Coming home sur les pointes
July 13, 2004
When Nancy Wilkins enrolled her 6-year-old daughter, Maia, in tap dancing lessons in Truckee some 20 years ago she had no idea what she was getting into. By 11, Maia had discovered ballet. Five years later she would leave Truckee for New York City and the chance to dance with the prestigious Joffrey Ballet’s Concert Group – a touring company of talented young dancers.Later this month, Maia Wilkins will return to the area for two shows, July 21 and 22, as a part of the Joffrey Ballet’s performances at Reno’s Artown festival.The fact that a small-town girl has become an unofficial prima ballerina with one of the world’s most respected ballet companies is remarkable in and of itself. However, Wilkins’ story is made even more unusual by the fact that her husband, fellow Joffrey dancer Michael Levine, grew up in nearby Grass Valley.The two locals met in Chicago – where the Joffrey Ballet is based – after Levine had joined the company. But it was their hometown connection that first brought them together as more than just dance partners.”It was just a great way to talk about the mountains and being outside,” Levine said of learning that Wilkins was from Truckee, “and that just led down the road.”Being from small towns where top quality ballet instructors were hard to come by, both Wilkins and Levine have similar stories. She began dancing at age 6 when her mother brought her along to a tap dancing class.
“At first the teacher would smile at me and say ‘Take her home and teach her the steps,'” Nancy Wilkins said of her daughter’s early efforts. “And a year or so later [the teacher] is smiling at Maia and saying ‘Take her home and teach her the steps,’ because I wasn’t keeping up.”Maia Wilkins’ natural talent blossomed when she first began taking ballet classes at the Truckee Recreation Center and the instructor there kept telling her mother to take her daughter to Reno for better instruction.”This went on and on until [the instructor] said ‘I will not teach your daughter another lesson. You have to take her to Reno,'” Nancy Wilkins said.When Wilkins said that she didn’t want her daughter to be a ballerina, the teacher said, “Do you really think the choice should be yours?”And indeed it wasn’t. By age 16, Maia Wilkins’ instructor in Reno, Maggie Banks, had gotten her a full scholarship to the Joffrey Ballet’s summer program in New York City, after which she was offered a spot on the Joffrey’s Concert Group.Since that time she has danced her way into a prominent role with the main Joffrey Ballet company, performing hundreds of pieces for audiences all over the world.Levine followed a similar route out of Grass Valley, first by way of the Sacramento Ballet and then as a scholarship student at the San Francisco Ballet School. He first landed a position with the Joffrey Ballet in 1993, staying until 1995 when he took a position with the American Ballet Theater for two years.
In 1997, when he returned to the Joffrey, Levine met Wilkins. Friends of their families were surprised to learn that two fellow Nevada County kids had found each other so far away.Coming homeBoth dancers expressed excitement to be coming back to the area for Reno’s Artown festival and having the chance to perform before a crowd that is sure to contain a large number of friends and family.”It’s always fun coming home because you always want to do really well, though sometimes I get a little more nervous in front of my family,” Wilkins admitted.”We always have a lot of family and friends who ask when we’re going to come to Northern California, so it’s a great opportunity for a lot of people who haven’t had a chance to see me or Maia dance to come and see us,” Levine added.And those who want to see these locals-turned-stars won’t be disappointed, as both are featured in many of the pieces the Joffrey Ballet will perform in Reno, including a Pas Des Deesses on July 21 featuring the pair together and a number of the Joffrey’s other signature pieces that demonstrate the company’s style and imagination.
“It’s just a great tour that really shows off the versatility of the company,” Levine said.And fortunately for both dancers, the tour ends after the Artown performances, giving them a chance to take some time off and visit with their family and friends who remain in the area.Check it outReno Artown Festival and the Joffrey BalletJuly 21 and 22 at the Reno Hilton theaterwww.renoisartown.com or call (775) 789-2285. The July 21 show starts at 8 p.m. with the July 22 show beginning at 2 p.m.