CHARLOTTE >> At the height of the summer, corn fields are getting taller, tomatoes are starting to ripen, cows are grazing — and ballet dancers are pirouetting and leaping across the grass.
The Farm to Ballet Project is trading a stuffy auditorium for the open air and evening skies of farms around the state. The goal is to expand the audience for classical ballet while helping raise funds for local agriculture, organizers said.
The 25 dancers — some professional but many of them amateurs and ranging in age from 18 to 74 — prance and twirl on the grass in colorful costumes. Dressed as lettuce, tomatoes, bees, a cow, pig or farmer, they tell the tale of the growing season.
On a recent evening at Philo Ridge Farm in Charlotte, the bahhs of a few (real) sheep intermingle with the classical music played by a string sextet. It was the group's first of eight summer performances.
"It was so joyful," said Myra Handy of Shelburne, Vermont, who had been waiting to see the ballet since she heard about it last summer. The talent, music and exuberance exceeded her and her husband's expectations, they said.
"It was a highlight of our summer," she said.
The idea for the farm-based ballet grew out of a summer class the dancers took outdoors with Chatch Pregger, a professional dancer-turned-teacher at Spotlight Vermont, a performing arts school in South Burlington.
Because Vermont's summers are so short, the students didn't want to come inside for class so they moved outside to a park, Pregger said. They realized it was possible — and how enjoyable it was — to dance outside on the grass on breezy days with a view of the mountains, he said. Then they decided on a farm theme.
"I always thought what's ballet promoting? What's it all about?" said Preggar, artistic director of the Farm to Ballet Project. "And certainly artistically it's amazing and the art that can be made from it is awesome, but I'm really happy for myself to be able to integrate it with something a little larger."
Dancing on the grass and in the heat and sun is strenuous, as is the schedule since most of the dancers are amateurs.
"But by the end of the summer, you're super in shape, so that's nice," said Megan Stearns, of Burlington, a lead dancer, who plays the role of the farmer. She studied ballet as a child and returned to it as an adult by taking classes with Pregger.
The dancers have three performances ahead of them: in Shelburne, Brattleboro and Essex Junction. Tickets cost $16.50. Children 12 or under are free.
For Pregger, who has danced with the Boston Ballet, Washington Ballet and Houston Ballet, Farm to Ballet supports something he really cares about: local farming. Seventy-five percent of the ticket sales go to the host-farm or agricultural nonprofit groups.
"I think that regenerative farming or organic farming really has the power to transform both our natural world to help with global warming and with the community that we live in," he said. "I think people who eat healthy food are healthier, and I think we should all have access to it so I really wanted to honor the work that farmers do."
At the Philo Ridge Farm performance, many in the 300-plus audience of adults and children also enjoyed dinner beforehand made from locally grown ingredients. Others brought their own spreads and wine, picnicking on the ground, in camp chairs or white folding chairs set up behind the farm house and in front of the "stage."
Kathleen Harriman, of Vergennes, liked the interaction between the music and dancers.
"And just the good feelings it gave me to watch," she said after the performance, as her two young granddaughters danced their way to the car in the parking lot.