Local dancer following dream to Broadway
Maria Gismondi, a fixture in the theater department at California University of Pennsylvania since her first "Nutcracker" performance in 1996, will leave for New York City next month, hoping to perform on Broadway.
"I'm going with the attitude that I'm taking over the city," Gismondi said. "I'm going to New York completely fearless, which is a great feeling."
That confidence hasn't always been there for the hopeful starlet.
"There were times in my college career when I was looking into nothing and feeling I'd never get out of here," Gismondi said. "I went through a time when I was very unhappy. I was still doing dance and theater but I was spread very thin over the commitments I had made for myself and feeling slightly overwhelmed."
Gismondi said summer dance theater helped pick up her spirits.
"My friend Ryan Gialames and I did the first student-produced play last summer and my part, (Sankofa) was about coming to terms with the past in preparation for the future," she said. "It was a very cathartic experience for me, a way to take all the negativity that had been trailing me for so long in the early years of college and express what I was feeling on stage."
Gismondi will graduate later this month with degrees in both theater and secondary education and is a student teacher at Beth-Center High School.
"Now is the time for me to pursue my dream of performing on stage as a professional," she said. "I know I can be happy later teaching. I'm very much in love with the English language and it's a good challenge for me to make the children fall in love with it as well."
Despite the fact that Gismondi will be among thousands of young men and women who want to make it in New York, she feels she has an edge.
"My plan is to make my break through musical theater," she said. "I think that will be the easiest place for me to do it. There are a lot of girls in New York that want to be singer-dancer-actress. I think I'm unique because I started as a dancer and have been dancing for 18 years. I didn't realize I could sing until later in life and I've been acting since I was born."
Gismondi said that while many singer-dancers are primarily singers and secondary dancers she is a dancer first as well as strong vocally.
"I don't think I'll have a problem at all getting a job in the chorus and from there it's just a matter of meeting the right people," she said.
Gismondi spent three weeks at New York University last summer working with some prominent choreographers in contemporary dance.
"That was good for me," she said. "Here I feel like there's nothing you can throw at me I can't handle. I was challenged in New York. It opened me to types of dancing I would not have encountered otherwise. It was my test. I went there knowing no one. Not only was I happy, I was thrilled every day to be there."
Gismondi saw the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater production of "The Nutcracker" at age 4 and knew then she wanted to be a ballerina. However she had to wait a year to start taking lessons.
"I couldn't wait," she said, "I was counting the days. I knew even at that age that ballet was going to play an important role in my life. Ballet is my beginning; it's the deepest part of me, the most sincere part of me, my foundation."
Prior to joining the Mon Valley Ballet Theater in 1996, Gismondi studied with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater which was a mixture of good and bad for her.
"It molded me, turned me into a real dancer," she said. "I was there six days a week, three hours a day minimum. It was wonderful. I got to perform on stage with people who had been my heroes forever, but it was also a very negative place for me at that time of my life."
When Gismondi left PBT she was questioning dance and decided to cut it out of her life. However, that feeling was short lived. It was again "The Nutcracker" but this time Mon Valley Ballet Theater's production that brought Gismondi back to the stage.
"I auditioned for the Cal U production and was cast in four parts the first year," she said. "The rest is history, so they say."
Gismondi, daughter of Charles and Barbara Gismondi of Elco, has performed the role of Sugar Plum Fairy for the past four years and will say farewell to the Mon Valley Ballet Theater after tonight's final performance.
Today's performance will be held at 2 p.m. in the Steele Auditorium on campus.
When Gismondi leaves California she will take with her many memories and experiences.
"When I left PBT my ego was so broken and Cal U built me back up," she said. "Now I am much wiser and ready for New York."
Among the many highlights of Gismondi's college career one that tops her list is the trip to Russia to perform at the National Opera and Ballet Theater of Kiev.
"While practicing I was midway into my dance when they brought the lights up," Gismondi said. "I stopped and stared in awe out into the house. I'd only seen something like that in the movies — the box seats, velvet curtains, chandeliers, the gold — all right out of the movie, 'White Knights.' It was breathtaking."
The group of 18 performers from the local ballet company performed to a full house, Gismondi said.
"We were the first college ever to perform on that stage," she said. "It was quite an honor."
Richard Helldobler, the founding artistic director of Mon Valley Ballet Theater, knew the day would come to say goodbye to Gismondi.
"It's the paradox of being an educator," Helldobler said. "You get to see them grow which is wonderful, but then you finally get back to the point where dance becomes artistry and then they're getting ready to leave. It's bittersweet. You're happy to see them get their wings and push them out of the nest knowing it's time. At the same time you know (someone's) going to be missing and you don't replace that."
Helldobler said Gismondi stepped the company up a notch.
"She made the company look more professional," he said. "She was able to do roles no one else could do with an artistry we had not seen come through the ranks. Now it will be someone else, but will it be the same• No. Will it be different• Yes."