Saturday, October 27, 2012
Pat George Mitchell, elegant lady of the dance
"... College was a dream for me. I had the chance to learn choreography, costume design, lighting design, and of course, ballet..."
How did a little girl from Longview become a star who shines so brightly that her very name has become synonymous with elegance and sophistication?
Like many little girls in America, Pat George Mitchell began to take ballet lessons when she was five or six years old. Her teachers recognized that Pat had a special gift for dance – she was very serious and dedicated, walking to dance class after school every day, rain or shine.
She continued taking dance lessons until she graduated from high school. Her teachers had noticed she had a lot of ability, and they encouraged her to try out for the excellent ballet program at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. She had never been away from home, and Fort Worth was a much larger place than Longview. So, her parents didn’t particularly want her to go away to TCU straight out of high school.
Her father said, “Let’s send you to Kilgore College for a few years until we can figure this out.” Pat’s best friend talked her into trying out for the Kilgore College Rangerettes. There were more than 400 girls from all over the country, some from as far away as California and Hawaii, who competed for a place that year. Much to her surprise, she made it. The Rangerettes gave her the chance to travel and to have experiences she would never have had otherwise. She learned a lot working with the great Gussie Nell Davis.It turned out to be the opportunity of a lifetime.
After her two years as a Rangerette at Kilgore College, she decided to audition for the Fort Worth Ballet and the School for Classic and Contemporary Dance at TCU. A former Rangerette living in Fort Worth gave her a place to stay and helped her learn her way around the city.
Pat was delighted when she was accepted for the program. After her experiences as a Rangerette, she felt capable, competent, and on top of the world. However, director Fernando Schaffenberg, who was Spanish and German, immediately told her, “You can’t do anything right. I’m going to put you on probation for a semester. You’re kinetically put together, but you’ve got to start out by losing 25 pounds, so put on these sweat pants and do not take them off. I want you in four classes a day, and I want you to watch the others.”
She was devastated. She was a junior who didn’t know anyone in her classes. Her parents had dropped her off at the door and said, “Bye-bye.” She was in dance classes with people who were leaving ballet companies to come to Fort Worth to get a college degree.
She said, “They were monsters with long, perfect legs and perfect ballet bearing, and here I was, straight from the Rangerette line. It was fine for drill team but not exactly ballet. I hadn’t done classical ballet for at least two years. I was standing there in my straight hair flip and my opera hose. I had nothing on that was right.”
Her first day was a nightmare. She didn’t know what to do, so she did everything wrong. She couldn’t even understand the director’s foreign accent. So, she hid herself behind the piano and did the best she could.
When he ended the class, Schaffenberg said, “Miss George, come forward.”
She thought, “Okay, this is it. I’m out of the program.” But that was not what happened. What he said was, “You did nothing right, nothing! But I want to say something to you and to everyone else in this class. We would have a much better Fort Worth Ballet if everybody would do what Miss George is doing! Even though she did nothing right, she did not give up. The drive is there!”
He told her she was to attend four dance classes a day. He said, “I want to see you work through all this because you have something.”
She never missed one class.
Fernando Schaffenberg and his wife Nancy mentored her. They cared about her; they guided her. She stayed at their house during summer. They introduced her to all the greats of ballet who were their guests. These were major people that she had read about in books and magazines!
She said, “I loved it. I got to do everything I wanted to do. College was a dream for me. I had the chance to learn choreography, costume design, lighting design, and of course, ballet. I might not have been the best dancer in the world, but I had great music sense. I was creative and imaginative. The Schaffenbergs taught me that I had an eye for choreography.”
Although TCU had not yet started a master’s program in dance, her modern dance teacher Jerry Bywaters Cochran wanted her to come back after graduation and assist with the Department of Modern Dance when a modern dance program was started. Unfortunately, it took a lot of money to live in Fort Worth. She could not find a job there, so she came home to Longview. But she could not find a job in Longview either.
Things were mighty bleak for her until her good friend, Martha Joseph, introduced her to Dudley and Marilyn Remus. They had come from California to direct the Longview Centennial. They not only started the Longview Community Theater, they also started a studio of creative arts. Their dream was to turn it into a true studio of creative arts with dance, drama, visual arts – the works. Martha told her Marilyn had been teaching dance classes, but she was expecting a baby and could probably use a helper.
Pat went to work for them. She taught tap, jazz, ballet, and drill team. She taught nine classes a day for the lordly sum of $75 a week.
“I bought my first car, a green Mustang,” she said. “I didn’t have air conditioning in it because I was afraid it would raise my $75 a month car payment.”
She continued to work for the studio for two years until Dudley and Marilyn decided to leave Longview. Faced with the need to start over, she bought the studio for $10,000. The studio had 175 dance students. Pat lost all but 40. She had changed the rules to be more specific so that the ballet students who were not serious did not continue. At the time, she had a number of serious and talented ballet students, yet she had to convince their parents about how important dance was in their lives.
Fortunately, her Rangerette training brought popular drill team classes to her studio. She would teach drill team classes six weeks of tap, six weeks of modern dance, six weeks of jump kick, and six weeks of jazz. Then, she would teach her ballet students every day, five days a week.
Even with her heavy teaching schedule, Pat would find time to go back to Fort Worth for the weekend so that she could take classes and dance with the Fort Worth Ballet. Her mentor, Schaffenberg, told her it was time for her to start her own company, and he told her how to do it. He put her on a list to be on the board of the Texas Endowment for the Arts and put her in touch with an attorney in Dallas who handled non-profit groups for a reasonably small fee. She started a non-profit company in 1973.
“We actually had ballet bake sales to raise $2,000 for the first performance,” she laughed. “My friends from TCU came here as guest performers with my young company dancers. Now our budget is many times that, and we have to raise that money with something more complicated than bake sales!”
Pat George Mitchell admits she has been living her dream. Her wish would be to have a huge school with many performances so that her life’s work will continue. But for now, she lives one day at a time, one fabulous production at a time.
This year’s Longview Ballet Theater performance will be Peter Pan 2: Hook Returns. Pat likes to call it “The Revenge of Hook” because last year in the performance of Peter Pan, the alligator didn’t eat Captain Hook after all.
The ballet performances will be December 7, 8, and 9. There will be a Friday night opening, a Saturday matinee and Saturday evening performance, and a Sunday matinee. A special children’s performance will be held Thursday. Two thousand third graders from various schools will attend.
“We will be bringing 10 dancers from New York,” Pat said. “Our company dancers, Colby Johnston, Kirsten Park, Leslie Rowe, and Sophie Tibilletiare are going to be featured as specific faeries such as the Dawn Faery and the Silver Mist Faery. We will have 14 children who have studied with me as the Neverland Faeries. The 9- and 10-year-olds will be dramatic pirates. Of course, Amanda Edge will be Tiger Lily. Boyd Schafler will be singing more and acting more as Captain Hook. Daniel Ulbricht will fly again as Peter Pan. We’re going to do a lot more flying than we did last year. It is a huge endeavor. It brings something special to our area.”