'Something is very wrong here': Former students worry about the future of Friends ballet

Sharon Rogers, associate professor of dance at Friends University, supervises a ballet rehearsal in 2012. Sharon and Stan Rogers, who launched Friends' ballet program 30 years ago, are leaving the university.
Sharon Rogers, associate professor of dance at Friends University, supervises a ballet rehearsal in 2012. Sharon and Stan Rogers, who launched Friends' ballet program 30 years ago, are leaving the university. The Wichita Eagle

Some former students of the Friends University ballet program are incredulous at the sudden departure of its founders, Stan and Sharon Rogers, and they say the move raises questions about the program's future.

"I can say with a level of gut certainty that there is something amiss with this retirement," said Nicole Avery, a 2000 graduate of Friends who danced under the direction of Stan and Sharon Rogers for nine years.

"Under no circumstances would such a departure be so abrupt, with no galas, no fanfare, no party to celebrate the life's work of someone who has not only poured himself into his work and his students but created the very foundation it stands on," Avery said. "Something is very wrong here."

Stan Rogers, who started the ballet program with his then-wife three decades ago, confirmed last week that he will leave the university after the Friends commencement May 12.

University spokeswoman Gisele McMinimy said Wednesday that Sharon Rogers, Friends' longtime ballet mistress, "has announced her retirement as well," but that her ballet school for children would continue to hold classes at Friends.

"We will not be releasing any additional statements or comments," McMinimy said in an email.

Sharon Rogers confirmed Wednesday that she is leaving the university, adding, "I would not have made this decision if Stan were still there."

Sharon Rogers said Rogers Ballet Inc. "will certainly continue and thrive, no matter where we are or where we go."

Asked about the future of ballet at Friends — the only four-year ballet degree program in Kansas — McMinimy said: "Friends is starting a search for a new faculty member to continue the excellence of our outstanding dance program."

Ken Stoltzfus, dean of the college of business, arts, sciences and education at Friends, said Thursday that the university plans to continue its Bachelor of Fine Arts in Ballet degree program. The department is seeking someone with "extensive ballet experience, such as a masters or doctorate," Stoltzfus said, as well as experience in music theater or other forms of dance.

"That's very consistent with what we've been doing," he said. Sharon Rogers taught classes in tap, jazz and other forms of dance, although the program focused primarily on classical ballet.

The Rogerses, who still run the ballet school together even though they are no longer married, are known for their high-quality, professional productions, including an annual production of "The Nutcracker" that plays to sold-out crowds each holiday season. Officials have not said whether "The Nutcracker" will continue.

Since news of the founders' retirements came to light, current and former students have raised questions on social media and elsewhere about the situation surrounding their departure.

"I have known Stan for many years, and I have a very hard time believing that such a sudden and unexpected departure is of his free will," said Erika McBride, who danced for Rogers Ballet and in "The Nutcracker" for seven years.

"This ending of an era hurts my heart, and I hope that Friends University realizes what precious jewels they are losing," she said. "Stan and Sharon have lifted ballet in this city to incredible heights."

This spring the Friends ballet program will graduate one student, Stoltzfus said. The university projects to have 12 to 14 students enrolled in the program this fall.

James Milton Wallace, who is pursuing his Master of Fine Arts in ballet at the University of Utah, danced in ballet companies for 12 years and won awards for his choreography after studying at Friends.

"I am awestruck that Friends University would destroy the only ballet training program in the entire state that has consistently produced professional dancers," Wallace said in a letter to Friends University president Amy Bragg Carey. "Clearly, the university has no idea of the treasure that it possesses in Stan and Sharon Rogers' ballet program."

Last year, the five dancers who graduated from the Friends program all landed jobs with professional ballet companies, according to Stan Rogers in an earlier interview. He would not comment this week about the terms of his departure or the future of the program.

Stoltzfus, who started as dean of the Friends arts college last summer, said he appreciates the role ballet and other fine arts play at the university and in the community.

"It gets us in touch with beauty and with culture in a way that, if you're not intentional about it, you could overlook," he said.

"I think the arts in general — and ballet in particular — play a really important role on our campus. Moving forward, we're wanting to hire somebody who's going to continue that foundation of excellence that the founders started."

Avery, the 2000 graduate who now works as a registered nurse in Kansas City, Mo., said she and several other former students are "shocked and disheartened" by recent developments.

"What many people are taking issue with and why there are so many people up in arms about this is because we do not believe this (retirement) is on their terms," she said of the Rogerses' departure. "We want transparency from the university, transparency from administration. That's what we want."

Four Friends students in the dance program have choreographed works for the university's Student Choreography Showcase from March 3-4, 2017.