PORTLAND — People often ask Eugenie O’Brien if she is bored.

“Bored?” she huffs, feigning disbelief. “Am I bored? Not yet.”

She is seated on a sofa in the lobby of Portland Ballet as she talks, with the sound of dance emanating from a nearby studio.

A female instructor raises her voice to be heard over recorded music. Dancers move swiftly across a padded floor. Collectively, they pause and breathe heavily during a too-short break.

O’Brien surveys the scene with a satisfied smile. “Things are actually still quite exciting,” she says. “I know that so many people say, ‘After 30 years, you must be tired of it.’ But I think it’s very exciting to have so much always new.”

O’Brien began the Portland School of Ballet in 1980. Her goal was then and remains today to train dancers, children and adults alike, in classical ballet and modern dance.

To mark the anniversary, Portland Ballet has assembled audience favorites from over the years for its spring performance. “By Request” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at John Ford Theater at Portland High School.

Consider it the greatest hits of Portland Ballet.

The dance program is a two-hour snapshot of a 30-year-history of an arts organization that has stubbornly endured despite long odds, and always aimed for the top rung of artistic excellence. Along the way, O’Brien and her staff of professional dancers have trained recreational and professionally oriented student-dancers to achieve their goals by teaching technique and discipline and instilling a desire to perform at advanced levels.

“I think sometimes we forget how hard it is to keep an arts organization, and a dance company especially, going for this long,” said Laura Faure of Portland, who directs the Bates Dance Festival in Lewiston. Bates celebrates its 30th anniversary next year.

“Kudos to Eugenie for her perseverance and vision and the hard work of keeping it going and building it up and producing success year after year.”

This weekend’s program is also a celebration. “By Request” serves as a “thank you” to all the people who have supported Portland Ballet over the years as well as an invitation to those who have yet to experience the art and beauty of dance, O’Brien said.

“It’s an opportunity to really show the breadth and depth, the athleticism and absolute beauty that goes on stage to represent dance at its best,” she said.

The program will include numbers from “Giselle,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Bolero,” “Carmina Burana” and “Don Quixote,” among others. “We’ll go from Queen to the classics,” O’Brien said.

The dances will be set to recorded music. Many of the favorite dancers who have performed with Portland Ballet over the years will be on stage, including Tyler Sperry, who was with the company for years before leaving for school; Megan Buckley, the company’s Sugar Plum Fairy the past two years in “Victorian Nutcracker”; Kate Smedal, last year’s Snow Princess in “Victorian Nutcracker”; and Rachel Willis. Also involved is Joseph Jefferies, who has danced professionally for 14 years, most recently with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. He is spending the year with Portland Ballet, and will perform in “By Request” as well.

Looking back, what strikes O’Brien is how active the dance company has remained, year in and year out. She can’t recall a time when she felt that Portland Ballet had achieved its goals and that it was time to step aside. She’s always found new projects and collaborators to advance the school and spur the performance company to higher levels.

Portland Ballet is two distinct entities. The first is the school. O’Brien started Portland Ballet in 1980 as a training ground for dancers of all ages and abilities, with a goal of exposing them to a variety of dance. At any given time, 100 students are enrolled.

She and her staff have always favored a broad approach to dance education, offering classes in the classics as well as modern dance. “If it’s a full education that you hope to offer, then you can’t focus on one aspect,” she said.

The school includes Portland Ballet’s renowned pre-professional dance program known as CORPS, which stands for collaboration, outreach, responsibility, performance and scholars. The program provides an opportunity for serious dancers in Maine to receive intensive professional ballet training and remain near family.

By the mid-1980s, Portland Ballet began offering public performance as well, “because you don’t just train and suddenly you dance. You train hard so you can perform,” O’Brien said.

It is through the public performances that Portland Ballet has been able to build its profile. It has grown slowly and steadily, and operates with a budget that ranges from $350,000 to $500,000 depending on the kind of year it’s having in terms of fundraising, ticket sales and grants.

In recent years, the company has collaborated with the Portland Symphony Orchestra and Choral Art Society, and commissioned several pieces of new work. With regularity, its company members appear on the stages of other arts groups, joining theater casts as dancers and choreographers.

Portland Ballet always tried to distinguish itself by doing things differently than the expected norm. Instead of offering another version of “The Nutcracker” at Christmas, for instance, Portland Ballet has created its own production, using the traditional story as the basis for its “Victorian Nutcracker,” which the company sets in Victorian-era Portland.

O’Brien is most proud that her company has help mold hundreds of dancers over the years, many of whom have taken the training they received in Portland and danced professionally elsewhere. Similarly, the company has attracted professional dancers who make their home in Portland and earn their living teaching and dancing at Portland Ballet.

“When you talk about ‘buy local,’ that is what you are doing when you buy a ticket to one of our performances,” O’Brien said. “You are supporting people who live and work in Portland.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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