"We wanted young children to be able to appreciate it," Maryanne Jacobsen, the theater's artistic director, said of the production's fairy-tale motif. Children, she said, are the audience she most wants her company to reach.
"Our main emphasis is to create productions that are magical, to get kids tuned into ballet," she said. "It can really enhance their lives."
"Once Upon a Time" features a host of fairy-tale characters in the wedding segment of Sleeping Beauty: Tom Thumb and the Ogre, Puss n' Boots and the White Cat, Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf.
Children can meet the characters at a storybook tea party after the performance, Jacobsen said. The characters will mingle and sign autographs while fairies distribute little stars. Tea sandwiches and desserts will be sold to benefit the company.
West Chester Ballet Theatre is a division of the West Chester Performing Arts Center, which offers classes in jazz, tap, modern dance and ballet. Jacobsen, 42, started the company in 1989 to focus more strongly on teaching ballet.
"I wanted to have a serious school that would train students, who wanted a career in ballet or were serious recreational dancers," she said.
The company has about 10 percent of the 600 or more students at the Performing Arts Center. Dancers range from ages 8 to 19.
"It was very hard for the first three years," Jacobsen said. "But little by little, some wonderful people started getting involved."
Parents have been helpful and enthusiastic, she said, especially in raising
funds for the company, whose productions can run as high as $50,000.
Jacobsen said she was a shy child afraid to speak in front of her class. Ballet, she said, is "a beautiful expression of yourself. You can express so much in the way you work through a movement."
Jacobsen received her formal training at the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet. American Ballet Theatre and the Royal Ballet are among her favorite companies. The former "is pure technique, total classicism," she said, while the latter specializes in creating "a magical, fantasy quality."
Of the seven teachers in the Ballet Theatre, five have extensive training in the Vaganova, or Russian, style of ballet.
The Vaganova style, used by the Kirov Ballet, emphasizes the upper body, Jacobsen said.
"It's in the arms, in the way you turn your head," she said. "It's a finishing-off that is lacking in other styles."