Founded in 1979, North Atlantic Ballet, originally titled Dragongarde, was the brain-child of ex-Boston ballet dancers Skip Warren and Rachel Whitman. Its initial performance took place during First Night in Boston, where the company performed A Telemann Suite, with choreography by Skip. After a move to Georgia for a year to dance with the Atlanta Ballet, the couple, now married with twin daughters Sarah and Lucy, re-located to Cape Ann, Massachusetts in 1981.
Following a summer teaching at Windhover Performing Arts Camp, the couple established a ballet school in Gloucester, called North Atlantic DanceArts, in an effort to bring quality dance training to the area. They also taught in Boston, at Tania Babushkina’s ballet studio on Boylston St., where they took over the lease that year when Mme. Babushkina retired. Along with the studio came several promising student dancers and complete sets and costumes for the Nutcracker!
They were also fortunate to discover several adult professional dancers living on the North Shore who were interested in working with them, and they were able to start the ballet company, now re-named North Atlantic Ballet. With the assistance of manager/dancer Barbara McCoy and Board member Sherri Lassiter, NAB quickly got its non-profit status, and was able to produce its first full-length Nutcracker on the Fuller School stage in Gloucester. The following spring they produced Hansel and Gretel, also in Gloucester.
Perhaps because of the duality of the company’s bases, both in Gloucester and Boston, it seemed natural to try to find a performance venue in the Boston area. In 1982, NAB was invited to perform its Nutcracker at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester. The company developed a school program which bussed inner-city students into the theatre to see 10 am performances of the Nutcracker, with evening and matinee shows for the general public on the weekends. This program was so successful that the Board of the Strand asked the company to become resident for the year. This led to an 11-year relationship between NAB and the Strand Theatre. Various full-length ballets and chamber repertory were produced for the general public, as well as for local school children, while the company held the residency.
In 1983, NAB became part of the Mass. Artists-in-Residence program, where they gave lecture-demonstrations and performed in local schools. The company was also accepted by the Mass. Cultural Council and the Young Audiences of America’s rosters, which enabled them to tour New England with their productions. Financially, NAB was starting to attract the attention of corporate and private foundations such as the Globe Foundation, the Stevens Foundation, and the Rockefeller Family Trust. The company also gained artistic strength, when Skip and Rachel created an original folk-ballet called Dogtown Phantoms, a tribute to the people of the first settlement, called Dogtown, on Cape Ann. The music was original sea shanties, composed by Gloucester musician, Ivar Baerentsten, and performed live by him and his wife for the ballet. The performances took place not only at the Strand, but also outdoors that summer, at the Harbor Loop in Gloucester, and were received with much enthusiasm. Dogtown Phantoms became the signature piece for the company, and a documentary was filmed about it and aired on the local Cape Ann tv station.
The next couple of years were rocky financially, however, for both the school and the company, and despite their best efforts to keep the Gloucester school going, it wasn’t making enough money to justify keeping it open and had to close its doors. Fortunately, Skip found a ballet school in Copley Square, Boston, willing to let the company lease rehearsal space, and in 1984 the company and the school settled there. Larissa Lavishchuk, a Ukrainian certified Vaganova teacher, was hired to teach the children in the Vaganova syllabus, and she became the ballet mistress for the company as well. The company continued its residency at the Strand and also toured New England, however, several small and competitive ballet companies had sprung up in the Boston area, and the Boston Ballet had reinstated its school performance programs, which deflected the funding and audiences away from NAB.
In 1988, Thomas Vacanti, a dancer with the company, became the associate director, filling the vacancy left by Rachel Whitman. By 1990, NAB had closed the Boston studio and moved again, this time to Orleans on Cape Cod, at the invitation of the Academy of Performing Arts. The company remained active there until 2003.
In 2013, Skip Warren died of AIDS related cancer. But not before he helped his daughter Lucy Warren-Whitman with the enormous task of resurrecting the company and breathing life back into it for the 21st century as North Atlantic Dance Theatre.