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"Jean has an aura around her," says Iain Webb. "When I first got here, I attended a luncheon and all you could hear were people whispering Jean's name, and then suddenly the doors opened and there she was. She has that charisma."
Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Mar. 16, 2011 6 years ago

Prima on a pedestal

by: Heidi Kurpiela Contributing Writer

There’s no mistaking Jean Weidner for anything other than a former ballerina.

The same way you can pick out a diesel mechanic by the grease stains and calluses on his palms, you can pick out a ballerina by the arch in her feet, the crane of her neck and the way she weightlessly navigates a room, as if somewhere a curtain has lifted and roses are raining.

Such is the case with Weidner, the South African prima ballerina who founded the Sarasota Ballet before many of the company’s current dancers were even born.

“It’s in everything I do,” Weidner says of dancing. “It’s in how I plan. How I organize. How I question and take criticism. How I work with a team. It’s given me discipline and focus and the ability to go over the hump when you don’t think you can keep going … when most people give up.”

It’s a Wednesday afternoon at the Asolo Repertory Theatre.

In less than 10 minutes, the matinee performance of “Twelve Angry Men” will let out, forcing Weidner to ferret out a quiet corner of the lobby.

Breezing past the Sarasota Ballet box office, she glides into the elevator and presses the button to go up.

Though she stopped dancing 30 years ago, Weidner, at 65, still looks like she could break into a jeté at any second.

“No, no, no,” she says dismissing the suggestion. “I would no more do a ballet class than fly. I was at that level once. Now it’s like, ‘Let me take Pilates or kick a soccer ball.’”

It’s hard to picture Weidner punting a soccer ball.

She’s cool. Lean. Well-dressed. Hair knotted into a tight blond bun. Neck long and swan-like. Feet tucked into a pair of sling-back heels. Posture so straight you almost will her to slump just to feel better about your own sloppy carriage.

Yet she doesn’t slump. Not once.

“I like to do what I can do well,” she says. “If I can no longer do it well, then I stop doing it.”

She glides out of the elevator, where a woman spots her and exuberantly reveals that she’ll be attending this month’s Sarasota Ballet gala, at which Weidner will be honored for establishing the company 20 years ago.

She slips past a sign that indicates the reception area is closed for a luncheon and settles into a wobbly table in the back of the room, apologizing for its proximity to the men’s restroom.

“I hope you don’t mind the sound of toilets flushing,” she says, crossing her legs demurely, unaware of the juxtaposition between this comment and her body language. “Hopefully no one will notice us back here.”

She’s in a blissful mood. Nothing, not even intermittent toilet flushing, can blight it.

After years of keeping her distance from the ballet for reasons she refrains from divulging, Weidner is back in the loop.

At the heart of her comeback and tribute gala is Sarasota Ballet Director Iain Webb, now in his fourth season with the company.

When Webb, a former Royal Ballet dancer, came to Sarasota in 2007 to lead the organization following longtime Artistic Director Robert de Warren’s retirement, he and Weidner hit it off immediately.

Webb’s first day on the job, he popped into Designing Women Boutique — the high-end Sarasota consignment shop Weidner co-founded in 2001 with Diane Roskamp and Margaret Wise — to introduce himself to the company’s founding mother.

“It took me three days to get her phone number,” Webb says. “I don’t think people wanted me to speak to her, but I didn’t care about the politics. I thought contacting her was the right thing to do.”

Weidner was impressed. She says it was a “classy move.”

At Webb’s invitation, she began to sit in on rehearsals. The first time she dropped in, she did so discreetly, quietly studying the movements of the dancers as they worked through familiar choreography — Ashton, Cranko, Dame Ninette de Valois — the legends she cut her teeth on as a young dancer with Germany’s Stuttgart Ballet.

“When you see something like that, all these feelings come back to you in bits and pieces,” Weidner says. “It was like I was revisiting my youth.”

She was invigorated by Webb’s chutzpah, his ability to convince board members to let the company break new ground by dancing revered English ballets as well as edgier contemporary works.

“We’re back on track,” Weidner says. “The company is doing extraordinarily well. They’re dancing masterpieces and rising to a level I always knew they were capable of. I’m an awfully happy camper at the moment.”

Add to the fact that her second Sarasota baby, Designing Women Boutique, has raised more than $1 million for local nonprofits and added a new division to its inventory –– an estate sales and downsizing department, which Weidner is currently managing.

“You structure an organization and begin to build it,” she says. “Then, you feed the staff members in and the board steps out. Eventually, if you’ve been a success, you’re out of a job.”

In the background, a microphone crackles on and a post-show lecture begins, drowning out the rest of Weidner’s sentence. Without wasting time, she rises from the wobbly table, rides the elevator back down to the first floor and settles into another seat. Again, she crosses her legs demurely.

A black-and-white film starring Joan Crawford is playing in the lobby. For a second, Weidner fixes her gaze on the actress.

“Joan Crawford,” she says bemused. “Now that was an amazing actress.”

Amazing — and reportedly insufferable.

“Well,” Weidner says. “If you’re universally liked, it can get boring.”

Jean Weidner is a closet horror-movie addict.

Contrary to her ballerina background, the former dancer is not a sucker for romantic movies.

“I’ve seen every ‘Dracula’ known to man,” Weidner says. “I was in love with Frank Langella. He was drop-dead gorgeous.”

Weidner was so enamored with Dracula that she even created a ballet based on the vampire story for the first company she founded in Evansville, Ind.

Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected]


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