By Paul V. Palange
When my wife and I owned and operated the “Senior Digest” newspaper, we published a feature called Salute to Seniors to celebrate the many significant contributions and accomplishments of men and women age 50 and older. In August 2013, the honoree was Herci Marsden, who was 75 at the time.
A co-founder of the Brae Crest School of Ballet and a driving force behind the State Ballet of Rhode Island (SBRI), Marsden is continuing her efforts to offer opportunities for people of all ages to enjoy classical dancing performances.
Thanks to Marsden’s Project Ballet in Education, senior citizens can take advantage of one such opportunity on Nov. 30, when there will be a performance of “Coppelia” beginning at 10 a.m. at the Park Theatre, 848 Park Ave., Cranston. It will be a “pay-what-you-can event,” and Marsden will guide attendees through the performance, explaining the music, the staging, the physical training of the dancers and fun facts about ballet. Also, patrons will be encouraged to ask questions about the production and ballet.
Marsden calls the SBRI’s production of “Coppelia” a Rhode Island holiday tradition. “Coppelia,” she says, is a witty and enchanting classic story that is considered one of the ballet world’s greatest comedies. The music is by Leo Delibes, with a story centered on the feisty Swanhilda, the pompous Franz, a mysterious toymaker with life-size dancing dolls and a “dazzling” snowy wedding celebration.
“ ‘Coppelia’ is a cultural treasure and a ballet that will tickle you with laughter and entertain you as it has entertained audiences for more than 150 years,” Marsden said.
For reservations to the pay-what-you-can event or group rates to the 7:30 p.m. performance or the 1:30 p.m. production on Dec. 1, call Marsden at (401) 334-2560. She points out there is free parking available.
When Marsden and her first husband went separate ways back in the mid-1970s, the prima ballerina faced an uncertain future. She refused to flinch, however, and secured approval to refinance the couple’s real estate holdings, which allowed her to keep their ballet school operating.
“The bank really believed in me because of all I had done since 1958,” Marsden, who came to the United States from Croatia that year, told me. In 1966, Marsden, who had an impressive string of leading roles in ballets such as “Giselle” and “Destiny,” introduced classical ballet to the students at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston, which she taught in the College of Human Science and Services’ Department of Physical Education Health and Recreation for nearly 30 years. URI was the first college in the Ocean State to offer classical ballet as an accredited course that helped so many student-athletes enhance their skills.
Marsden and her children frequently watched televised sports, and after a good play on the basketball court or the football or soccer field, the matriarch would frequently make comments such as, “‘I taught him to jump like that,’” her daughter, Ana Fox, told me back in 2013.
Fox and her daughter, Shana Marceau Fox, work with Marsden at Brae Crest and the SBRI. Marsden is artistic director and choreographer for the company while Ana is the assistant to the director and resident choreographer and Shana is a resident choreographer. They love and admire Herci, who puts in many hours at work despite her age.
“I love it. It is my way of life. … I will never stop,” Herci said of running Brae Crest and the ballet troupe when I interviewed her for the Salute to Seniors story. It was obvious that same fire burns inside her daughter and granddaughter. “It is our passion, our dream. Our passion chose us, and what we chose to do with it is the school and the State Ballet of Rhode Island,” said Shana, who was the first female member of the Lincoln High School hockey team.
“I don’t know anything else,” Ana said. “When I’m doing this, I’m alive. It’s my life. … If I’m not doing this, I’m out to dinner with my husband and I am talking about something pertaining to the school or the state ballet; or I’m out for a brisk walk in the morning and I have one of those aha moments about something here.”
According to Ana, the SBRI is the lone semi-professional civic regional ballet company in Rhode Island and one of the oldest in the United States. The company was founded in 1960, and its mission is to create, present, preserve and extend the revered repertoire of classical dancing to the public through exciting performances and educational programs.
I salute Herci again and hope patrons appreciate what she has accomplished while working with her dedicated daughter and granddaughter.