It's a very important day at Dance Wisconsin. A Regional Dance America representative is visiting to decide which of the company's routines will be performed in Chicago next month. She impatiently shushes the dancers, who talk, laugh and move about excitedly. The issue isn't that the dancers lack seriousness; it's that they're all between the ages of 12 and 18. But when the show begins, they bust out some very serious skills. Five routines in, they show no sign of tiring. Standing in the corner, quietly calling the shots, is their teacher, JoJean Retrum, Dance Wisconsin's founder and artistic director.
Though Retrum has spent decades as a major force in local dance training, she looks like a kindergarten teacher. Small, blond and gently aging, she has a kind and soft-spoken manner, though she describes herself as strict.
"If kids are misbehaving for another teacher, all I need to do is stick my head in the door," she says. "I say, 'I want you to have fun, but there's a time you have to be really serious if you want to be better.'"
Retrum believes in building better dancers. One of her former students, Ethan Stiefel, was a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre in New York and the Royal Ballet in London. Now he's the artistic director of the New Zealand Ballet. He's just one alum on the long list of professionals Retrum has trained.
How has Retrum made so many topnotch dancers from Madison kids? First of all, teaching is a legacy, handed down by her mother and former company partner, Jean Adams, who died last year at age 83. When Retrum speaks of her, she cries.
"My mother taught me everything. The love of the dance and training people. She said you can teach anyone how to dance if you work hard enough."
She says her mother taught thousands of students one-on-one. It's clear this approach informs her own.
"You don't sit there and tell kids what to do. You have to go in and point their foot and fix their arm. It's all hands-on," she says.
A deeply divisive Nutcracker
Retrum and Adams formed Dance Wisconsin after breaking with an earlier company, the Wisconsin Dance Ensemble. The connection began and ended over, of all things, The Nutcracker, the holiday favorite that draws even the most casual ballet fans. According to Retrum, local dance teachers approached her in the mid-1970s about staging a Madison Nutcracker. Adams invested in the idea, buying scenery and costumes with her own money. The costumes she couldn't purchase, she sewed by hand.
Retrum and Adams auditioned local dancers and produced their first Nutcracker at West High School in 1977, where it remained for a couple of years until the opening of the Civic Center downtown. The annual production moved to that site, now the home of Overture Center, taking on union hands and a hired orchestra.
"Every studio in town had dancers in it," Retrum says. "It was one big, happy family."
What happened next Retrum describes as "a really long, touchy subject." It's clear the break still stings.
"Some people just started getting upset that their kids weren't getting the parts they wanted. They thought I had favoritism. I never had favoritism. If the kids couldn't dance it, they couldn't do the part," she says.
Before long, things got ugly.
"It got to the point where some people...got me fired," Retrum says.
That company, which later became the Madison Ballet, reportedly took the sets and costumes Adams purchased. (Kim Straka, Madison Ballet's spokeswoman, declined to comment, noting that the organization's current staff had not yet been hired.)
"But my dancers stayed with me," Retrum insists.
Building better dancers
Dance Wisconsin's resources are modest, especially compared to those of the Madison Ballet. Retrum's company receives no financial support from the city and only a small amount of money from the state each year. She practices frugality to make ends meet, doing "a lot with a little." What she has she pours into her dancers.
But the challenges aren't just financial. In 2009 Retrum was diagnosed with breast cancer, which required two lumpectomies and an eventual mastectomy with follow-up chemotherapy. She had the mastectomy on Halloween but held off on the chemo because she had her own Nutcracker — a production she calls the Nutcracker Fantasy — planned for December. She shrugs off the seriousness of that decision.
"I just put it off a couple weeks. I wasn't going to let the kids down," she says.
Choreographed by Retrum, Nutcracker Fantasy is an ambitious production full of carolers and waltzing couples. Retrum characterizes it as "a little more family-friendly" than some other productions in the region. Retrum emphasizes that her mission is training dancers.
"We take young people and give them opportunity. We give them experience being in a company, so if they want, they can go right from Dance Wisconsin into a major company," Retrum explains.
Justin Genna, a former student of Retrum's who is now a professional dancer with the Milwaukee Ballet, agrees.
"JoJean offers a company atmosphere that very few schools, especially in Wisconsin, have to offer," he says. "The schedules she writes up on the board look a lot like the schedules I get at work every day. She's building dancers [for] the workforce of dance."
But that's not the only quality that makes Dance Wisconsin feel like a professional ensemble.
Genna emphasizes the "atmosphere of working together and putting on a show."
In other words, the company's collaborative approach can help dancers recognize their potential.
"It's not about one person. It's not about individuals being the prima ballerina and the leading star of everything," he says. "JoJean is about everybody doing their part and doing it well, and that's why she can create such quality shows with young artists."
Genna has returned to Dance Wisconsin to dance the lead in this spring's show, La Fille Mal Gardée (April 12 and 13), a comic ballet with such kid-friendly highlights as chickens, a maypole dance and a storm.
In addition to training young performers, Retrum's mission includes bringing dance into the community. Excerpts of La Fille will be performed at several local libraries and community centers. There was even a show for very young children and kids with special needs at the UW's Waisman Center.
About 100 kids and parents jammed into the Waisman Center's small theater. When the music began, one dancer went en pointe and unfurled a long, colorful ribbon from her hand. A small boy shouted out, "Mama, it's magic!"
In a way, it was, considering that the Waisman performance was many kids' first exposure to dance.
A self-acknowledged workaholic, Retrum also runs a "dance in the schools" program, which includes ballet, jazz and hip-hop dance instruction in elementary school physical education classes in Madison and Sun Prairie. She's discovered a few new Dance Wisconsin students in these settings. Though a couple of them have no money for classes, she's found a way for them to participate in the company. Dollars must be stretched, but more students are experiencing the joy of dance.
The Dance Wisconsin studio on Monona Drive is worn but comfortable, like a favorite slip-on shoe. In the lobby, posters pile up on two crowded desks. An old couch sags beneath students. Down the hall, in the main studio, dancers crowd around the door, straining to watch older students prepare solos for La Fille. Barres are shoved to the side, and the air conditioner blasts, even in the winter. Ballet is hard work. Sweat is expected.
Retrum describes the studio as "a zoo."
"Some of my kids are here from nine until five. Even if they have a break, they're in the back studio choreographing or helping each other learn something. It's like, 'Guys can you just sit and rest? You're making me tired,'" Retrum says with a laugh.
Still, there is that strictness, that drive to develop the best possible dancers. Retrum says she encourages students to take multiple classes each week to develop their potential. She also offers more learning opportunities.
"In the summer I bring in guest teachers and we study the history of dance. We look at videos," she explains.
And they talk about injuries. Retrum says dancers typically stop performing full time in their 30s, and she wants kids to be prepared for this reality by asking what comes next. She also advises them to work their way up to larger companies, waiting until their bodies are ready for the physical demands.
"Some don't listen," she says. "I tell them I've been there. I've done it. It's just a harder road for them."
Retrum has more modest wishes for the company itself. She hopes to upgrade the facility one day. The wish list includes more equipment for the dancers and a bigger area for costumes, which currently fill the basement of her home. She's also looking forward to a residency featuring Cuban ballet great Alicia Alonso. That's scheduled for this summer.
"A lot of teachers teach just to the best one in class. But she'll help anyone. And she loves young kids," Retrum says of Alonso. It sounds familiar.
Though she's a mother of two and a grandmother of one, Retrum also talks about her many students like a proud parent.
"I think my legacy is my dancers," she says. "They're starting to pass it all on.... When I'm gone, they will all be able to do it."