Ten years after opening Olympic Ballet Theatre, Helen Wilkins remembers shaking hands with her husband in a moment of congratulations and triumph.
“We looked at each other and said, ‘We have a real ballet school,'” she recalled.
Today, 30 years from its start, Olympic Ballet Theatre is
flourishing with a state of the art ballet set to open April 16.
So it would seem no better time than now for Wilkins to pass her ballet baton to new owners.
On June 30, Wilkins will retire from her post as artistic director. A married couple, Mara Vinson and Oleg Gorboulev, both former Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers, will take over as artistic directors.
The couple has worked with Wilkins as guest artists and instructors over the past five years and they are choreographing Olympic’s newest ballet, “Coppelia, The Girl with Enamel Eyes,” so this transition shouldn’t cause any blips.
Still, the community might want to pause for a moment to recognize Wilkins’ contribution, said longtime Olympic board member JoAnne Nelson.
“She’s done a fantastic job keeping it going. She works 24-7 and teaches as well as manages,” Nelson said. “What the company does, it’s quite extensive really.”
Helen and John Wilkins grew Olympic Ballet Theatre from a handful of students to a Snohomish County arts institution.
The company performs for 15,000 people every year. Its traditional performance of “The Nutcracker” has gone on since 1982 and some of its graduates have gone on to prestigious ballet companies, including former New York City Ballet dancer Dana Hanson, now a Pacific Northwest Ballet faculty member.
Olympic Ballet also is known for their children’s program called “Introduction to the Magic of Theatre” and for their annual “Peter and the Wolf” production. They have brought in Bolshoi Ballet dancers and have performed at the Paramount and Moore theaters in Seattle.
Former student Karen Bennett Herr, who now teaches at Olympic Ballet, said it is Wilkins’ love of ballet that makes her proud to be part of the program.
“She has such passion for the whole program,” Herr said. “She really loves the art form and it’s so obvious.”
Wilkins calls herself the black sheep of her family because her interest was always in dancing, though her dad was the head of neurology at the Mayo Clinic, her mom was a psychiatrist and all her siblings grew up to earn PhDs.
Though Wilkins danced professionally, including a tour of Europe, she also taught and served as school director of the Canton Ballet in Ohio before founding Olympic Ballet Theatre with her husband, John, in 1981.
While running Olympic Ballet, the couple raised three children — two boys and a girl, and all of them danced.
“John was wonderful with the kids,” Helen said. “John always said if the boys have to grow up with a dad who is a ballet dancer, they better join him and, together, beat the image.”
Helen said her husband gave his gift of dance to many students. John Wilkins, who married Helen in 1968, died in 2003.
Hanson said Helen Wilkins’ commitment to dance kept Olympic Ballet going.
“When John died, it was a real measure of her passion for the school and the company to continue doing great work,” Hanson said.
As Wilkins approached her 30-year mark and the age of 70, she began thinking about her future and the company’s.
She turned to her second son, Daniel Wilkins, who has an extensive dance resume and is artistic director of DASSdance in Seattle. He and his mother agreed he could not lead both companies.
“It was hard for him to let go and hard for me to let him go,” Helen Wilkins said.
Now, Wilkins is excited to hand over her company to Vinson and Gorboulev, who have a toddler. It reminds Wilkins how she and John started with their children.
Wilkins is producing “Coppelia,” putting in $50,000 of her savings to come up with new state-of-the-art sets and costumes.
The new directors are doing the choreography and Wilkins hasn’t even had time to hover for what will be her last ballet at Olympic, and their first.
Wilkins said she has no firm plans yet for the future and is a bit scared, but has no worries and no regrets.
“What I am feeling is the students made a difference in my life, too,” Wilkins said. “Now 30 years later, I feel like it’s a thriving home for kids who love to dance.”
Theresa Goffredo: 425-339-3424; firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go
“Coppelia, The Girl with Enamel Eyes” is a light-hearted ballet about Dr. Coppelius, whose life goal was to create a doll with a soul.
Performs at 2 and 7 p.m. April 16 and 3 p.m. April 17 at Edmonds Center for the Arts, 410 Fourth Ave., N, Edmonds. Tickets are $20 to $30. Call 888.71.TICKETS or go to www.olympicballet.showclix.com. For more information call Olympic Ballet Theatre 425-774-7570 or go to www.olympicballet.com.