Critics have said that "ballet is dead" for centuries. Fortunately in 2014, and at Chautauqua, this is not the case. Thanks to passionate performers and their teachers, like Maris Battaglia, professional dance companies and schools focusing on the art form are still thriving in this age of uncertainty.

Battaglia, 69, has seen many changes over the years but still has found a way to remain on her toes. The key to keeping this art form alive is “keeping performances fresh and unexpected for audiences," she said. "I like to keep it interesting. My Nutcracker performance changes every year. … I’ve even had an 'Under the Water' theme with a Scuba Santa!”

Battaglia's career started at the age of 11.

“Back when I started, every little girl went to dance class," she said. "My parents took me once a week to a recreational class. It was traditional. Mostly 15 minutes of this, 15 minutes of that.”

Battaglia had always excelled in class, but it wasn’t until her family relocated to a different neighborhood of Buffalo, N.Y., that she found her true passion for the art form.

“I used to walk, going to the ice cream parlor, past this school. I would hear classical music coming from the second floor and tried to persuade my mother to let me go up there and see it," she said. "One day I finally convinced her. I walked in and it was a totally different world. I knew the minute that I walked in that this was right. I started taking classes and just knew that this was for me. We wore our hair down and we didn’t wear tights. I had to practically start over again. Even then, I knew this is what I wanted.”

The school mainly focused on the Russian traditions of ballet, with an addition of influences from George Balanchine’s more modern style.

“There were two guys from the School of American Ballet — I was in love with one of them!" Battaglia said. "They ran their school the way the School of American Ballet [was run]. You had to take many classes and it was very strict. It was wonderful but sadly, by the time I was 16, they had to close the school. My father ended up being the one feeding them!”

The school’s closing was the catalyst that pushed Battaglia to relocate to New York City to study at George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. Like most personal stories taking place in New York, she was met with the unusual.

“My parents took me down to the school and it was not in a good neighborhood. My father immediately freaked out so they put me in Catholic school," Battaglia said. "At age 16, I now lived in a convent. It was great experience, though, and I was the youngest girl, so they called me baby all of the time. I couldn’t get enough of dancing so I would give the Hungarian nuns ballet classes on Friday nights.”

Battaglia ended up working in the city in a traditional job and fell out of love with her studies until she was received a call from her cousin, back in Buffalo.

“My cousin was leaving to go to Juilliard and she had these kids in my aunt’s basement," Battaglia said. "She wanted me to teach the kids, and I said, 'I’m only staying in Buffalo for three or four months and then I’m moving to California.' I started teaching and immediately realized that this was my destiny. I kept teaching and the class sizes kept getting bigger. I went from my aunt’s basement, outgrew that and then went to my mom’s basement. When I finally outgrew my mom’s basement, I decided it was time to open up my own first real studio.

"As far as moving to California, that was 49 years ago and I’m still stuck in Buffalo!” Battaglia’s successful studio in Buffalo is called the American Academy of Ballet.

With a second phone call, Battaglia was in store for another life change. This time, change would come from world-famous dancer and educator Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux.

“Jean-Pierre used to come to Buffalo and audition students at another school," Battaglia said. "I would bring my kids there, and he said, 'I always end up taking your kids, so why don’t I just audition at your school?'"

When Bonnefoux took over dance at CHQ, he called Battaglia.

"I said, 'Oh my god, I’m talking to Jean-Pierre,' and I walked right into the door and broke my toe," she said. "I was in agony and but I did my best to sound really nice and happy."

Battaglia then joined Bonnefoux at CHQ. In the 26 years since, she has helped him expand an existing Festival level within the School of Dance to one two-week level and one five-week level for younger dancers, ages 11 to 14. She also suggested a three-day class for even younger children.

"It’s a great way for dancers to learn what to work for," Battaglia said.