Header image: Spring Thaw, painting by Sharon Schmeltzer
Editor’s note: Our featured artist this month is Dianna George, a lady who vividly illustrates just how great a difference one person can make. We need to stress this aspect because the arts in the Sault area are thriving mostly because of a few individuals who have worked very hard over a long period of time, usually as volunteers. A prime example of what can be achieved is the Soo Theatre and the STARS program, both of which have been build through the labor and expertise of volunteers. A lot of the work that results in art programs is decidedly not glamorous—(Taylor and Liz Brugman screwing down hundreds of theater seats comes to mind)—and much of it has to be done by volunteers because you couldn’t pay people enough to do it. The vision and the dedication of these volunteers is something that we need to recognize and to celebrate. It enriches us all. JJ
There are so many facets to Dianna George that it’s difficult to know where to focus. She began dancing at the age of three “to overcome my clumsy nature” (who isn’t clumsy at three?) and took to it immediately. By the age of nine she was in the studio every day. She began her apprentice work at eleven and by sixteen was doing choreography and some teaching of her own. Her younger brother was also in dance, by this time, and also intensely involved. They both auditioned for the Indianapolis Ballet Theatre in 1971, when Dianna was sixteen and were both accepted. Dianna was dancing solos by the time she was seventeen and became a principal dancer with the Indianapolis Ballet at eighteen. She studied with at least sixty different teachers from all over the world in classical, modern and contemporary ballet; tap; jazz; African Polynesian and other forms of dance, before being sidelined by a broken back. While recovering, she began singing, did a commercial, and worked in musical theater.
She took a break from theater to work for two years in the insurance business in Indianapolis. After experiencing two armed robberies, she’d had enough of the city and moved north to Petoskey. There she bought a small restaurant, worked in a few shows, and began teaching dance at the Crooked Tree Arts Council at about the time they began renovating their new building. Five years later she was offered and accepted a job with Pritchard Productions in Cadillac, and sold her restaurant to make the move. After two seasons with Pritchard, she decided to marry and concentrate on her family. Returning to Petoskey, she sang at local churches and went back to teaching at the Crooked Tree.
Eight years later, a divorce sent her back to school—first at North Central Michigan State College in Petoskey and then at LSSU where she graduated with a Fine Arts Degree, with majors in Theater and Native Studies and minors in Music and Writing. The necessity of earning a living for herself and her two children took her to real estate school in East Lansing, after which she worked in real estate in the Sault before becoming totally caught up in the Soo Theatre Project. Dianna’s two children are now young adults. Her daughter is in college, majoring in fine arts and specializing in metals and gems. Her son is in his last year of high school, and taking classes in automotive work.
Dianna began spearheading the Soo Theatre Project just as LSSU jettisoned its Fine Arts Academy, leaving a number of teachers and students with no place to go. The idea of renovating the old Soo Theatre had been around for some time and had a strong emotional appeal, but foundering without the necessary underpinning. A concrete plan, a committed and knowledgeable steering committee and proper legal advice and assistance were all vital to such a huge project, and Dianna was instrumental in bringing it all about. The project has succeeded against all odds, because of excellent and inspired leadership, generous donations, timely grants, and an incredible outpouring of volunteer labor and expertise. There are some things money just can’t buy, and the kind of dedication and labor that have gone into this project are truly priceless.
The results are equally impressive. Dianna began teaching with four girls at Malcolm School. There are now, only four years later, two hundred fifty dance students and four teachers associated with STARS (Soo Theatre Arts Resources Studios). The students perform all over the EUP during the summer and work with other organizations on their productions. The Footlight Dance Theatre, a group with a student board of directors, performs, raises money and volunteers. STARS has choruses, two youth orchestras, flute and recorder groups, theater classes and, of course, dance. Its next public program, which will be in the LSSU Art Center on May 15 and 16, features two hundred young people, from two and one half years of age to adults, celebrating Disney. Part of the proceeds will go to the United Way.
Dianna teaches six days a week (she says “I love my job so much it hurts”) and her goals are mostly Soo Theatre related. The front of the building needs a new roof. That comes first because until that is on it doesn’t make much sense to put heat in the rest of the building. There is still room for expansion in course work. Dianna figures when everything is up and running there will be room for forty to fifty staff people. She likes the fact that STARS is about people and families. STARS is badly in need of greater space for dance classes. The renovation of the auditorium must be completed and the upstairs studios finished to accomplish that. She looks forward to continued work with community groups throughout the EUP. She says that she’s hoping that some of the youngsters who are dancing at STARS will graduate and continue with Deb Choszcyk at LSSU. As for herself, she loves teaching, loves the Sault, loves the people she works with. Her upbeat, can-do attitude is combined with organizational skills, persistence, a great sense of timing, skill and the willingness to work like a galley slave.
Last updated: April 5, 2009
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