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Dancing and marching the summer away

With Labor Day only weeks away, summer is beginning to transition into autumn. You can feel it in the air. The light is different as the days gradually grow shorter. And as with all transitions, there are endings, beginnings and change.

Over at Butler Band Shell in Ashland's Lithia Park, things are winding down. On Sunday, Ballet in the Park will close for the 2009 season. Four days later on the same stage, the Ashland City Band will present its last concert in the park for the summer.

The ballet and band performances have become fixtures on the summer calendars of locals and visitors alike. For decades the two events have been presented as a free gift to the community.

For a quarter of a century folks have headed down to the park, blankets and young ones in tow, for an evening of ballet. Many's the time I have been there with my family and enjoyed the dancers on stage as well as the tiny ballerinas of the future moving in adorable imitation offstage on the lawn. Where else could you get to enjoy a weekly ballet performance outdoors — and for free?

When Diane Gaumond-Hyrst and her husband, Eric Hyrst, moved to the area in 1980, Eric promptly founded the State Ballet of Oregon. Five years later Diane started the Ashland Ballet in the Park series. Productions of the traditional holiday classic, "The Nutcracker," began in 1987 and eventually the company's name changed to Ballet Rogue.

The Hyrsts created an ambitious program, one that has inspired young people to take up the classic art form. Over the years many Ballet in the Park alumni have gone on to dance with nationally recognized companies as well as on Broadway.

It costs about $5,000 to put on each night of Ballet in the Park. Private donors and a grant from the city of Ashland have insured that the show goes on.

I remember hearing Eric speak to Ballet in the Park audiences, explaining the pieces we were about to see. I was fortunate to have seen him dance several times. And I was equally fortunate to have seen Diane dance as a member of the Ballet in the Park, which she did from 1985 until 1997. There was a sense of history watching the two of them move on stage — a touch of the old country and a link to ballet traditions stretching back centuries.

After Eric's death in 1996, Diane became the artistic director of Ballet Rogue.

Today, having choreographed 21 original ballets and restaged 12 classics and 17 of Eric Hyrst's original works, Diane is stepping down as part of Ballet in the Park. She plans to stay on as artistic director of Ballet Rogue through June 2010 and to produce one more "Nutcracker."

Diane will continue to be involved with Ballet Rogue to assure the survival of the school, the company, and its main productions, and she hopes to explore new venues as well. It is the end of an era and the beginning of another.

The Ashland City Band formed as the Ashland Brass Band in 1876. Practically every city worth its salt had some kind of band, usually to march in parades and play at civic functions.

Over the years the Ashland City Band filled those functions. As it grew in size, it acquired flashy uniforms and changed its name. For awhile it was the Ashland Concert Band, then the Ashland Municipal Band.

In the early days the band would give concerts at a small building on the hill near the Chautauqua Tabernacle.

By 1916 the band was performing on the octagonal gazebo-style bandstand that had been built for it in Lithia Park. The band was still performing in the park in 1949 when the Butler Band Shell was built and dedicated. That makes the band shell 60 years old and the Ashland City Band 133 years old.

Both are still going strong. Don Bieghler is the band's conductor and the John Philip Sousa numbers still pack 'em in like they did in the good old days. The band still marches in the Fourth of July parade. Today the players — men and women — sport jaunty outfits of white pants and teal-blue T-shirts.

If you didn't know where the Butler Band Shell was, you could find it on any Thursday night in the summer by following the sound of the horns, drums and the audience clapping in time to the rhythm. Or the strains of ballet music on Sunday nights. Sounds that will have to wait until next summer once autumn has claimed the band shell and our imaginations.