Karen Gibbons-Brown coaching the company. Photo by Jeffrey Crane, Courtesy Fort Wayne Ballet.

Midwest Moves: Fort Wayne Ballet is Steadily Developing Its Dancers and Repertoire

Anonymity has its benefits, says Fort Wayne Ballet executive and artistic director Karen Gibbons-Brown: "We are tucked in the Midwest and one of the beauties is you get to fly under the radar and experiment in a way that you don't get to in a larger place." While that may have been true in the past, Indiana's Fort Wayne Ballet is now making moves toward greater visibility.

As an organization, FWB is entering its 62nd year, but it has only existed as a professional dance company with full-time, contracted dancers since the 2010–11 season. Prior to that, the organization's on-again, off-again performance company hit its heights under Michael Tevlin's tenure as artistic director (1981–94).

When Gibbons-Brown arrived in 1998, the organization and its affiliated school, the Auer Academy of Fort Wayne Ballet, were in distress. But the former dancer with South Carolina Chamber Dance Ensemble, Bristol Ballet and Theatre Ballet of San Francisco says part of why she came to Fort Wayne was that "it is a community rich in the arts and there was a lot of opportunity."


Fort Wayne Ballet's "Nutcracker." Photo by Jeffrey Crane, Courtesy Fort Wayne Ballet.

As the fourth artistic director in four years, she inherited an organization in debt and lacking direction. "It had been pruned back to a school," she says, noting that there were few students. "We had to rebuild that and add back in a professional company."

Within 18 months she trimmed the budget, led fundraising efforts to pay off its $100,000 debt and expanded the school. The first part of Gibbons-Brown's vision was to establish a regional and national reputation for FWB's training. That included the 2013 creation of the Fort Wayne Ballet Conservatory, a partnership with nearby University of Saint Francis, through which students can earn an associate or bachelors in dance.

She also wanted FWB to have a greater impact on its community. It collaborates with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic and features dogs for adoption, from Fort Wayne Animal Care & Control, in each Nutcracker performance. They also team up with the area's minor league sports teams to create trading cards of athletes with company dancers that FWB uses in its outreach efforts.

Having just celebrated her 20th season as director, Gibbons-Brown feels the professional company is making strides, and FWB is three years into a seven-year plan to build its repertoire. Just a few years ago, it predominantly performed works by lesser-known choreographers and story ballets. Now it presents a mix of narrative ballets (The Nutcracker, Cinderella), modern classics (from choreographers such as José Limón, Gerald Arpino, Edward Stierle and Robert Joffrey) and new works from emerging dancemakers. This season, Darren McIntyre joins the team as associate artistic director and choreographer.

Gibbons-Brown in rehearsal with the company. Photo by Jeffrey Crane, Courtesy Fort Wayne Ballet.

The modestly sized company performs upwards of 52 times a year, including eight main-stage productions in two theaters and various outreach shows. To support this, FWB has increased its number of contracted dancers, who receive health and dental benefits, from eight to 12 for this season and has, for the first time under Gibbons-Brown, instituted dancer rankings. In addition, 12 unpaid apprentices constitute FWB's corps de ballet and eight trainees supplement it. Recent auditions attracted dancers from Europe, Asia and South America, as well as from across the U.S.

The atmosphere in the studio is supportive, says fifth-year company dancer and former Auer Academy student Kerry Coughlin: "If someone is doing a part they are stressed about, we encourage them." The same goes for Gibbons-Brown. "She can be all business in the studio when needed, but if you are struggling, she is more than happy to help." Teaching has always been Gibbons-Brown's passion, and much of her studio time is dedicated to coaching and refining the dancers' technique.

With its finances in order, an endowment for future choreographic masterworks and continued growth over the past few seasons, Fort Wayne Ballet is a company on the rise. "The word is getting out about us," says Coughlin. "It wasn't always like that."

Audition Advice: Auditions take place in February, through special arrangement or by video submission. The process can last up to a week and includes company class, observing rehearsals and interviewing with Gibbons-Brown.

"I look for clean technique and unaffected dance," she says. "Can the instrument do the repertoire we have, and can they sustain that from day to day?" The interview is equally important. "I want to know the dancer's goals. We do a lot of outreach, so if they don't like talking to children or mentoring the next generation of dancers, we may not be the right place for them."

Fort Wayne Ballet At a Glance

  • Number of dancers: 12
  • Length of contract: 30 weeks
  • Average salary: $400 per week
  • Performances per year: 52
  • Website: fortwayneballet.org

Latest Posts


Courtesy Tiler Peck

Tiler Peck's Top 10 Tips for Training at Home

On March 15, New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck announced to her 172,000-plus Instagram followers that she'd be teaching a live class from her family's home in Bakersfield, California, where she's currently waiting out COVID-19. Little did she know that she'd receive such a viral response. Since then, Peck has offered daily Instagram LIVE classes Monday through Friday at 10 am PST/1 pm EST, plus an occasional Saturday class and Sunday stretch/Pilates combo. "The reaction was just so overwhelming," she says. "These classes are keeping me sane, and giving me something to look forward to."

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Burmann working with Wendy Whelan at Steps. Photo by Kyle Froman.

Remembering Iconic Steps Teacher Wilhelm "Willy" Burmann

Over the last 36 years, scores of dancers passed through Wilhelm Burmann's studio doors at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Burmann, who went by "Willy," welcomed everyone—from huge dance stars to young students with huge dreams. He also welcomed adult students seeking to improve their technique and even students just taking ballet class for exercise.

On Tuesday, March 31, he died of renal failure after his treatment was complicated by the coronavirus, and the dance world lost a beloved teacher and coach.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Getty Images

A Letter from the Editor in Chief

Hi Everyone,

These are challenging times. The social distancing measures brought about by COVID-19 has likely meant that your regular ballet training has been interrupted, while your performances, competitions—even auditions—have been cancelled. You may be feeling anxious about what the future holds, not only for you but for the dance industry. And that's perfectly understandable.

As you adjust to taking virtual ballet class from your living rooms, we here at Pointe are adjusting to working remotely from our living rooms. We've had to get a little creative, especially as we put our Summer Issue together, but like you we're taking full advantage of modern technology. Sure, it's a little inconvenient sometimes, but we're finding our groove.

And we know that you will, too. We've been utterly inspired by how the dance community has rallied together, from ballet stars giving online classes to companies streaming their performances to the flood of artist resources popping up. We've loved watching you dance from your kitchens. And we want to help keep this spirit alive. That's why Pointe and all of our Dance Media sister publications are working nonstop to produce and cross-post stories to help you navigate this crisis. We're all in this together.

We also want to hear from you! Send us a message on social media, or email me directly at abrandt@dancemedia.com. Tell us how you're doing, send us your ideas and show us your dance moves. Let the collective love we share for our beloved art form spark the light at the end of the tunnel—we will come out the other side soon enough.

Best wishes,

Amy