Avant Chamber Ballet in Katie Cooper's Aurora's Wedding. Sharen Bradford, Courtesy ACB.

How Boutique Troupe Avant Chamber Ballet Blossomed in Dallas

Katie Cooper knows an opportunity when she sees one. When the Dallas-area Metropolitan Classical Ballet—where she'd danced for six years—shuttered its doors, she saw an opening for a new company: her own. "There were ballet dancers who needed work," she says. So in 2012, Cooper, known for her Texas spunk, founded Avant Chamber Ballet, now considered the city's cherished boutique troupe.

"During my performance career, I had never worked under a female artistic director or danced work by a female choreographer," says Cooper, who began developing herself as a dancemaker when she launched the company. "It was time for me to move to the front of the room." After starting ACB at 28, she quickly found that dancing, choreographing and running a company proved too big a load, so she retired from performing after the first few shows.


Though the troupe was originally project-based, local enthusiasm from audience members, musicians, dancers, critics and donors spurred Cooper to develop a set season. A threshold moment occurred when former New York City Ballet and Texas Ballet Theater dancer Michele Gifford returned to the North Texas area. Gifford, a répétiteur for Christopher Wheeldon and The George Balanchine Trust, danced with ACB for two seasons, and then, starting in 2015, began setting works by both choreographers. So far, the company has performed Wheeldon's There Where She Loved pas de deux and The American pas de deux and Balanchine's Valse Fantaisie, Who Cares? (concert version), Walpurgisnacht Ballet and Concerto Barocco. Cooper found that having big-name choreographers in the mix gave the company added momentum.

Today, ACB puts on four productions a year, with Cooper providing about half of the choreography for its mixed bills. Her work, which leans towards classical, is often on pointe. She's committed to live music at every show, whether it's a pianist, chamber music or orchestra. Her husband, David Cooper, is the company's music director and principal horn at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, enabling access to top-notch musicians. For this season's The Little Match Girl Passion, the company collaborated with the Verdigris vocal ensemble. As local troupes rarely perform to live music, Cooper sees this as a way to further distinguish ACB's brand.

Katie Cooper

Courtesy ACB

To keep women's work front and center, Cooper also started ACB's Women's Choreography Project five years ago. The open application initiative allows funds for a choreographer to premiere a new ballet on the company each season. "The hardest part of selecting repertoire is choosing our WCP commission. Each year the applications grow stronger, more professional and polished," says Cooper, noting that she usually identifies at least three to five choreographers that she feels deserve the commission. "That speaks to how much talent there is among young female choreographers." Next season, she's inviting a past applicant, Jennifer Mabus, to create a work.

A typical day runs from 9:30 am to 3 pm, including company class five days a week. "Katie is so efficient," says Madelaine Boyce, one of ACB's 14 members. "She choreographs quickly and there's no time wasted." A former Metropolitan Classical Ballet dancer herself, Boyce has been with the company from the get-go and appreciates Cooper's no-nonsense work ethic. "She's intense and knows exactly what she wants." Boyce says she thrives in the collaborative studio culture, where her own artistry is valued. "We are a close-knit family, yet no one is coddled."

As for the future, plans are underway to secure a dedicated studio space for the company. All performances are held at the 750-seat Moody Performance Hall, but ACB currently rehearses at multiple rental spaces. Having their own home would be a game changer, says Cooper. "It will give us a feeling of permanence, and that's a big statement." Next season, they also plan to expand the repertoire with Paul Mejia's elaborate Nutcracker, their first full-length version of the holiday favorite. "When I ended my performance career," Cooper says, "I wanted to start a company that I would want to dance in myself." To that end, she's succeeded.

Audition Advice

Avant Chamber Ballet holds open auditions in New York City, Dallas and, next season, Chicago. Cooper welcomes video submissions with a strong recommendation from someone she respects. She looks for a combination of technique, musicality and personality. "They need to be standouts and interesting movers," says Cooper. "Phrasing is also important. They must be able to make the steps their own and be strong performers."

Avant Chamber Ballet At a Glance

Number of dancers: 14

Length of contract: 23–25 weeks

Starting salary: $1,200 per production

Performances per season: 15

Website: avantchamberballet.org

Latest Posts


Getty Images

How Can I Stay Motivated While Training at Home?

Ethan Ahuero was having a good year: he was in his first season dancing with Kansas City Ballet II and had been presented with the opportunity to choreograph on the second company. "The day before we shut down I had a rehearsal, and I was so happy," Ahuero says. "The piece was coming together and this was the first time I felt really proud of my creative process."

Suddenly, the coronavirus pandemic brought everything to a halt. With the company's season cut short and the studios closed, Ahuero found himself attempting to continue dancing from home, with his choreography project put on hold. Like many other dancers around the world, Ahuero is dealing with disappointment while struggling to stay motivated.

Keeping up with daily ballet classes may feel difficult right now; inspiration can seem hard to come by when you're following along on Zoom and short on space at home. Below are a few simple tips for finding new ways to stay motivated.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Isabella Boylston has been teaching on Zoom for Universal Ballet Competition, as well as on Instagram Live. (Courtesy Boylston)

(Virtual) Dancing with the Stars: How to Get the Most Out of Online Classes with Dance Celebs

When your dance studio is your second home, taking class in your actual home just isn't the same. But if there's one silver lining to the current situation, it's that some of the biggest dance stars from stage and screen have gone online to lead barres, host dance parties, demonstrate combos, and teach technique classes—some of which are completely free.

"Students can learn so much from working with the pros directly," says American Ballet Theatre principal Isabella Boylston, who teaches on Zoom through Universal Ballet Competition as well as offering the Cindies Ballet Class on Instagram Live with fellow ABT principal James Whiteside. "It's inspiring and eye-opening to connect with dancers all over the world."

So what benefits do these virtual master classes offer? How do they fit into your overall training regimen? And how do you even navigate all of the content that's out there? Read on for advice from the pros.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Tulsa Ballet in Ma Cong's Tchaikovsky: The Man Behind the Music. Kate Luber Photography, Courtesy Tulsa Ballet.

Updated: Mark Your Calendars for These Online Ballet Performances

Updated on 5/27/2020

Since COVID-19 has forced ballet companies around the world to cancel performances—and even the remainder of their seasons—many are keeping their audiences engaged by streaming or posting pre-recorded performances onto their websites or social media channels. To help keep you inspired during these challenging times, we've put together a list of upcoming streaming events and digital performances.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks