Karen Russo Burke’s legacy: “touching lives,” “bringing happiness”
For Karen Russo Burke, who has led the Dayton Ballet as artistic director for the past 11 years, it’s a time for reflection and gratitude.
The upcoming production of “Peter Pan,” slated April 21-23 at the Schuster Center, will officially end her leadership of the second oldest ballet company in the United States.
“I’m feeling very good,” says Burke, who came to town in 1993 when her husband, Dermot Burke, was named executive and artistic director of the Dayton Ballet. “We’ve met so many wonderful people and so many talented human beings over the years. It’s so gratifying to spend 30 years in an art form you love.”
Dancers, she says, communicate like dolphins. “You’re not talking on stage but you’re all experiencing the same thing and are part of a bigger project. As a group, your job is to make it the best it can be.”
Before she was appointed artistic director in 2011, Burke spent 20 years in other significant roles at Dayton Ballet. She was ballet master and director of DBII Junior and Senior Companies. In 2006, she won the Ohio Arts Council’s “Excellence in Individual Creativity Award.”
Burke took the reins at an especially challenging and interesting time. The decision had been made to merge the Dayton Ballet, Dayton Philharmonic and Dayton Opera, creating the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance. One innovative example? The 2012 production of “Dracula Bloodlines.” “I was able to use the opera singers as part of the cast and collaborated with the composer for new music,” Burke explains.
During her tenure, attendance at Dayton Ballet performances has increased by 35 percent. She initiated projects such as “Talk Back” sessions after each performance; the Q&A allows audience members to ask questions of the dancers and learn more about their backgrounds, daily routine and goals for the future. “They always want to know if our feet hurt!” she laughs.” And it’s always fun when a wife says she dragged her husband to a performance and he can’t stop talking about it!”
Burke also introduced popular sensory ballet performances. “It’s so wonderful to watch sisters and brothers enjoy the performance with their special-needs siblings,” she notes.
Those who’ve followed the ballet in recent years won’t be surprised to learn that Burke loves staging story ballets. In addition to the ever-popular “Nutcracker,” she has choreographed“Sleeping Beauty, The Story of Briar Rose,” “Cinderella” and the October world premiere of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
Burke says she and her husband have always been a team along with “Lady Dance” who has been an important part of their relationship as well. The couple has three adult children and two grandchildren in the area and plan to remain in Dayton. Burke says she is open to whatever might come next in her career.
The Dayton Performing Arts Alliance established a search committee in September, led by DPAA board member Rodney Veal, to identify a new artistic director.
One of the most difficult challenges of Burke’s job, she says, is saying goodbye to her dancers when it is time for them to move on. In a few weeks, that scenario will be reversed. As the curtain falls on the final performance of “Peter Pan,” it will be time for Burke’s dancers – and her appreciative audiences – to bid her farewell.
We asked a few of those who know Burke best to share thoughts
“Looking back at all that Karen has accomplished throughout her years of facing so many new obstacles and challenges is awe-inspiring. She literally took on the roles of a director, teacher, Ballet Mistress, rehearsal assistant, and choreographer, while also then reporting to production meetings. No other ballet company operates that way! She literally filled every single role on her own.
What makes Karen special is that she has a bit of fearless, steadfast, and love for the ballet that has helped her sustain such a grueling pace over the years. She also had the ability to connect with her dancers intimately in times of need and show compassion as an artist herself. There is a fine line of knowing when to keep things strictly business vs. letting that guard down to connect with your dancers.“
–Halliet Slack, Dayton Ballet dancer for 14 seasons
“Karen’s nurturing spirit guided area children during many rehearsals and first professional performing opportunities. Sometimes it was like herding cats, but Karen’s patience and loving nature always put the children at ease.
Her ingenuity as a choreographer led to the creation of ballets that showcased the dancers’ artistic and athletic talents. Her creative vision includes all aspects of putting a ballet on the stage – from finding composers who could translate her concept into suitable music that would complement her innovative choreography to the costume designs and stage lighting that complete the sensory beauty of her ballets. And always with an eye on the budget!
Karen never lost sight of Dayton Ballet’s incredible history and always respected the immense legacy of one of the oldest ballet companies in the US. Her admiration of the cultural achievements of Josephine and Hermene Schwarz were exemplified in several ballets Karen created. At every chance, she honored and shared with the Dayton community the heritage of Dayton Ballet’s founders. Karen’s legacy is now woven into the fabric of Dayton Ballet history. It’s incredible to think of the lives she’s touched and the happiness she’s brought to the Dayton community.“
–Kathy Reed, Former Dayton Ballet Executive Director and DPAA Chief Administrative Officer
“Karen has the enviable capacity to find joy in little details. No matter how hectic her life is, she will stop and remark on the sweetness of a child’s face, or how the sunlight glows just so. She somehow manages to convey these details to the dancers, and you can see and feel them in her choreography. To me, these nuances draw audiences in and make ballet accessible.
Her frugality and creativity are astounding. She still sources items through garage sales and free sites on social media to save money. An animal lover, she had Dayton Ballet participate in Muttcracker for several years to showcase rescue dogs available for adoption.
Karen sees and appreciates the best in everybody. She is fiercely loyal to those she loves. She is attentive, supportive, and has an amazing level of empathy. When she is with you, she is fully present.“
–Julie Grunwald, best friend for 30 years