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Q&A with Mary Ellen Hundley, Executive Director of Ballet Bellevue

Mary Ellen Hundley is a wife, mother of three, grandmother to one. She may be best recognized as a woman who has coordinated ballet programs for young children from her tiny kitchen table for many years before the birth of Ballet Bellevue.

The following are excerpts from a recent "Question and Answer" interview with Hundley as we sat at . Hundley serves as Executive Director of Ballet Bellevue. For almost 20 years, Hundley has worked without pay, minimal fanfare while supporting the ballet with some of her own money.

Where were you born and raised? Tell us about your education and family.

I was born in July 1943 in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. I graduated from high school in Izmir, Turkey in 1961. It was a school for children whose fathers were in the military. My dad, William, was a civil engineer in the Army. During my junior year at Penn State, I traveled to Southern France (Aix-En-Provence) to study for one year. I graduated from Penn State in June 1965 as a French major. In 1966, I met my husband, Bill who was in the Navy and from Seattle. In 1967, I received my M.A. from UC San Diego in linguistics. We were married in November 1967 in Kirkland, Washington.

Before I became entranced with the ballet, I was a secretary at Boeing/Air France and then taught French at Green River College and finally at the Bush School in Seattle until the birth of my first child, Lisa, in 1971. Then Anne was born in March 1974 and Gina in July 1978. After we moved to Sammamish (then Redmond), I organized before and after school foreign language programs for all the elementary schools in the Lake Washington School District so my children wouldn’t be the only ones being encouraged to learn other languages. Lisa and Anne are graduates of Redmond High School, and Gina graduated from Eastlake High. They all finished college. Lisa is teaching in Bosnia now. Anne is teaching and living in Olympia, Washington. Gina lives in Italy as her husband, Jose, is in the Navy and they have our first grandchild, Max (A BOY!!), age 1. 

Let’s get back the time of the early 70s. Bill owned a company called Seattle Copy; this is before the birth of Kinko’s. In addition to the copy company, Bill was a pharmaceutical sales person for Baxter Travenol.

How did you get involved with local ballet groups?

My three daughters were in the Bellevue School District when they were little. At the time, the Bellevue School District had physical education classes only once every other week. I told my girls, “You each need to choose some physical activity.” So Lisa picked karate, Anne took up ballet and Gina chose horseback riding.

When Anne was four years old we enrolled her into creative dance because she used to dance all over the house. However, she would stop dancing if she knew anyone was watching. By age five she enrolled in “Emily’s Dance Arts” but by the time Anne was seven she was ready for a more serious ballet program. We discovered a school called “L’Academie de Danse.” After the first day there, Anne did not want to go back because the teacher from Prague was very strict, and one girl was crying. I asked Anne to give it one more try and if it still made her unhappy, she wouldn’t have to go back. The second class concluded with no one crying.  From then on, Anne never wanted to leave the school.

At 11 years old, she danced the lead in “Little Match Girl.” I slowly dropped away from all the children’s language programs I was teaching and directing and became a volunteer programs coordinator for L’Academie de Danse. Not long after, L’Academie added a non-profit children’s company to their ballet school called Ballet Petit. The year was 1984.  Although L’Academie eventually closed, Ballet Petit survived.

In 1989, Ballet Petit was part of a program called “Standing Ovation.” It was a fundraising gala for performing arts groups in Bellevue and hosted by Kemper Freeman. Freeman had a grand opening for the Hyatt in Bellevue and threw a big party for people to come eat, listen to music and enjoy performances while toasting the new Hyatt. The audience paid $50 each to be part of the celebration. We participated and raised money for Ballet Petit.

After “Standing Ovation,” under pressure to make Ballet Petit a professional company, we  began to hire professional dancers and directors for our performances.

Ronn Tice, a former Pacific Northwest Ballet dancer,  became the company’s artistic director from 1995-2002, and the name of Ballet Petit was changed to Ballet Bellevue.  In 1997 the company was invited to reside in Bellevue’s historic Ballet Arts Center, where the existing ballet school (originally founded by Carolyn Gracey Greer) also came under Tice’s direction. From 2002 to 2006, a Russian born dancer, Viktoria Titova,  served as director of the school and company, followed by Jennifer Porter from 2006-2009. During the past four years, Porter has continued to serve as the company’s resident choreographer for contemporary works, and other choreographers have been invited to direct the company’s classical programs.  Currently John Bishop is guest director of the upcoming program, Satin & Steel (May 15-16 at 7 PM in The Theatre at Meydenbauer Center)

Tell us more about Guest Director Bishop and a little bit about some of the dancers here today.

Bishop was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and started dancing at age eight. Now 54-years-old, Bishop and his wife and daughters own and manage Northwest Ballet Academy in Bellingham,  as well as their non-profit company, Northwest Ballet Theater, in Bellingham.

Elizabeth Belyea is 27-years-old. She has danced professionally since graduating from high school in Toronto, Canada. She moved to Seattle, initially to attend Cornish College of The Arts.  She is no longer at Cornish as she is working at Pacific Northwest Ballet. She found Ballet Bellevue by e-mailing John Bishop who asked her to audition at Ballet Bellevue for a part in the upcoming performance of “Satin & Steel.”

Julie Ortiz is 19-years-old. She has been dancing with Ballet Bellevue since she was twelve. She is a 2011 graduate of Monroe High School. She works at a local hospital as a patient transportation person. She pushes patients around in wheelchairs and gurneys.

Emilee Brimhall is 19-years-old also. She went to private school in Monroe. She studied at Pacific NW Ballet until 2011. She does a little bit of everything at Trader Joe’s in Kirkland. She and her boyfriend have just become engaged.

Natasha Keeley is 24-years-old. She was homeschooled in Monroe. She has been dancing for 12 years. She works in Snohomish as a massage therapist. Keeley said, “I started dancing in my church as part of Praise Dance. I love dancing for The Lord. I love God. My friends told my family that I was so beautiful when I danced. They told my family to enroll me into ballet school.” Outside of ballet, Keeley enjoys hiking, acro-balancing (a type of circus balancing technique) and spending time with her boyfriend.

Rebecca Queitzsch is 21-years-old. She graduated from Liberty High School in Renton. She is a junior at the University of Washington where she studies international affairs and French. She studied in France in 2011 and enjoys the outdoors, hiking and sea-kayaking.

Mija Bishop is 25-years-old. She is a 2005 graduate of Mount Vernon High School. She is taking a break from studying accounting at North Seattle Community College. She is John’s daughter. Mija said, “I help my mom and dad run the Northwest Ballet Academy in Bellingham. I was involved in dance when I was little but came to love it when I reached middle school. I like Satin & Steel because it is has a good mix of traditional ballet with a Western twist.”

What else would you like to share with us?

In a thimble, Ballet Bellevue needs all the support we can get. Most people don’t realize that it takes us sometimes three years to pay for one performance. People like me who work for the arts; we do it because we love it, in spite of the reality of debt management. While you can get people to pay a high price to see a sporting event, people will not pay that type of money to see the ballet or hear an orchestra. We all need help in the areas of finance, fundraising, marketing and more. If you have extra time,  talent or treasure  to offer, we would love to talk to you.

To get a better idea of what I am talking about please read an article by Danny Westneat called “A Dance (to) Ludicrous Optimism.”  The ballet is an arduous and  high-risk activity both for your finances as well as your physical body.

Tell us about the upcoming performance.

Please come join us for SATIN & STEEL, May 15-16. It starts at 7 p.m. at The Theatre at Meydenbauer Center. The performance will feature Les Sylphides, music by F. Chopin and choreography by M. Fokine. This show also features Flower Festival at Genzano, California Poppy and Treasures of Aaron Copland. Please visit www.balletbellevue.org and purchase your tickets by going to www.brownpapertickets.com or calling 1-800-838-3006. 

Any last words?

This is for everyone. It may or may not relate to the ballet but I need to say it. For each phase of your life there is a new purpose. For each day you live, you need to be the best you can be. I do not get paid for this volunteer position however I do it because there are some things in life that are important. I do this volunteer work because I need to know that something worthwhile happens. I want to be a part of watching a dancer grow. I get to see a young person become better. Not that they become rich from being a ballerina but they grow as a person as they learn manners, etiquette, ethics and other things that are worthwhile. They learn patience and they come to understand what hard work means. My parents (William and Edna will be married 72 years this June) had to work harder to “have enough.” My job at Ballet Bellevue is about giving back. 

Editor's note: This article has been corrected. Some of the quotes attributed to Mary Ellen Hundley were not accurate.

Anne May 12, 2012 at 06:31 PM
I deeply appreciate this article's attentive focus on how one particular person has used her gifts to help others!
Sherry Grindeland May 17, 2012 at 08:27 PM
Lovely story about a great Bellevue lady! Mary Ellen has always given hours and hours of her time to keep the arts alive in Bellevue. Glad to see her get some recognition for her efforts.

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