Colorado Ballet is Denver’s leading ballet-production company. Founded in 1951 by Freidann Parker and Lillian Covillo, the organization now encompasses a thirty-one-member professional performing company, a studio company, an academy for advanced students, and an education and outreach department. More than 125,000 patrons watch the group’s classical ballets and contemporary dance performances each year. Three or four major productions per year are put on primarily at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in the Denver Performing Arts Complex. Rehearsals, training, and smaller performances are held at the ballet’s own specially designed theater in Denver’s Santa Fe Arts District, which opened in 2014. Today the company has an annual operating budget of nearly $8 million and employs more than 150 people.
A Cinderella Story
Colorado Ballet’s Cinderella story began in 1951 with Denver natives Freidann Parker and Lillian Covillo. Parker taught physical education at the University of Denver and modern dance at the Lamont School of Music. Covillo ran a ballet school and taught dance and physical education at Cathedral Grade and High School. She also served as ballet mistress and choreographer of Monsignor Joseph Julius Bosetti’s Denver Grand Opera Company. The two young women teamed up in the late 1940s to create the Covillo-Parker Dance School.
To showcase talented students, the dancing duo established the Colorado Concert Ballet in 1951. After the Bonfils Memorial Theatre opened two years later, the Colorado Concert Ballet often performed there. A decade later, they presented their first annual production of The Nutcracker. The show sold out year after year.
Parker did more than dance. She also wrote ballet librettos, including The Betrothal, based on a western murder mystery. The duo danced the leading roles, and Parker laughed later: “That ballet was an artistic success, and we sold 1,000 tickets. And we only lost $12,000!”
Despite financial potholes, sellout audiences inspired the two to dream bigger. Covillo said their “vision was to create a professional company so the dancers we were training didn’t have to go to other cities to find jobs.” By 1978 the Colorado Concert Ballet employed eight men and eight women, had an annual budget of $100,000, and changed its name to Colorado Ballet.
In 1987 Parker and Covillo conducted a nationwide search, at their own expense, for a new artistic director. They found Martin Fredmann, who brought Colorado Ballet to center stage in the Denver performing arts scene. Fredmann, who had danced all over the world, came to Denver after directing the Tampa Ballet. As CEO and artistic director of Colorado Ballet from 1987 to 2000, he took a $750,000 budget to almost $7 million and expanded the company from twelve dancers to about thirty. National recognition came from Martha Graham, the first lady of ballet, who had commissioned Aaron Copland to write the ballet Appalachian Spring. She allowed Denver to be one of the first companies outside New York to produce it in 1998. Despite its growing reputation, Colorado Ballet performed during these years in the aging Municipal Auditorium, a multipurpose space it shared with professional wrestling.
Artistic Director Gil Boggs came to Denver in 2006 after seventeen years as a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre in New York City. He was lured to Colorado partly because of its grand new home in the Ellie Caulkins Opera House—a vastly overhauled version of the old Auditorium Theater. The Ellie hosts more than fifty ballet performances during the October-to-March season.
Dancing Into the Community
Colorado Ballet’s educational efforts include after-school dance classes and ballet, tap, and jazz lessons at the company’s academy. The academy trains more than 100 advanced students using the Vaganova method, which produced such dancers as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolph Nureyev. All other students—ranging from three-years-olds to seniors—bring total enrollment to more than 700, including students at the ballet’s suburban branch in Highlands Ranch, which opened in 2005.
The company also offers student matinees, in-school assemblies, sensory tours for the visually impaired, and a touring school show. Dance Renaissance, another effort to reach youngsters, is an after-school program for elementary schools in low-income neighborhoods. Colorado Ballet assumes all the costs for these classes and provides the leotards, shoes, costumes, music, and ballet barres. All participating schools receive reduced-price tickets to Colorado Ballet’s student matinee series as well as other assemblies and workshops. Colorado Ballet’s various educational programs entertain more than 8,500 students annually.
A Home of its Own
For decades, Colorado Ballet’s offices, studios, and operations were crammed into the former Alison Motor Company, an elegant 1924 Tudor Style automobile showroom at the southeast corner of East Thirteenth Avenue and Lincoln Street. In 2014 the ballet moved to 1075 Santa Fe Drive in Denver’s popular Santa Fe Arts District. Designed by Denver’s Semple Brown Architects, who were also responsible for the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, the ballet’s new home is a $6.5 million, 30,300-square-foot structure with eight studios and twenty-foot ceilings. For the first time, the ballet had a roomy home of its own instead of squeezing into secondhand structures.
The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020–21 devastated the ballet, along with many other arts organizations, forcing many layoffs. At the end of 2020, managing director Adam Sexton told The Denver Post, “Colorado Ballet has essentially pirouetted from a performing-arts company to a fundraising group.” A year later, the ballet bounced back with Giselle, The Nutcracker, Romeo and Juliette, and The Wizard of Oz.