A star is reborn

Birmingham business owner recounts her chance to dance with the pros

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published April 11, 2016


BIRMINGHAM — At 16, Donna Gross took the stage in her small Ohio town and danced the coveted lead role of Princess Aurora in the ballet “Sleeping Beauty.”

It wasn’t a big production, and the dancers were hardly at the level of a professional company, but the performance was memorable. Her parents watched excitedly from their seats as their star dazzled the audience.

Thirty years later, Gross was able to do it again at 46 years old, dancing recently with the world-renowned American Ballet Theatre when the company came to the Michigan Opera House March 31- April 3 with its rendition of “Sleeping Beauty.”

Ballet as a business
Ballet had been a part of Gross’ life since she was 4 years old, and though she never tried to dance professionally, she managed to sneak a bit of her craft into whichever direction her career drifted.

She moved north and built a home and a life in Birmingham. She opened Relevé, a barre fitness studio on Elm Street, a combination of her experience as a personal trainer with her 20 years of classical ballet practice. It’s her way of hanging on to the young dancer who wanted to own her own studio.

“When I was in college at Heidelberg University, I was hired by one of the college professors who lived in the town to take over her ballet studio,” she recalled. “It was always in my heart to open a studio one day, but it took me until I was a single mom at age 42 to do that.”

Stardom calls
Gross was happy to grow her business, raise her sons and perhaps — just a bit — step out of the spotlight. But as it turns out, the spotlight wasn’t done with her.

“It was one of my clients who told me about this flier she found asking for extras for the American Ballet Theatre for ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ They’re actually called supers, which is short for supernumeraries,” Gross said. “There were very specific height requirements, dance experience and acting experience, which wasn’t necessary but helpful. So I went to the audition.”

She laughed as she recalled how cold it was that night in early January when she made her way down to the Detroit Opera House. She said she wasn’t sure what to expect, but she took commands from the casting crew as they asked more than 200 prospects to execute certain steps across the room.

Then something happened that she didn’t expect: She kept dancing. As other candidates were dismissed from the audition, she kept making it further through the process. She was asked to come back the following month for a second audition.

“I called my mom from the car on the way home and said, ‘You’re never going to believe what I just did,’” Gross said.

At the second audition, the directors from ABT in New York City were there watching the dancers perform. Again, cuts were made. Again, she made it through.

“Then they said, ‘OK, you’re going to be our courtiers.’ We started rehearsals that very night. I still couldn’t believe it,” Gross said.

Practice makes perfect
There were rehearsals that weekend, then more a few weeks later in March when the ABT company of more than 80 dancers arrived in Detroit. That’s when rehearsals got long and strenuous, but Gross said it was still amazing to be working alongside legendary performers like Isabella Boylston, Stella Abrera and the famous Misty Copeland, ABT’s first African-American female principal dancer.

“I was only inches away from them onstage. Isabella just blew me away with the effort she puts into every move. It’s a very rigorous role, the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ Princess Aurora. That’s what I think is the hardest thing about ballet — it takes tremendous strength, but you have to make it look so effortless to the audience,” Gross said. “Once, during rehearsal, I watched Misty Copeland sewing the ribbons on her toe shoes with dental floss; it’s a lot stronger than sewing thread.”

In the days leading up to the performance, Gross was fitted for her costume, which included four layers of heavy Italian material. It was the artistic choice of the director, Alexei Ratmansky, to return to the production’s historic 1890 set and choreography. That meant authentic costumes, grandiose sets and delicate movements.

“The production was mammoth, but it was wonderful,” said Kim Smith, dance administrative assistant and ABT Detroit general manager. “(Ratmansky) went back to the original notes from the original production. He wanted it to have the same grand scale and look as the original, and the audience absolutely loved it. They were blown away by even the look of it all. And the historic choreography, which is pretty minimal compared to what we’re used to now with legs all the way up and a million turns. But it just made it so much more elegant.”

Critical acclaim
Attendance for the production that weekend was 12,000 patrons for five performances — that’s about 85 percent of the theater’s capacity. It was a great showing, and while Smith admits the name recognition of Copeland likely had a lot to do with those figures, it was all the pieces together that brought audiences to their feet.

“She’s definitely a historic piece in the ABT specifically, but a lot of people enjoyed the overall production. (Copeland) was in three of the five performances, and she may have been a driving force in getting people there, but seeing this historic ballet as a whole touched quite a few people,” Smith said. “She brought them to the door, but once they were here they loved it.”

Gross said her own special guests in the crowd were certainly impressed.

“My mom and my dad and my boys came to watch opening night. My mom said to me, ‘Honey, I can’t believe we’re here 30 years later watching you in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ again, and now we have our grandchildren sitting next to us,’” Gross said.

The final bow
Gross was invited to audition for the New York City production of ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ performed at the Metropolitan Opera House. She said she’d love to go, but she can’t leave the other production she’s working on here in Birmingham with her business and her sons.

She’ll live instead in that snapshot she took in her mind during her final performance in the ballet.

“At the last show, I knew it was the closing scene in the act. I’m there onstage, the lights in my face, and the whole company cast dancing in front of me. I can sense the audience out in front, and I was able to just pause and take a moment,” Gross recalled. “I wanted to be able to reflect in that amazing moment and the gift I was given to be a part of that show. I think it’s so important that no matter what you’re doing, to take a moment and pause and be thankful.”