North Lansing restaurant becomes new home for ballet company

Ballet may be thought of as a French art, what with all the pliés and jetés and pirouettes, but the classical dance style was actually born in Italy. So it’s oddly fitting for the Greater Lansing Ballet Co. to take over the former digs of Guerrazzi’s, a north Lansing Italian restaurant that closed earlier this year. At least the transformation doesn’t seem to have been that difficult.

“A dance studio is basically just a big open floor, so it wasn’t that hard to design,” said Jim McEwan, artistic director for the Greater Lansing Ballet Co. “We’ve been able to do some of it ourselves, including tearing out the three bars that were inside. I had to do that part myself. I never thought I’d end up doing that.”

McEwan, a Lansing native, studied dance at Lansing Community College and the Academy of Dance Arts outside Chicago. Over the years he’s trained under dancers from the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg, Russia. He took over the artistic director role four years ago from the company’s founder, Barbara Banasikowski Smith.

“I took my studies seriously and spent time and energy to become a dance teacher,” McEwan said. “I love all styles of dance, but to me ballet really is the pinnacle of the art form.”

The Greater Lansing Ballet Co. uses the building for rehearsals and performances, but the space is primarily the home to the Greater Lansing Academy of Dance, a dance school that also teaches modern styles such as jazz and tap, starting from age 3. Under McEwan’s guidance, the school has made a few moves progressively north, from its original location on Michigan Avenue on Lansing’s east side to a strip mall on Grand River Avenue near the Groesbeck neighborhood to its current home.

In February, just weeks after Guerrazzi’s quietly closed for good, the former watering hole began its transformation into “Swan Lake.” So far, two of the planned four dance studios inside have been completed, as well as the company’s office space and costume production shop.

“We build all our own sets and design and produce all our own costumes,” McEwan said. “There aren’t exactly a lot of tutus around for rent.”

The studios all feature wooden “sprung” floors that greatly reduce the impact on joints and legs for the company’s ballerinas and ballerinos. McEwan is also working with Old Town architecture firm Swanson Design Studios to help with the redesign. Much like the restaurant it’s replacing, the Greater Lansing Ballet Co. intends to renovate in stages.

“You can see inside where the different phases started,” McEwan said. “The original bar area, the restaurant expansion, the banquet hall addition. We were initially focused on the inside, but we did have an incident where a car went into the front of the building early on in the process, so that part got accelerated.”

McEwan also inherited the high-profile triangular sign out front, which will eventually be used to promote performances.

In June, the first show at the new location was “La Bayadère” (“The Temple Maiden”), which featured most of the company’s 40 dancers. McEwan admits attendance was light, but one of the features of his new location may assuage at least some of the difficulty of connecting with audiences.

“In the past, we’d had a challenge with parking, but as a former restaurant, this location has no problem with that,” McEwan said. “And it was a popular place, so a lot of people already know we’re here. Now it’s just a matter of convincing them to come for the ballet rather than the pizza.”

Greater Lansing Ballet Co. and Greater Lansing Academy of Dance

5643 Old U.S. 27, Lansing (517) 575-6854, greaterlansingballet.com