A Marine Brings International Ballet to Maine

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Pittsfield, Maine, is an unlikely place for world-class ballet, but then Col. Michael Wyly is not the guy you would expect to start a ballet company. The retired Marine commanding officer wanted to make his young daughter's dreams come true, so he lured retired Russian ballet star Andrei Bossov to rural Maine.


And we conclude our program with two stories about two men and their passion for high art. Our first is set in Pittsfield, Maine, a small blue-collar town better known as a home to hunters than a magnet for performing artists. It's an unlikely setting for a pre-professional ballet theater that draws dancers from as far away as Brazil and Alaska. The company, the Bossov Ballet Theater, owes it existence to one man: Retired Marine Colonel Michael Wylie. Reporter Josh Gleason has his story.

JOSHUA GLEASON: On his 27th birthday, Michael Wylie was serving a tour at Marine Headquarters in Washington. It was 1967; he'd just come back from the frontlines at Vietnam, and he knew he'd be returning soon.

Colonel MICHAEL WYLIE (U.S. Marine Corps; Retired): I was down in the dumps that night, probably feeling sorry for myself.

GLEASON: Wylie was new in town, and he didn't have any friends. In fact, he felt like he couldn't relate to anyone who hadn't been in combat.

Col. WYLIE: So I pick up the Washington Post and I see this ad and here's this beautiful ballerina in a tutu, and I - shucks, I'm going to go to that - you know, I got to do something tonight.

GLEASON: The ballet was "Capelia," but Wylie had no idea what he was going to see. And he went to the theater determined to be mad at the world. But then the music started…

(Soundbite of music)

GLEASON: The dancers came out in these bright, colorful costumes, reds and blues. It was cute, playful. And by the second act, his anger was gone.

Col. WYLIE: I found myself just enjoying the evening in every way and coming back feeling very uplifted, and I thought, I'm going to do that more.

GLEASON: War had led Wylie to believe that there was nothing more dangerous than a human being. But "Capelia" changed that.

Col. WYLIE: The ballet was a thing that said to me, without my ever figuring out why, the human race is actually, or can be, a pretty beautiful thing.

(Soundbite of music)

GLEASON: So it's only natural that when he had two girls, Wylie enrolled them in ballet. And one of them, Summer, really took to it. But then Wylie retired from the service and moved his family to Maine. His daughter couldn't find the same quality of instruction - that is, until she found Andrei Bossov.

SUMMER: He was just much more intense and expected a lot more from his students. You know, you could just see people get just rapidly better.

GLEASON: But then, all at once, the school where Bossov had been teaching ran out of money, and Bossov returned to Russia.

SUMMER: And I just knew my teacher, who I'd really grown to respect, had to go back to Russia. It was, like, he was just being taken away and that was that.

Col. WYLIE: It was devastating. That was the end, and Summer said, Dad, I look forward to that summer program every year more than anything else in my life. I thought, then, it's going to - you're still going to have that, Summer. Don't you worry, you know. You're going to get it.

GLEASON: Dad is going to make it happen.

Col. WYLIE: That's right.

GLEASON: Wylie called up his Marine buddies and asked them for cash to help get the program going. And within a month, he bought Bossov a plane ticket back to Maine and started scheduling classes at a local studio.

(Soundbite of ballet music and practice)

Unidentified Female: One, two. And (unintelligible). Turn.

GLEASON: Bossov, a retired dancer of the world-renowned Kirov Ballet, is a man of few words. Actually, he doesn't like words at all. He prefers pictures, moving pictures - in other words, ballet.

What would you say to someone like me? I've never actually even seen a ballet performance.

Mr. ANDREI BOSSOV (Artistic Director, Bossov Ballet Theatre): It's very bad, I can tell you, right now.

GLEASON: What do you mean?

Mr. BOSSOV: They will go to the city and look at the performance. It change your life.

GLEASON: Why would it change my life?

Mr. BOSSOV: Because, again, you will touch the beauty just by your eyes.

GLEASON: "You will touch the beauty just by your eyes." So basically, the ballet, as Bossov sees it, can communicate far better than words.

(Soundbite of ballet practice)

Unidentified Female: Two, three, four, five, one. One, two, three, one, two three, one, two, three, four, five, to three, and move, two, three, four, five…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GLEASON: Bossov may not like talking, but Wylie has plenty to say about ballet, which he often compares to combat. He says both require a similar kind of training.

Col. WYLIE: There is a misguided notion that when the curtains open out on stage, I'm going to be Giselle now because the audience is out there. No, you're not. You're going to revert to the habits you have formed in training, in peacetime, when you're under fire. And as I said to the dancers, I have seen men who have thrown away their lives because they wouldn't believe me when I told them that.

GLEASON: Summer quit ballet a number of years ago. She's now a banquet captain at a Marriott in Fort Lauderdale. But that didn't affect Wylie's interest in keeping the school going.

Col. WYLIE: Though I always wanted to be a Marine - nothing would be more true, and I still am, you know, I think like a Marine, I can't help it - but I wanted to be able to depart this world having built something, not just destroy things.

GLEASON: For NPR News, I'm Josh Gleason.

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