Dorothy returns to the Emerald City in Tulsa Ballet's new full-length adventure, tentatively titled Dorothy and the Prince of Oz, running February 10–12, at Tulsa Performing Arts Center. The million-dollar co-production with BalletMet is the centerpiece of Tulsa Ballet's 60th-anniversary season.
The ballet is choreographed by BalletMet artistic director Edwaard Liang and is based, in part, on Glinda of Oz, the 14th and final book in L. Frank Baum's Oz series. Liang says the ballet won't follow the familiar tale of Dorothy, Toto and the gang from the popular movie. "Tulsa Ballet artistic director Marcello Angelini and I really wanted to have a dramatic storyline beyond flying monkeys and another witch," Liang says. He and librettist/composer Oliver Peter Graber took creative license to fashion the ballet's tale of romance between Dorothy and the Prince of Oz and create a fable in the Prince's relationship with his fighting parents King Sapphire and Queen Diamond.
“I was tricked into it,” says Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre artistic director Terrence S. Orr, recalling his introduction to ballet. As a young boy, he wanted to learn acrobatics, but when there wasn’t a beginning class available, the studio owner put him in ballet. By the time he realized he’d been duped, Orr was already enjoying it. He kept dancing, becoming a principal with San Francisco Ballet by 17. He then rose through the ranks at American Ballet Theatre, where he also served as ballet master and répétiteur.
These days it’s hard to imagine the forthright but affable Orr, now 72, being fooled by anyone. His commanding presence and clarity of purpose have helped position PBT as one of the nation’s top regional ballet companies and training schools.
In 1997, Orr replaced former New York City Ballet star Patricia Wilde as director of the company, which was founded in 1969 by Nicolas Petrov and Loti Falk. His accomplishments at the AGMA-participating troupe are noteworthy. After guiding PBT through financial troubles in the early 2000s, Orr oversaw the remodeling of its five-studio facility and acquired housing for out-of-town high school students in PBT School’s pre-professional division. Most recently, he spearheaded another expansion of the school, including two new studios and a wellness center.
Orr’s vision for the company goes back to when he applied to be artistic director. While Wilde had introduced more Balanchine works to PBT, Orr advocated for a more varied repertoire of full-length classics, famous ballets the company had never done and brand-new creations.
In recent years, he has pushed to expand all three facets of that approach. “My dancers are a very talented and strong group from the corps up to principals,” he says. That confidence in his artists has led to PBT’s first full-length productions of La Bayadère and Le Corsaire; Pittsburgh premieres of influential works by Jirí Kylián, William Forsythe, John Neumeier and Jean-Christophe Maillot; and world premieres by Dwight Rhoden and Viktor Plotnikov. With that, the company’s budget has also grown from $7.3 million in 2010 to $9.8 million in 2016. This October, PBT will open its season with another ambitious production: Orr’s newly restaged Giselle.
Principal Christopher Budzynski is just one of the dancers attracted to PBT’s diverse repertoire. He describes Orr as a “very demanding but friendly and nurturing director. He encourages us not to be afraid of trying different things and doesn’t hold it against us if we fail.” Budzynski also likes the diversity at PBT. “The company is not cookie-cutter. There are different body types and personalities.”
Dancers tend to stick with the company for many years. Principal Julia Erickson, now in her 15th season, says, “we are everyone else’s cheerleaders. There is a respect for hierarchy, but a support system exists within the ranks.”
Dancers also benefit from the expert knowledge of Orr’s wife, company ballet mistress and former ABT star Marianna Tcherkassky. “It’s an education for them to have a ballerina of her stature around,” says Orr. Though he expects his dancers to work diligently and develop as artists, his specific expectations can differ for each person. “I am pretty patient,” he says. “If somebody gets into the company, I know that I have brought them in for the right reasons.”
Orr also encourages his dancers’ own creative interests. Several have choreographed for the school and company, most recently principal Yoshiaki Nakano. Erickson runs Barre, a line of energy bars and wellness products for dancers, with her husband, former PBT member Aaron Ingley.
A newer tradition that makes PBT stand out on a national level is its sensory-friendly performances geared toward children and adults on the autism spectrum. In 2013, PBT was the first American professional ballet company to produce an adapted Nutcracker, and they’ve since performed special evenings of Peter Pan and Beauty and the Beast, with quieter audio, less startling effects and more relaxed house etiquette.
In addition to continuing these performances, Orr says he’d like to add a few dancers to the roster and keep growing the school. He’s also interested in having more live music and touring. All of this upward momentum can be summed up by the person who knows Orr best. His wife, Tcherkassky, says, “Terry points us in a direction and says, ‘Hey, you want to go there? This is how we can do it.’ ”
At a glance: Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre
Number of dancers: 30
Length of contract: 38 weeks
Starting salary: $1,028 per week
Performances per year: 50
One of the best routes into the company is through the PBT School. The company also holds an open audition in March and accepts videos year-round. If Orr is interested, the next step may be joining the school’s graduate program or being invited to take company class and meet with him for one-on-one interviews.
“The look of the dancer is very important,” says Orr, “and that can be defined in all kinds of ways. I want dancers who are not only great technicians but also gifted actors. An equally important part of the audition process is having conversations with the dancer to get to know their heart and how they will fit in.”
“There’s always boxes of color to help with that,” says Kansas City Ballet artistic director Devon Carney when I ask him if the long hours in the studio are turning his hair gray. It’s November, and he’s creating the company’s new $2 million Nutcracker production. “I love it,” he says. “There’s nothing like making something that will influence kids in their development as dancers.”
For Carney, there was a lot to love about the situation he stepped into in 2013 as only the fourth artistic director in Kansas City Ballet’s 59-year history. (Carney’s predecessor, William Whitener, retired after 17 years to work as an independent choreographer, teacher and arts advocate.) The company had recently moved into a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility, had a new performance home at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and was free of debt. “It was pretty spectacular,” says Carney.
Now into year three of a plan to increase the number of dancers, raise the level of artistry and transform the company’s repertoire, Carney says the organization has already met most of those goals.
KCB, formerly known as the State Ballet of Missouri, was founded in 1957 by Tatiana Dokoudovska. Company dancer Logan Pachciarz says the AGMA-participating troupe has grown exponentially since he arrived in 2000. “It had about half the number of dancers then, and we did mostly ensemble works.”
Carney, a former principal dancer and ballet master at Boston Ballet, says his decade-long term as associate artistic director at Cincinnati Ballet helped prepare him for his first directorship. Growing the organization was one of his priorities when he arrived. First, he created the six-member second company, KCB II. In 2015, he instituted a nine-dancer trainee program. The additional dancers, says Carney, are not only necessary to do full-length ballets and outreach, but have also relieved the 28 company dancers of some of the corps work, freeing them up for more soloist and principal roles.
“In my career, I had a chance to experience a lot of different styles,” says Carney. “I think it’s important that the dancers here have that kind of opportunity to grow. I believe in them, and when someone believed in me, it really changed my confidence level.”
With an annual operating budget of $8.5 million, Carney is cognizant of the ballets and choreographers he can bring in. Therefore, he needs performers who will excel in a variety of works. When hiring, Carney says, he looks for versatile dancers who will commit to the artistic intention of each piece. KCB now does a mix of full-length classics (something they did very little of before), neoclassical ballets like those of Balanchine, and contemporary works from a host of emerging and established choreographers, such as Edwaard Liang, Amy Seiwert, Jodie Gates and Val Caniparoli.
“He really challenges us to increase our technical level and ability,” says Pachciarz of Carney. “He’s a big fan of wide, sweeping movement and a lot of port de bras and épaulement.”
Ballet master and former Cincinnati Ballet principal Kristi Capps, who Carney hired in 2014, says he is “demanding, but in a caring way. For Devon, to see a dancer not put forth maximum effort is heartbreaking because he knows how short a dancer’s career is.”
Carney is also an accomplished choreographer, having created works for Boston Ballet, BalletMet, Cincinnati Ballet and Cincinnati Opera. Pachciarz says he “is very methodical. He reads scores and thinks about how the movement fits into them.” In addition to KCB’s new Nutcracker, Carney mounted the company’s first-ever full-length Swan Lake in February and restaged his Giselle for them in 2015.
Artists who join KCB will step into a pretty spectacular situation, as Carney did. Their home, the new Todd Bolender Center for Dance & Creativity—a converted power plant—houses the company, administrative offices, Kansas City Ballet School and a 180-seat theater. Each production (apart from Nutcracker) runs two weekends at the Kauffman Center, with most performed to live music by the Kansas City Symphony. Dancers can benefit from extra performance opportunities in ongoing collaborations with organizations like the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and they have the chance to choreograph as part of the company’s annual New Moves program.
Next up for KCB, May 6–15, is Adam Hougland’s Rite of Spring, along with works by Helen Pickett, Yuri Possokhov and a world premiere by Viktor Plotnikov. Beyond that, Carney’s plans for KCB include continued growth, in every direction. He aspires to add more dancers, have more collaborations and to tour—something they’ve done very little of. “I believe in this company,” says Carney. “There is so much left for us to do, and I am excited for what the future holds.”
The company holds open auditions January to March. Videos are accepted year-round as a preliminary audition, but Carney highly recommends dancers attend an open audition.
“Musicality is paramount to me, as is attentiveness to the material and being able to exactly reproduce it quickly,” says Carney. Women generally need to be between 5' 4" and 5' 7". Male dancers should be 5' 10" and up, with strong partnering skills. Carney says he also places great importance on a dancer’s demeanor, professional appearance, resumé and photo.
At a Glance
Kansas City Ballet
Number of dancers: 28
Length of contract: 35 weeks
Starting salary: $733 per week
Performances per year: 48+
Bonnefoux rehearsing dancers Melissa Anduiza and David Morse (photo by Jeff Cravotta, courtesy Charlotte Ballet)
Take a look at Charlotte Ballet’s repertoire, and it’s clear it’s a company fueled by innovative contemporary works yet rich in ballet pedigree. Led by former New York City Ballet stars Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride, the company has challenged its home audience with Dwight Rhoden’s civil-rights themed Sit In Stand Out and delighted attendees at the Chautauqua Institution, its summer home in upstate New York, with Sasha Janes’ inventive and sophisticated Chaconne.
Founded in 1970 as North Carolina Dance Theatre, the company relocated from Winston-Salem to Charlotte in 1990. Bonnefoux took over, in 1996, with his wife McBride as associate artistic director. Both left positions in the ballet department at Indiana University to inherit a financially struggling company that hadn’t yet solidified its place in Charlotte. But they were able to quickly turn the company around with a vision focused on a wide-ranging repertoire.
“We were not there to say ‘We come from this specific ballet tradition and that is all you will see,’ ” says Bonnefoux. “I wanted to find the new talent in America and bring it to Charlotte. You need exciting choreographers to attract exciting dancers and vice versa.”
Bonnefoux hired both. Over the past 19 years, the non-ranked company has built a consistent roster of dancers to perform new contemporary ballets by the likes of Alonzo King, Jirí Bubenícek and resident choreographer Rhoden; modern classics from Balanchine, Forsythe, Kylián and Tharp; and full-length story ballets.
Aside from the repertoire, many dancers come for the chance to learn from the legendary McBride, who acts as a mentor and coach, as well as a master teacher in the company’s affiliated school. Bonnefoux, too, “is very selfless, understanding and genuine,” says 10-year Charlotte Ballet dancer Alessandra James. “Yet he commands so much respect. His stories about his career and insight into ballets are absolutely priceless.”
James is the poster child for the type of dancer Bonnefoux hires: not just an excellent performer and technician, but someone who’s eager to grow. “If a dancer is not working to improve and stays the same from year to year,” says Bonnefoux, “it is not good for the company. There is no routine here.”
Bonnefoux has also been supportive of his dancers as choreographers, including former member Janes, who shares the role of associate artistic director with McBride.
In addition to their annual five-program season and occasional regional touring, Charlotte Ballet’s dancers get extra weeks of work at Chautauqua, where they present new ballets and preview their upcoming home season. Bonnefoux has headed Chautauqua’s summer dance program since 1983, and the relationship led to Charlotte Ballet’s summer residency officially starting in 2001.
Beginning this season, a partnership with South Carolina’s Gaillard Center in Charleston will add more performances—including major productions like The Nutcracker—and educational programming. The goal is to help build an audience in a community which recently lost its lone professional ballet company, Charleston Ballet Theatre.
Another change came in 2014 when the company rebranded to Charlotte Ballet. Bonnefoux and McBride wanted to better define the company as a ballet troupe with Charlotte as its home, and it has already led to increased ticket sales. The key element in the marketing strategy? Using the dancers’ faces and stories in advertisements to personalize the company/dancegoer relationship.
For Bonnefoux, that face also needs to be a diversified one. “You don’t have that many African American dancers coming to auditions, and that is disappointing,” he says. But the company has been proactive via an ongoing program with Dance Theatre of Harlem. For the past three years, Charlotte Ballet II has taken two students from DTH’s school into its ranks. The company has also been cultivating homegrown talent through Reach, its community outreach scholarship program for young beginners.
With its new performance partnership and diversity initiatives, the freshly rebranded company has become an increasingly desirable destination. “The dancers that come here know the repertory is not easy,” says Bonnefoux. “It is going to challenge, excite and transform them.”
In four short years, Patricia Barker has rebuilt Grand Rapids Ballet’s repertoire and reinvigorated the company.
Underneath Grand Rapids Ballet artistic director Patricia Barker’s million-watt smile lies an unyielding determination to realize her artistic visions. So when friend Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, unexpectedly died before he could introduce her to fellow author Chris Van Allsburg (The Polar Express and Jumanji), Barker took it upon herself to visit Van Allsburg’s Massachusetts home to convince the Grand Rapids native to help design GRB’s newNutcracker production. When Van Allsburg was reluctant to venture down that well-traveled road, Barker convinced him otherwise. The resulting 2014 premiere proved a seminal moment in the company’s history.
It was with that same determination that the first-time artistic director vaulted GRB from a largely unknown regional company in Michigan to one in the national spotlight in less than four years. Born in Richland, Washington, Barker studied at the Boston Ballet School and at Pacific Northwest Ballet School before joining PNB in 1981. She became a principal in 1986, starring with the company until her retirement in 2007.
Prior to her taking the reins at GRB in 2010, Barker honed her business and leadership skills as designer/owner of dancewear line BKWear, as a spokesmodel and designer for Bloch Inc. and as an artistic advisor to Slovak National Theatre Ballet. Former PNB founding artistic director Francia Russell had sparked Barker’s desire to direct years earlier, so when GRB’s executive director came calling, she jumped at the opportunity.
Barker drew on all these experiences to turn around the in-debt, 16-member troupe she inherited from outgoing director Gordon Peirce Schmidt. The 38-year-old company came with a then-struggling school (however, alumni include New York City Ballet principal Maria Kowroski) and the Meijer-Royce Center for Dance that houses the studios, administrative offices and a 300-seat theater. But when Schmidt left, he took the 50 ballets he had created for the company with him.
Barker installed a new repertoire that includes classics, such as Swan Lake and Balanchine works, and modernized versions of story ballets, like Mario Radacovsky’sRomeo & Juliet and Olivier Wevers’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A slew of new contemporary works by noted choreographers, including Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Brian Enos and Robyn Mineko Williams, rounds out the repertoire.
Today, Michigan’s only professional ballet company regularly sells out its home performances, and this year it is completing a $2.5 million capital campaign, having already received a $1 million endowment. The funds will be used to make the company debt-free, help pay for its new Nutcracker and provide a cash reserve for future projects.
Those successes have also meant a huge increase in dancers wanting to join the now 33-member unranked company. Barker does things a bit differently than most: There are no divisions of labor among GRB’s 5 trainees, 6 apprentices and 22 company members. “They all train together and compete for the same roles,” says Barker. The classifications are primarily for designating salaries. “I want all the dancers to feel they have a chance at a great role and to have work created on them, and I want choreographers to be inspired by the dancers in front of them,” says Barker.
Senior company member Laura McQueen Schultz, 32, says that ensemble approach keeps her on her toes. Though she has been with the company since 2003, Schultz says Barker’s arrival revitalized her interest in GRB and ballet. “Artistically, I am being challenged much more now, and the number of choreographers I have worked with since she arrived has skyrocketed,” she says.
One of only four dancers left from the prior regime, Schultz now describes the company as more international and the atmosphere more amiable and professional. She says Barker is approachable, yet firm when she needs to be, and a coach who instills confidence. “It’s like I got to dance in a new company without moving,” says Schultz.
In May, the company will premiere Radacovsky’s Beethoven. The contemporary story ballet, created in collaboration with the Czech National Ballet Brno, takes its inspiration from the women who inspired the iconic composer and his music.
Now with its rich new repertoire, Barker says the company is built for touring. GRB currently performs throughout Michigan and appeared at a St. Louis festival last summer, and Barker is in talks with presenters both nationally and abroad about future opportunities. “What continues to drive me is not only helping this organization to thrive and be noticed,” she says, “but for us to become Michigan’s number-one arts export.”
In July 2013 he became the Columbus, Ohio, ballet company's fifth artistic director, succeeding Gerard Charles, who is now a ballet master at Joffrey Ballet. Founded in 1978, BalletMet has a rich performance history showcasing a mix of classics (Balanchine and story ballets) along with a range of contemporary works from choreographers such as James Kudelka, Stanton Welch and Doug Varone. The dual role of artistic director as company choreographer, embraced by all of its previous directors, most notably John McFall and David Nixon, was an exciting prospect for Liang in accepting the directorship. “I think that a ballet company that has an artistic director who choreographs sets it apart from others," says Liang. “It has its own strategic voice and vision."
Born in Taiwan and raised in California, Liang danced as a soloist with New York City Ballet and later as a member of Nederlands Dans Theater 1, where he launched his choreographic career in 2003 at a company workshop. In 2004 he was invited back to NYCB and participated in Peter Martins' New York Choreographic Institute. He has since created ballets for some of the world's top companies, including Immortal Belovedfor Mariinsky Ballet, Age of Innocence for Joffrey Ballet and Symphonic Dances for San Francisco Ballet.
Liang credits his work as a freelance choreographer for preparing him for his post at BalletMet, noting how it taught him to manage people and time, understand contracts and get the most out of dancer talent. The biggest challenge so far? A heavy workload that includes directing, choreographing and administrative and fundraising duties. On top of it all, he's managed to keep up with freelance opportunities, such as the creation of Murmuration for Houston Ballet in 2013 and upcoming projects with Kansas City Ballet, Tulsa Ballet and Cincinnati Ballet.
Liang's vision for BalletMet is for it to become a top boutique ballet company. “I am hoping to increase our visibility and be among the leaders in our range and size," he says. But to realize those goals, Liang feels the repertoire needs to rival that of the world's big name ballet companies. That's where his wealth of choreographer friends, like Christopher Wheeldon and Gustavo Ramirez Sansano—both of whose works were part of Liang's first planned program at BalletMet—will help in building a refreshed repertoire. But he's not parting ways with the company's more classical works. March 2015 will mark the world premiere of Liang's full-length Cinderella. “I want to create a clean, no frills sort of production to welcome the community to more classical ballet."
To up the quality of the unranked company and ensure it's suited to the new repertoire, Liang added seven members for a total roster of 26 this season. Altogether, they're a group of dancers who he says “hunger for innovation, inspiration and love and are humble to their craft."
Dancer Gabriel Gaffney Smith, now in his seventh season with the company, is one of those. He sees Liang as a leader with great poise and a clear vision of what he wants as a choreographer and as a director, saying he continues to promote a family-like atmosphere. “The dancers are made to feel they are in a two-way conversation during the creative process," says Smith. “He pushes you outside your boundaries so that they keep expanding."
Liang is just beginning to put into effect the changes he sees for the organization. Beyond the roster and repertoire retooling, he launched second company BalletMet 2 in 2014 to serve as both a community outreach vehicle and as a feeder to the main company. Also on tap are continued collaborative relationships with the Columbus Symphony, which, along with Opera Columbus, was a part of last September's Twisted: a Trio of Excellence; co-productions with Cincinnati Ballet and Tulsa Ballet; and touring opportunities. Under Liang's vision, it seems as though the company's reach will be ever expanding.