael Byrd and Laurie Picinich-Byrd

Michael Byrd and Laurie Picinich-Byrd

While talking over the phone one night, Laurie Picinich and Michael Byrd, two accomplished ballet dancers working in New York City, lamented the fact that there were so many dance opportunities in NYC and so few elsewhere in the country. Byrd, a Jacksonville native, specifically cited the need for more dance in his hometown. By the end of the conversation, they had decided to start a dance company in Jacksonville and call it The Florida Ballet.

As Picinich told it, the following morning, while warming up in dance class, she asked Byrd, “Did you ask me to be your business partner?” to which he replied, “I was kind of hoping you’d be my wife.” The two married in 1978, then moved to Jacksonville and opened The Florida Ballet later that year.
Michael Byrd died in 1996; Laurie Picinich-Byrd  in October 2014. Before her passing, The Joffrey Ballet Concert Group (New York) and The Florida Ballet    presented “Celebration of Achievement – a Tribute to Mrs. Laurie Picinich-Byrd” in the Lazzara Performance Hall at the University of North Florida, where Jacksonville’s Mayor Brown presented their son, Christopher Byrd, with the Mayor’s Proclamation, honoring Picinich-Byrd for her thirty-five years of service to the city’s culture and dance scene. Also presented was a citation from the City Council of Jacksonville honoring The Florida Ballet, and the Governor’s Award for Teaching Excellence awarded to Picinich-Byrd.

Thus, this marks the first year that The Florida Ballet’s performance of The Nutcracker, historically cast and choreographed by Picinich-Byrd, will go on without the company’s founders. Artistic Director Linda R. Jenkins says Picinich-Byrd selected this year’s cast of over one-hundred and thirty dancers and alternating casts of children. Auditionees came from The Florida Ballet’s Training Center as well as the Jacksonville community at large.

Her choreography remains, strengthening the storyline of Clara as a child in this classic ballet by Tchaikovsky based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s tale, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Jenkins says Picinich-Byrd “presents the Kingdom of the Sweets as having many confections, putting artistic life into fanciful childish dreams. It celebrates the power of human imagination, which children have in abundance.”

Currently, The Florida Ballet is the only professional 501(c)(3) dance organization in the Northeast Florida area, and is governed by a volunteer board of directors, artistic director, and administrative director. It operates The Florida Ballet at Jacksonville, The Florida Ballet Training Center and The Florida Ballet Conservatory of Dance.

Picinich-Byrd with Mikhail Baryshnikov

Picinich-Byrd with Mikhail Baryshnikov

Its roots tie in to the history of Downtown, having debuted as a company in 1979 at the Civic Auditorium’s Little Theatre. This first year established their commitment to education as well, with federal grants funding one-hundred and twenty-five in-school programs, in addition to the dance concerts in the theater, by the following season.

In 1981, The Florida Ballet Training Center was added to provide training for those pursuing professional dance careers. The company and newly formed training center were given rehearsal space in what was the Ivey’s building (now JEA building), and then at First Presbyterian Church on Monroe Street.

Needing still more space, they moved into an historic building on Forsyth Street, across the street from the Florida Theatre, and began a stretch of touring performances throughout the Southeast from 1983 to 1989.

In 1991, Byrd was diagnosed with melanoma and began his five year fight, dividing his and Picinich-Byrd’s time between family and The Florida Ballet. Picinich-Byrd kept the company and training center thriving. The training center adopted the American Ballet Theatre® National Training Curriculum, an eight-level set of age-appropriate, outcome-based guidelines for dance training, and boasts a one-hundred percent acceptance record for students going on to dance programs at the university level. The Florida Ballet was awarded a 2007 grant by the Weaver Family Foundation, which they utilized in part for scholarships for their talented students with financial need.

Having hopped around Downtown, The Florida Ballet today calls 300 East State Street home. The facility has three large sprung-floor studios, dressing rooms, a professional sound system, and office space. They staff eight full and part-time professional teachers with over twenty-five years of dance education experience, and many are also certified in ABT® Curriculum.

Sara Webb - Nutcracker - attitude poncheThe company’s performances have continued, with a mix of contemporary pieces and classics like The Nutcracker. This year’s Nutcracker sees the return of Houston Ballet principal dancers Sara Webb and Ian Casady to dance the roles of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier.

Despite the recent loss of Picinich-Byrd, felt keenly by all associated with The Florida Ballet, throughout the arts community, and beyond, Jenkins says, “The Nutcracker possesses the power to make people happy at Christmas.” And Laurie Picinch-Byrd’s inspiring legacy will live on.

Performances of The Florida Ballet’s The Nutcracker are set for Dec. 20 at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Dec. 21 at 3 p.m. in the Lazzara Performance Hall at UNF. Call 353-7519 for tickets or order online at www.floridaballet.org.

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Author: Arbus

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