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Arts & Extras: Roanoke's Jefferson Center displays 'A Perfect Balance'

Arts & Extras: Roanoke's Jefferson Center displays 'A Perfect Balance'


The dancer lifts his partner into the air in a demonstration of grace and strength. She pauses with her head resting on his, one arm on his shoulder, the other extended outward to help her partner maintain his balance.

Aficionados of dance will recognize a classic pas de deux. The dancers depicted in this new sculpture by Roanoke artist Betty Branch, “A Perfect Balance,” will hold their poses from now on between the doors that serve as the main entrances to the Shaftman Performance Hall at Jefferson Center.

“I’ve always been impressed with the idea of the Jefferson Center and the fact that they took a building that was pretty much falling down, full of pigeons, and turned it into a magnificent place for so many different organizations,” Branch said.

Branch walked the halls of the building when it was known as Jefferson High School. She graduated from there in 1951. “It gives me another sense of history, and, I guess you could say, ownership, of a very beautiful thing,” she said.

Built in 1922, the castle-like Tudor Revival-style high school closed in 1974, and afterward began to deteriorate, which seemed a sad end for a storied history. A larger than usual auditorium had been constructed for the school to make up for the city’s lack of a civic center, and that auditorium once hosted a concert by the Pittsburgh Symphony, conduced by composer Leonard Bernstein, eight years before the debut of “West Side Story.”

Prominent graduates such as banking executive Warner Dalhouse, the late philanthropist Rosalie Krisch Shaftman and the late Judge Beverly Fitzpatrick Sr. campaigned to see the building preserved rather than demolished. Fitzpatrick established the Jefferson Center Foundation, which saw the building through to its current status as a major performance venue for the region.

“I just have been so impressed with the people who took it on in those early years, to make sure that it actually took place,” Branch said,

In 1993, the former high school reopened as office space for nonprofits. The final piece of a $15 million renovation locked into place in 2001, when the completed Shaftman Performance Hall reopened for its first concert, performed by the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra.

Contemplating what she might contribute to the Jefferson Center, “I thought the thing that I do might well be the thing that would best serve the center,” Branch said.

Thinking about all the organizations housed at the center, she wondered, “How can I come up with a sculpture that would fairly and suitably represent everyone? And that’s when I thought, well, rather than trying to depict a specific organization or activity that happens here, I would go for the idea of the balance and the beauty that the whole organization has created.”

Branch has contributed many notable works of public art to the Roanoke Valley over the years, including the Fallen Firefighter memorial in front of the Virginia Museum of Transportation and “Once Upon a Time” at the downtown Roanoke public library. The Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke plans to hold a retrospective exhibition of her work in spring 2022.

“What it represents for us is the fact that we can be hopeful again,” said Jefferson Center Executive Director Cyrus Pace. Though the sculpture has been in the center’s possession for about a year, the unveiling was postponed because of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Through that time, the center has offered only virtual concert programming.

Pace sees the sculpture and its title as emblematic of how the center thrives on “a balance of public support and individual support. It’s a balance of missions. In addition to providing community space, we also have our own concerts and programming. We also have an education program.”

The center aims to provide cultural enrichment. “Her piece definitely adds to the cultural enrichment, the idea that people will get to enjoy this piece and celebrate it,” Pace said. “Betty’s history with our community, as an alumna of the high school, in addition to being easily one of the most important artists in the history of this community — all of that combined is perfectly represented in the piece itself.”

‘Decision Height’

The theater at Hollins University is holding a virtual revival of a homegrown play that serves as one of the program’s biggest recent success stories.

Meredith Dayna Levy, class of 2012, was still an undergraduate at Hollins when she wrote “Decision Height,” a play that chronicles the experiences of the Women Airforce Service Pilots during World War II. It went on to win the 2013 Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival award for best new play, and has since been published by Samuel French, the most prestigious publisher of English language plays.

Hollins will livestream a full production of “Decision Height” via Zoom. Dates and times are April 1-3 and 9-10, 7:30 p.m., and April 11, 2 p.m.

Admission is free, but tickets are required. Visit to request the Zoom link.

For more information, call Hollins Theatre at 362-6517.

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