ST. PETERSBURG — The empty dance studio on a bustling section of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street N doesn't look like much.
Office chairs sit abandoned in a corner of the lobby. Dust is collecting on the mirrors in the high-ceilinged studios. But to hear Michelle Starbuck tell it, it's a paradise.
"I want this to become like a home for our students," she said recently during a tour of the studio, gesturing to a row of empty lockers. "I want them to feel like they belong."
Starbuck is one of the driving forces behind the rebirth of the Florida West Ballet, which will re-emerge this fall as the St. Petersburg City Ballet at its new headquarters, with Starbuck and her colleague Richard Sias as directors. Though Florida West has been teaching young dancers and holding performances in St. Petersburg for 30 years, Starbuck hopes to transform it into a training center and professional company that explores more creative, modern forms of ballet.
"St. Petersburg needs to get its self-esteem back," she said. "There's that label that everything good comes from the major centers like New York City. I've found throughout years of travel that small villages have as much talent and raw material as New York."
Starbuck, one of the first graduates of Canada's National Ballet School, is an energetic woman who moves like she's still onstage, gesturing emphatically when she wants to make a point. She was 14 years old, in a pas de deux class at the school, when she met her classmate, Sias.
Years later, they met again as professors at the University of South Florida and parted ways a second time until earlier this year, when they partnered to help launch the St. Petersburg City Ballet.
Sias, for his part, danced in national companies and on Broadway before moving to USF and then Florida State University. He says he agreed to direct the new company on one condition: that it undergo a complete makeover.
"In all honesty, I was really not interested in getting into a small amateur group at grass roots level," he said. "Our goal is to change that under the auspices of the St. Petersburg City Ballet."
That change, Sias said, only comes with changing the culture at Florida West. He's planning intensive training classes and special sessions that let students practice character dancing or their best pas de deux. He's looking for "sophisticated, mature, talented kids" from the Tampa Bay area to audition for the program on Saturday. In time, he hopes, many of them will move on to dance in the ballet's professional company.
"A professional dance company with professional training is a missing piece in our already diverse group of arts organizations," said Elizabeth Brinklow, the city's public art coordinator. "And they're homegrown, designed expressly for St. Petersburg."
For now, Sias and Starbuck are focusing on the auditions with the hope of holding their first show in the spring — and they can count on at least one dancer showing up.
Tammy Marvel, the ballet's new president, says she'll be bringing her 14-year-old daughter, Samantha, to auditions. Samantha, who once danced for Florida West, left for a more intensive dance program in Sarasota but plans to return to St. Petersburg for classes this year.
"Oh, she'll be here," Marvel said recently, walking across the dusty studio floor. "A lot of the kids are going to come back home."
Aubrey Whelan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8316.