By Samantha Lambert
The Northwest Florida Ballet celebrates its 48th anniversary during the 2017-18 season. Since its inception, the NFB has reached 395,000 patrons at 448 main stage productions, 60,000 patrons at 72 free outdoor performances, 20,000 children at 90 lecture-demonstrations in Okaloosa and Walton counties, 3,000 local children performing in The Nutcracker for 38 consecutive years, and 10,000 special needs children and young adults at performances tailored to their needs.
Since 1969, the Northwest Florida Ballet has been the preeminent ballet school on the Emerald Coast. It was founded by Bernadette Clements Sims who is considered one of the pioneers of dance in the state of Florida. Her first dance studio was located on Chicago Avenue in Fort Walton Beach. Sims had auditioned at the age of 18 for George Balanchine and placed third in a regional audition for study at the School of American Ballet in New York City. She also studied with Robert Joffrey and Richard Englund and performed with the Mobile Ballet, the New Orleans Ballet, and the Birmingham Ballet.
Todd Eric Allen, an Emerald Coast native who graduated from Fort Walton Beach High in 1984, met Sims when he was 14. While playing football at Bruner Junior High School, he fractured his hip and partially tore his hamstring. For therapy, his doctor sent Allen and his sister to Sims’ ballet school. It was there that Allen began training in classical ballet and performed in the first Nutcracker production.
“I did not want to go to ballet at first,” says Allen. “I wore shorts and my football socks.” He took an adult ballet class and then other classes. Within six months, he was taking the ballet company class. After his first performance in Giselle, Allen fell in love with it. “I just got caught up in it. It was like football with the crowd yelling when someone scored. I loved football and still do. I did take a little harassment from some of the players.”
A year after starting ballet, Allen received a scholarship to train in the summer with the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City. There he met Dorothy Lister, head of the Children’s Program at the Joffrey Ballet School. Lister encouraged Allen and gave him a foundation. He attended the Joffrey Ballet School every summer for five years. Allen also notes that Sybil Lebhertz sponsored him and helped him attend the school every summer. “It would not have happened without her.”
Upon high school graduation, Allen attended Virginia Intermont College on scholarship and danced with the Bristol Ballet. It was there that he met his wife Shari. At the end of his sophomore year, he joined the Louisville Ballet. After dancing in Louisville, Allen moved onto the Boston Ballet where he stayed for five years. He and Shari were married in Boston. From there, the Allens moved to Montreal, where Todd joined Les Grands Ballets Canadiens.
At that point, Allen received a call from Sims to tell him that she was retiring and wanted him to take over the Northwest Florida Ballet. The Allens moved back here in 1995 and Todd became the director of the NFB in 1996. The NFB moved into its current building at the corner of Brooks and Perry Streets in Fort Walton Beach in 2001-2002 and Allen became the CEO.
In 2002, the NFB launched the Northwest Florida Ballet Académie. It operates in conjunction with the Okaloosa County School District and is a free (by audition) public school for grades 3-8 to all residents of Okaloosa, Walton, and Santa Rosa counties. The Académie can extend classical ballet training to populations that have been historically underserved by the dance community. Besides required subjects, students study visual art, music, and French, and they have ballet classes everyday. The Académie has consistently placed among the top schools in the district with their standardized test scores.
The NFB has many upcoming productions. Friday through Sunday, Nov. 17-19, the NFB presents the area’s only full-length production of the classical holiday ballet The Nutcracker at Mattie Kelly Arts Center in Niceville. On Dec. 22 and 23, NFB presents Lightwire Theatre’s A Very Electric Christmas at Destin United Methodist Church’s Life Center. It’s a production that will captivate all ages with its tale of family, friendship, and hope. NFB’s final production of the season is Peter Pan, March 3 and 4, 2018, at the Mattie Kelly Arts Center.
For information on the NFB or tickets for productions, visit www.NFB.org.