HUNTINGTON — A life-long ballet dancer, Huntington resident Deb Novak is best known around the world as a three-time Emmy Award winning documentary film maker.
Novak, who has been taking classes with Charleston Ballet since 2007, combines her love of dancing and film in the new one-hour-long documentary "Andre Van Damme and The Story of the Charleston Ballet" that tells the story of one of America’s oldest ballet companies.
You can see the film at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 15 at the Huntington Museum of Art. The documentary tells the incredible story of Andre Van Damme, a WWII hero from Belgium who came to the U.S. knowing only two words of English. Van Damme founded the Charleston Ballet in 1956 and then ran the company literally until the day of his death in 1989.
The film screening is free and open to the public.
Novak, a life-long dancer who studied first at the former Dickinson School of Ballet, now the Elite Academy, and then at the American Ballet Theater in New York City, said the documentary began by talking with current director Kim Pauley, who has been the director since 1989.
"One of the first things I found out is that this is one of the oldest ballet companies in America," Novak said of Charleston Ballet, which Belgian immigrant Andre Van Damme founded in 1956. "I don't think anybody knows that fact and that it is right here in Charleston, West Virginia, since 1956."
Novak said that - as it is with any good documentary - the more she dug in and found out about Van Damme, the more she knew she had to tell the story.
"Charleston Ballet has only had two directors. Andre was there from 1956 until 1989, and he worked literally until the day he died," Novak said. "It was amazing. He taught class and then went home and passed away."
Novak said there were a couple really strong reasons that Charleston Ballet would make a great documentary subject: There are still some charter members who could be interviewed, and the ballet has kept substantial records, photos, posters and information through the years.
"When you go into the studio they have his (Van Damme's) costume sketches up, and so you can't help but wonder, 'Who was this man and why is everyone so devoted to him?'" Novak said. "I started to talking to Kim (Pauley) about it for probably the past five years, and she would tell me stories, and so you would hear these things. Then I went upstairs and saw all of his records have been meticulously kept. There's early videotape that we had transferred, and there are so many photos, and that kind of sealed the deal for me. We started applying for grants. We got some funding and then it was off to the races."
Novak said she did all of the interviews last summer with a number of dancers, many in their 80s, who were eager to come in and talk about Van Damme and his impact.
Novak's film features interviews with founding and current company members, such as the late Julianne Kemp, Charleston Ballet historian, and Jerry Rose, artistic director of Beckley Dance Theater. It also includes key figures in the ballet's operations, such as Randall Reid-Smith, the commissioner of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History; Charleston Mayor Danny Jones; and regional dance experts such as Yoav Kaddar, director of the dance program at WVU and Dr. Christi Camper Moore, Ph.D. of Ohio University.
"This documentary film has been nearly two years in the making," said Pauley, who serves as Charleston Ballet's artistic director and CEO. "We are so lucky to have someone of Ms. Novak's caliber to produce a film of this magnitude for the Charleston Ballet and chronicle its fascinating history for West Virginia."
In addition to having footage of Kemp, Novak was also able to give a nod in this film to her longtime musical collaborator, Jay Flippin. The late musician, educator and composer teamed up with filmmakers John Witek and Novak to score their films, which have ranged from "Ashes to Glory" and "The Cam Henderson Story," to "Steven Caras: See Them Dance," which took home the Grand Remi Award "Best of Show" at the 45th Annual Worldfest-Houston International Film in 2012.
"When he died, he left me with 300 musical cuts. From that I was able to score the documentary with some of the coolest Jay Flippin music ever," Novak said. "It's every style from classical to jazz to some atonal stuff."
Novak, who is hoping the documentary will be picked up for nationwide PBS screenings, said the story of Andre Van Damme is an amazing immigrant's tale.
"He arrived to the U.S. about 1948 through connections with the Belgian glass blowing community in South Charleston," Novak said. "He was a war hero in Belgium, joined the Belgium Army and escaped a Nazi forced labor camp. He came back to occupied Belgium and was part of the resistance. He was getting small arms to members of the resistance through a ballet house."
Novak said Van Damme's journey to the U.S. was facilitated by South Charleston resident glass artist John Hiersoux, a fellow Belgian who migrated to the U.S. with his wife, Josie. Hiersoux also was a classically trained pianist who taught piano in Charleston for many years.
"They became his sponsors, and they suggested him to come to Charleston, saying that he could open a school. So he brought his family to Charleston, and that is what they started doing," Novak said. "They started teaching all around Charleston and getting dancers together and touring college campuses, which was a new experience for students because ballet was not well known. They went to Ohio State to perform, and many of the students had never seen ballet. He did settle down and in April 1956 started American Academy Ballet, which still exists today."
Novak said Van Damme starting a ballet studio here was unique for the time. In fact, Charleston ranks as one of the top 10 oldest ballet studios in the U.S. according to Novak, who will be touring the film to dance festivals, including one in Brussels, Belgium.
"Ballet was then centered solely in large metro areas like New York, London and Paris," Novak said. "Regional ballet was just getting going, and Andre was on the forefront of that movement. He got these dancers together and trained relentlessly, and they have been performing continuously since 1956. The fact that Charleston Ballet has in that entire time only had two directors makes it even more unusual ... Some of the charter members who are still with us, we were able to interview them. Once they heard what we were doing they were so thrilled that something is being done to recognize this man and what he did for West Virginia."