Portland Ballet’s “Summer in the City” gala highlighted a yearlong collaboration with photographer Jon Reece, who has captured the beauty of Portland’s dancers and diverse scenery in 20 stunning photos.

“It’s one of the first events we’ve done right here in downtown Portland,” said dancer Jennifer Jones, who worked closely with Reece. “And all the photographs are in Portland. It’s an ode to the city. Most of us moved here to dance but also fell in love with the city.”

“How can you not fall in love with Portland?” Reece quipped.

“I love how the series visually ties us in with all of the city,” said Suzanne Roberge, treasurer for Portland Ballet. “It’s broken down into every segment of Portland – and we’re there. That’s our goal, to get into everybody’s hearts and minds.”

The photo series was displayed at the United States Customs House on Fore Street, the interior of which has been seldom seen in recent years. With the building under the control of the U.S. General Services Administration, even Mayor Michael Brennan said he hadn’t been inside since its renovation was completed in 2013. And that, guests admitted, added to the intrigue of the $100 per person gala.

“We’ve been in the area for 25 years, and we’ve never been in here,” said Dr. Bill Heinz, the sports medicine physician for Portland Ballet. “It’s a beautiful space.”

The Customs House has marble-and-gold leaf décor, a monumental carved wood clock, and an abundance of architectural symbolism, both European and American. Upwards of $1 million was collected here annually during its heyday.

“This was intended to really knock your socks off when you came in from Europe,” said Hilary Bassett of Greater Portland Landmarks. “You’d be amazed by the scope of the building and you’d think Portland was a great city.”

“This building embodies the very rich history of Portland,” said Melissa Lin, president of the Portland Ballet board of directors.

“Portland Ballet, for me, is all about connecting the audience with emotions they may or may not have felt before… to let go and go along for the ride,” said Chris Kast, a branding specialist with Maine magazine.

“This event re-emphasizes our commitment to the community – the creative economy, the arts, a sense of place, being here in a classical building,” said Eugenia O’Brien, who founded Portland Ballet in 1980 as a nonprofit organization.

“It’s a great way to announce our coming season and introduce people to the professional dancers,” said Leslie Gibbons, director of development.

It was also a forum to honor those who have helped Portland Ballet move forward. Architects James Gauthier and Patrick Costin of Canal 5 Studio were honored with a Dance Inspiration Award for their work in creating the 74-seat Portland Ballet Studio Theater that opened last year adjacent to the ballet school.

In addition, James B. Shaffer, former CEO of Guy Gannett Publishing and a longtime ballet lover, was recognized for his leadership in working with the Portland Ballet board of directors, including facilitating a board weekend-long retreat last year. “His influence has been transformative for us,” said Gibbons. Mayor Michael Brennan stood in for Shaffer – who was on a sailing vacation – reading his remarks.

To different audiences, Portland Ballet is different things: The opportunity to see ballet performed by full-time professional dancers. Ballet instruction for ages 3 and up. Free mini performances in the window of Portland Public Library during First Friday Art Walks. A nationally recognized CORPS program for serious high school dancers. Performances for school groups from around the state.

“I’m a big supporter of Portland Ballet,” said Sally Nelson of Portland. “I think it’s exciting to have the opportunity, just to have ballet here.”

“I love what they’re doing for the young children in the area,” said Elizabeth Andrews of Falmouth. “They have a great children’s program.”

Marjorie Miller, who spends summers in Cape Elizabeth, enjoys the adult drop-in classes. “I stay in the back, and I do what I can do, which is about 10 percent of what the dancers can do,” Miller said. “But they’re very welcoming.”

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer based in Scarborough. She can be reached at:

[email protected]

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