101 Stories: Ken  Braso  and Beth Hartwell

By The Children's Theatre

Celebrate TCT’s 101st season as it comes to a close as we applaud and appreciate those who contributed to the organization’s magic throughout our century-long journey.  During 10 weeks of recognition, we honor individuals who have been instrumental in the success of TCT, and who have not only helped TCT grow in mission, but also thrive, thanks to their passion.  It is these people and their moments in our history that shaped TCT to become what it is today. We encourage you to consider giving a gift in their honor to ensure the sustainability of TCT’s mission for the next 100+ years. 

Ken  Braso  and Beth Hartwell in Santa’s Toy Shoppe

Ken Braso and Elizabeth (Beth) Hartwell, performed with The Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati in THE JUNGLE BOOK in 1997 and again in 2004. Their dance artistry propelled TCT forward, making an international impact when the company traveled overseas touring the production to Brussels and Amsterdam. Ken also taught classes for TCT and co-directed DISNEY’S CINDERELLA KIDS in 2005.  

Ken and Beth are married and live in Missouri. They recently shared their thoughts about their past involvement with the company. First, a little more about them: 

Ken Braso came to Columbia, Missouri in 2008 with over 30 years of professional dance experience. Ken has been a featured dancer with Walt Disney Productions, Southern Ballet Theatre, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Ballet Austin, Cincinnati Opera Ballet, and he danced with the Louisville Ballet for 18 years. Ken has also performed, co-directed, and taught classes for The Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati. Ken worked with many notable choreographers in ballets created by Alun Jones, Helen Star, Choo San Goh, William Soleau, Joe Layton, Stephen Mills, Septime Weber, David Parsons, and Jack Louiso. His performance repertoire includes dancing over one hundred roles in traditional full-length story ballets, operas, and twentieth-century classics in ballet and musical theatre. Currently and over the past decade, he has made distinctive artistic contributions locally by serving as the rehearsal director of the Missouri Contemporary Ballet company. From 2005 to 2008, Ken was a member of the Louisville Ballet School faculty. Between 2010-18, Ken made guest appearances with the Springfield Ballet in Missouri, both as a performer and a ballet instructor. A skilled and passionate freelance artist known for his abilities as a gymnastics coach and ballet instructor, Ken Braso enjoys passing on his direct knowledge of the performing arts to young people.  

Elizabeth Hartwell directed the Louisville Ballet School (LBS) from 2004-2008, following a long tenure as principal dancer with the Louisville Ballet. And she was artistic director of the Louisville Ballet Youth ensemble, an honor status member of the Southeastern Ballet Association (SERBA). From 1996 to 2004, she served on the dance faculty at the Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts and the LBS. Elizabeth has been a member of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Cincinnati Ballet, Ruth Page’s THE NUTCRACKER  in Chicago, and the Cincinnati Opera and Pittsburgh Civic Opera Ballet companies. In 1998 and 2004, she and her husband Ken Braso danced THE JUNGLE BOOK at The Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati, touring to Brussels and Amsterdam. Elizabeth received the 2004 Kentucky Governor’s Artist of the Year Award, for lifetime achievement. In addition to leading roles in story ballets, including GISELLE, DON QUIXOTE, and THE SLEEPING BEAUTY to name a few, Elizabeth enjoyed dancing classical ballets created by Alun Jones, Patrick Frantz, Anthony Tudor, George Balanchine, Frederick Ashton, and Augustus Bournonville. She has performed ballets staged by Frederick Franklin, Alexandra Danilova, Sally Wilson, Vicki Simon, Karen von Aroldingen, Vivica Lejung, and Niels Kehlet. For nine years at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, Elizabeth was a full-time instructor, and later program coordinator of the three-year BFA in Dance program and artistic director of the Stephens Summer Intensive program. Elizabeth received an M.F.A. in Choreography at Jacksonville University in 2019 and, in 2017, a B.A. in Dance Instruction at University Without Walls program at Northeastern Illinois University. Currently, Elizabeth teaches regular company class to the Missouri Contemporary Ballet company members and also younger dancers training in classical ballet.   

THE JUNGLE BOOK 1997

What prompted your involvement with TCT?  

KEN: Before reuniting with Jack Louiso at TCT in the dance production, THE JUNGLE BOOK, I danced Jack’s distinctively dynamic choreography for many summers with the Cincinnati Opera.  

BETH: Almost every cast member of THE JUNGLE BOOK was trained under Jack Louiso at Cincinnati’s School for the Creative and Performing Arts. TCT’s production reminds me that the goals of the heart require luck and the good fortune of cooperation and input of talented people.  

One backstory of how THE JUNGLE BOOK materialized in dance form demonstrates how Jack and Susie build momentum for proposing this unique alternative theatre event. We met Jack at Joseph Beth’s bookstore just by chance when Ken and I happened to take a break in Cincinnati while on a return trip from Pennsylvania. Jack and Susie were searching for music for THE JUNGLE BOOK – they were fascinated by the cultural infusion Bela Fleck used in his Bluegrass album combining the Veda music of India. In sharing his key creative coalescence of the idea for making a ballet about THE JUNGLE BOOK stories, Jack’s brimming excitement prompted me and Ken to immediately realize how much we wanted to be included in this process.   

Can you share a moment or turning point in your work with TCT that enhanced or changed the program? 

BETH: Jack and Susie are inclusive people who know how to engage young audience members. The international touring schedule of THE JUNGLE BOOK included teaching residencies with our TCT young audience members. I noticed how the handmade animal masks that defined our costumed character roles became a bridge of communication amongst our differences in language, age, and socio-economic backgrounds.   

KEN: Art imitates life. Jack and Susie assembled an amazing collaboration of people for the cast and crew. Most were cognizant of being members of a special tribe, we were Jack’s dancers in an earlier time period and thus coming back home. As we danced THE JUNGLE BOOKperforming in Cincinnati or on tour in the scenic cities of Brussels and Amsterdam, we wholeheartedly encouraged growth in each person’s unique stage of life during our group adventures outside of the theater; so many dancers in the cast were in coming-of-age situations of young adulthood themselves. The relationships we have built off-stage are just as important to realize. Susie and Jack always made me feel welcomed and made sure I knew the value of what I brought to the production. Since THE JUNGLE BOOK, TCT has collaborated with other special organizations, such as The National Theatre of the Deaf for the memorable musical theatre play about Beethoven, BEETHOVEN BY HEART. 

Was there a particular situation where you witnessed the TCT mission specifically enhance the growth and development of children‘s imagination or creativity? 

BETH: I observed a transformation in each of the two cast members who portrayed the role of Young Mowgli. These boys had to capitulate to their inner moxie as they attempted and subsequently became well-practiced with an overhead, partnered lift in the dance choreography. Making it through the jungle (or Jack’s entertaining choreography) involves using your heart to unlock courage, bravery, and trust within yourself. Only then can you utilize the mental capacity for timing and coordination and the spirit for developing stamina for such attentiveness.  

When I watched Jack and Ken, Mowgli’s lifting partner, encourage all of these traits in these young artists, I was reminded of the morals imparted in Rudyard Kipling’s stories. All of us built up our confidence and skills in the full-length ballet. Playing the role of Kaa, I learned how to express and move as a python might do through space and time. Jack’s steps and dance phrases to Indian pulses integrated intense physical lessons of stamina and cooperative efforts for each and every Jungle Book character. The young audiences easily grasped the meaning of the story.  

KEN: Co-directing with Jack and Susie on Cinderella,I gained an understanding of their ideals and philosophy as they envisioned future leadership at TCT. Our informal conversations regarding the arts and child development centered on how cultural norms help situate the context of our relating to the world. It was important to them that TCT continue to tap into current trends. The TCT leadership continues to reflect such progressive visions by developing creative theatrical tools and programs for the next generation of young audiences. These performing arts events are designed to explore openness in communication in our relationships, and accordingly serve Jack and Susie’s legacy well. 

What do you love most or miss most about your work with TCT? 

KEN: The whole process, including the camaraderie Jack and Susie shared with everyone associated with the production, the precision of the material, and the confidence of knowing that I was part of delivering a high level in quality of performance encompasses what I enjoyed most of when working with Jack and Susie at TCT.  

BETH: Much laughter and joy-filled the rehearsal studio while creating THE JUNGLE BOOK. Jack and Susie’s generosity of spirit, clever concepts, and open process in creating a dance work produced a rewarding environment for me and Ken to work in. Thank you TCT for this opportunity to express the profoundly positive influences they made on our lives.  

Would you honor Ken Braso and Beth Hartwell with a gift to recognize the impact made on TCT?