Louisville teenager Abby Zuccaro was in Maine with her family for the holidays when she learned that her home had been lost in the Marshall Fire. As the shocked 15-year-old absorbed the news over the coming hours and days, wondering what remained of her old life back home in Boulder County, one question cut deep: “When am I going to be able to go back to dance?”
Zuccaro, who started taking classes at Louisville’s Danse Etoile Ballet six years ago, wasn’t the only member of her company affected by the Dec. 30 wildfire that destroyed more than 1,000 other residences — and she wasn’t the only one who found herself anxious to get back on the dancefloor after the disaster.
Leila Petty, 17, whose home ultimately survived but suffered damage that displaced her family long-term, says her mind was similarly occupied in the aftermath of the inferno. She had been staying with her grandparents in Alabama when her dad texted a photo of smoke creeping over the hill near their Louisville home. Like Zuccaro, Petty says her initial disbelief quickly gave way to the same urgent question.
“I wanted a sense of normalcy, but my parents said it was never going to be normal,” she remembers. “I really just wanted to get back in the studio.”
And that’s exactly what the pair did.
“The first two dancers who were back in the studio were Abby and Leila,” says Marie-Jose Payannet, who founded Danse Etoile in 2004 as a hybrid school and performance company for young people. “They just ran into my arms. We embraced and had a few tears.”
That tearful reunion with their dance instructor, who evacuated from her own Louisville home during the fire, offered a sort of healing for the teenage ballerinas. Zuccaro says the prospect of getting back on the dancefloor was the first time since the blaze that she felt something like hope.
“Walking into the studio that day, I knew I had something to look forward to,” she says. “I just wanted to be in a place where things were semi-normal and I wouldn’t have to worry about everything going on.”
So Zuccaro and Petty threw themselves into their art form, rehearsing relentlessly for a performance that was just weeks away. The grueling physical nature of ballet training meant pushing themselves physically while still reeling emotionally from the trauma of the fire.
“I thought they were very courageous. They did not miss a beat — did not miss a rehearsal,” Payannet says. “They were just magnificent. They were strong. They were happy to be onstage.”
The show must go on
When the curtain opens during Danse Etoile’s final performance of the season on June 3–4, audiences will glimpse the culmination of months of hardship and perseverance. The three-show run features two contemporary ballets: “In a Dialogue with Gravity,” and “Matisse’s Gardens,” featuring music by Colorado composers Bruce Klepper and Dave Heffner.
The first of the two ballets asks audiences to consider the relationship between our built environment and the everyday movement of bodies. “It’s an exploration of how architecture, the city and its people have a parallel with choreography in space, lines, colors and music,” Payannet says. “It’s very high-energy — very fun.”
“Matisse’s Garden,” on the other hand, considers the life of the iconoclastic modernist painter revered for his vivid colors and revolutionary spirit, employing dance to explore the artist’s classical origins through the cut-paper collage work produced at the end of his life.
For Zuccaro and Petty, the upcoming performance — featuring a range of dance styles from ballet to jazz to contemporary movement — offers more than an end note to a tumultuous season. It’s also an opportunity to stretch themselves creatively. “We focus on ballet most of the year and most of the summer, so it’s fun to branch out and do other stuff,” Petty says.
According to Payannet, it’s that willingness to chart new creative paths that makes her students — and their work — truly special. “They’re not afraid to try new things with the classical training,” Payannet says. “They’re not afraid to put themselves out there and try to tell a different story and do something totally different with the artistry.”
But artistic drive alone can only take a dance company so far. Payannet, a native of southern France who created Danse Etoile with the hope of providing more intimate learning for young dancers than at larger institutions, says more individualized instruction leads to stronger results onstage. “The school is really small, so I have time to really connect with the students — to get to know them very well, and be able to push them,” she says.
Naturally, that smaller-scale environment of 15 often leads to a stronger bond among the dancers themselves. But for Zuccaro and Petty, that bond was forged in fire.
“We were already close [before the Marshall Fire], but I think having the same experience — being out of town and coming back to pretty much nothing — just kind of brought us closer together,” Zuccaro says.
Today Petty, the only one in the pair old enough to drive, regularly gives rides home to Zuccaro after rehearsal to her family’s temporary rental in Louisville. It’s a ritual these teens can depend on after so much instability, underscoring the power of companionship in times of crisis.
“I think we can kind of relate to each other through our experience,” Petty says. “I just feel more connected to her.”
Danse Etoile presents ‘In a Dialogue with Gravity’ and ‘Matisse’s Gardens’ at the Dairy Arts Center (2590 Walnut St.) in the Gordon Gamm Theater, June 3–4. Tickets available here.