It’s on to the next challenge for Denise Gula.
The founder, artistic director, and chief choreographer of the Ohio Dance Theatre is retiring in May to work on a documentary film.
Gula has directed more than 50 performances since founding the ballet company in 1992. They’ve included “Cinderella,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “The Nutcracker,” and “Swan Lake.”
Gula said she still loves her work but no longer feels challenged by it.
“I don’t feel that I have anything new to offer,” she said. “I don’t think you should continue doing things if you’ve stopped being challenged.”
The ballet company began with six full-time dancers and had up to 10 until a couple of years ago. They now work part-time on contract due to budget cutbacks.
The theater has 10 full-time employees including Gula. Its annual budget is about $300,000.
The theater also includes a school, The Dancer’s Studio At Oberlin. Students include children and adults and the school offers classes for professional dancers and less intense classes for students who dance for recreation or fitness.
Educating children about ballet is important to Gula. She said some 60,000 youths have attended matinee performances since the theater began.
They include needy children who received free tickets. Some 7,000 to 8,000 poor families have received free tickets.
The school has also provided scholarships for underprivileged students, including some who have gone on to dance professionally. “Had they not studied with us they would not have had that opportunity,” Gula said.
Gula also started Kids in Motion, a non-ballet dance program for second- and fourth-graders. The program, taught at the Oberlin Schools from 2006 to 2012 and eliminated due to time constraints, is being taught at the Lorain Schools.
The high-energy program teaches children dance moves such as glides and spins. The idea is to improve coordination and physical fitness while teaching about dance and music.
“The whole approach to that program is to never lose their attention,” Gula said. “The teachers have to be incredibly high-energy and dynamic to keep the enthusiasm of the kids and keep them focused.”
Gula plans to bring that type of focus to the documentary. “Blood Stripe: A Spouse’s Story” is based on a ballet of the same name.
Gula was inspired to create the ballet by the experience her daughter Megyn Cain and son-in-law Jeremy Cain.
Jeremy Cain was a member of the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines, a 180-member Lima-based Marine Reserve unit that had 23 members killed in the Iraq War in 2005. He survived but has post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury.
The ballet and documentary are designed to increase awareness and help veterans and their families cope. Gula hopes it will encourage the military to do more.
“The military does nothing to prepare these families and spouses,” she said. “I saw firsthand the difference it made in their family unit once she understood what was going on and learned how to manage it and contribute to his being able to stay stable.”
Bringing social issues to the forefront through ballet is one of the things Gula is known for, said Heidi Freas, the chairwoman of the nine-member Ohio Dance Theatre board of trustees. Despite great challenges in finding money for the arts, Freas said Gula has been able to obtain funding through grants. She’s established good relationships with local nonprofits such as the Community Foundation of Lorain County and the Nordson Corporation Foundation.
She said Gula has touched thousands of lives through dance.
“She’s so passionate,” Freas said. “She’s really a trailblazer.”
The 68-year-old Gula, who retired as a ballet dancer in 1988, said ballet dancing and teaching ballet is about striving for perfection that is never attained. The struggle and the effort to improve, is part of the art.
“Just doing something well, but not being able to be better at it is stagnating,” Gula said. “Life in the arts is never boring, but I don’t know that I can do any more for this organization than I’ve already done. I can’t move it forward any more than I’ve taken it.”
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.