Redefining self and success at the ballet

March 3, 2012
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Tucked inside Glenn Del Vecchio’s leather briefcase is a booklet his grandmother made that chronicles her career as a dancer, including her four-year stint with the legendary Radio City Roxyettes — later known as the Rockettes.

Her memoir, which came under Del Vecchio’s aegis after she died, has assumed an additional poignancy since he became executive director of the Grand Rapids Ballet Company three seasons ago.

There was a time when the notion of working for Michigan’s only professional ballet company would have been improbable to Del Vecchio. Now, his grandmother’s booklet seems to say that you can never really know where your professional life will lead you.

“It’s fate,” said Del Vecchio.

“It’s kind of scary that it comes full circle. I’ve been learning maybe it’s not about a career with a big company but finding a meaningful element in life,” he said.

“I just keep (the booklet) in my briefcase, since I joined the ballet company, to remind me there’s more to me than just a job. It’s a lot of history, something my family would have been proud of.”

Del Vecchio has known success with other companies. Raised in Philadelphia, he began working at Universal Forest Products’ restaurant division in Lancaster, Pa., in 1988, before moving to Grand Rapids in 1990. Through 1996, he was the division’s director of marketing for 22 restaurants in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Michigan.

From 1996-2007, Del Vecchio worked as director of marketing for Clear Channel Communications’ cluster of seven radio stations in Grand Rapids. His responsibilities included producing the monster-size country music hoedown known as the B-93 Birthday Bash, as well as the culinary delight, a Taste of Grand Rapids.

Then, a few days before the 2007 Birthday Bash, Del Vecchio’s father died. His death prodded Del Vecchio to do some soul searching.

“It kind of wakes you up,” said Del Vecchio. “For 20 years, I was working for these really big companies, but what do I want to do in life?”

Del Vecchio felt he nudged closer to his occupational muse when he and two other friends founded Captus Creative, a full-service marketing, new media and management company whose clients included the Grand Rapids Ballet Company.

“At one point or another, the ballet came to me and asked how I felt about working full time with the ballet,” said Del Vecchio. “I had to ask myself: ‘Do I want to go back working full time for one company?’”

He hired on, in part because Grand Rapids Ballet is a mission-based organization, whose impact in the community takes on different shades of positive influence.

Grand Rapids Ballet Company
Position: Executive Director
Age: 43
Birthplace: Philadelphia
Residence: East Grand Rapids
Family: Wife, Kirsten; sons Jack and Alex
Business/Community Involvement: Board member of the Adoptive Family Support Network.
Biggest Career Break: “Moving from Philadelphia and working for Universal Forest Products and Peter Secchia — working and learning from one of the best companies in West Michigan.”

“Just in general, it is important for you to derive a sense of satisfaction in your vocation and avocation,” said Del Vecchio. “There are too many people who do a job they hate in order to pay the bills. If I’m enjoying my job, and it’s allowing me to do certain things I like to do, that to me is success.”

GR Ballet’s Dance Immersion program for children in kindergarten through 5th grade gives kids an opportunity to receive dance training and to see professional dance performances.

The School of the Grand Rapids Ballet Company, which enrolls an average 200 children, offers classical ballet training for ages 3 through adult — some of whom, such as Maria Kowroski and David Schultz, have become professional ballet dancers with prestigious companies. Both returned last September to dance for the Grand Rapids Ballet’s 40th Anniversary Gala celebration.

Dance therapy is a more recently added program that provides two special ballet classes: one for adults with Parkinson’s disease and one for Down syndrome children, who, although they may be cognitively impaired, are welcomed into the fold and encouraged to reach their dancing apex.

“These kids feel mainstream,” said Del Vecchio. “They work in the studio where all the kids work. We work them into ‘The Nutcracker’ on the big stage at DeVos Performance Hall with the symphony and with all the kids from the school.”

Del Vecchio notes the ballet company’s cultural milieu is increasing within the community. Last year, the company sold out 24 of 30 performances, with individual ticket sales up 15 percent — from 41,880 in 2009-2010 to 49,445 in 2010-2011.

Individual donors are up almost 22 percent, and total dollars increased by 18 percent in 2010-2011 over the 2009-2010 season. Total annual revenue is $1.9 million, which, based on proceeds, ranks the Grand Rapids Ballet Company No. 55 in the country’s ballet companies, according to Del Vecchio.

“Ballet is not a terribly profitable endeavor,” said Del Vecchio. “But it’s more than just about the dollar. It’s about the cultural and creative process, the softer, esoteric values the ballet brings to life.”

Del Vecchio never knew his birth parents. Born in Chicago, his adoptive parents brought him to their home in Philadelphia. As often was the case in Del Vecchio’s childhood days, it was a closed adoption. He didn’t learn he was adopted until age 10, when it was conveyed in a matter-of-fact manner.

“I was from the generation that you didn’t talk about it,” he said. “My parents told me but wanted me to keep it between us.”

He has no desire to know who his biological parents are.

“I was adopted by Italians who have a wonderful sense of family and community,” said Del Vecchio. “My parents are who my parents are, and that was enough. There’s no desire to dredge up someone else’s past. I was given a leg up ever since I came out.”

And it was being given that leg up — not a sense of entitlement — that is a life lesson he is passing on to his children. Today’s kids may have easy access to their friends via cell phones and social media websites, but that tends to hamper their ability to learn what Del Vecchio considers important in life: apply yourself, study subjects that broaden your understanding of the world, don’t shirk homework assignments.

If he sounds a bit old school, Del Vecchio is unapologetic.

“My father taught me a work ethic, to appreciate the things given to me, and a moral compass,” he said. “You learned good behavior — not from the media’s influence but from your parents. You volunteered. You gave to your church. You worked some and you played some and hope for the same for your kids. You set an example — set a bar, and have your kids live up to it.”

Part of his upbringing meant earning his own money when he reached his teen years. When he was 15, he remembers wanting to go on a ski trip that cost $40. His mom and dad shelled out the money, but they told him he needed to get a job if he wanted to go again. Del Vecchio knew they were serious. He found a job cleaning fish for the owner of three seafood markets, a job he held for two years. It wasn’t the most aromatic job for a teen, he recalls with a laugh.

“It was tough getting a date,” he said.

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