"Opportunities always come when you least expect them," says Septime Webre. In 2016, he'd left The Washington Ballet, after 17 years as artistic director, to focus on his choreography career. Halfway around the world in East Asia, Hong Kong Ballet was hiring a new director for its following season, and Webre's agent convinced him to submit his resumé. "I ended up on a call with leadership and the energy between us was great," says Webre.
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.
In 1996, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet artistic director Tom Mossbrucker was a veteran Joffrey Ballet dancer with no aspirations to direct a company. But while visiting a Colorado music festival with his partner, Jean-Philippe Malaty, also a dancer, a chance encounter changed his mind. "We met Bebe Schweppe, who ran a ballet school in Aspen but always dreamt that the city could have its own resident company," Mossbrucker recalls. "We thought she was crazy and said, 'Good luck with that!' But she thought we were the ones who could do it." After a few weeks of discussion, the pair moved to Colorado and a company was born.
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."
Ella Persson remembers the rehearsals for her debut as Giselle. "I was in my first year with the company, and I started preparing with Mikhail Messerer during late evenings," the Mikhailovsky Ballet's Swedish-born coryphée says. "I was definitely not ready, but he gave me a chance to push myself and made me so much stronger, mentally and physically."
Under Messerer, the Mikhailovsky Ballet has carved a niche on the Russian and international stage by investing in coaching and dancers' growth. Unlike the older Mariinsky, St. Petersburg's second ballet company was only founded after World War I. But with a classically focused repertoire and productions that rotate onstage every month, it offers plenty of opportunities for talent to thrive.
Ballet master in chief Mikhail Messerer. Photo Courtesy Mikhailovsky Ballet.
The first time Ashley Wheater was courted to be artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet, he said "Thanks, but no thanks"—he was very happy at San Francisco Ballet, where he'd spent eight years as a principal dancer and 10 more on the artistic staff. But a trip to the Windy City for the Chicago Dancing Festival and a visit to Joffrey's studios prompted feelings of nostalgia for Wheater's early years dancing with the company.
He was hired by co-founders Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino in 1985, when the company was still based in New York City and under Joffrey's direction. After Joffrey's death, Arpino became artistic director and later moved a struggling Joffrey Ballet to its current home in Chicago in 1995.
When Arpino fell ill and began to look for a successor, the company had lost much of its original adventurous spirit. Remembering its earlier spark, Wheater agreed to apply during that trip to Chicago, and accepted on the spot in 2007 after a weeklong interview process.
As the third artistic director in the company's 62-year history, Wheater has spent the last 10 years rebuilding its national reputation, tackling challenging new repertoire and reimagined classics at a ferocious pace. The rep now includes works by choreographers like Christopher Wheeldon, John Neumeier, Alexander Ekman and Yuri Possokhov. Wheater shelved many of Joffrey's and Arpino's dances to make room for new ones, preferring to honor Robert Joffrey's legacy by taking risks and fostering innovation.
Wheater. Photo by Todd Rosenberg, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet.
Unassuming audience members were in for a shock when 12 male dancers from Scottish Ballet performed Angelin Preljocaj's MC 14/22 (Ceci est mon corps) at the 2016 Edinburgh International Festival. The work explores virility and violence through a series of biblical allusions. Striking in its harshness and punishing physicality, it at times seemed almost cruel to inflict upon the dancers, who performed with a vicious beauty. But artistic director Christopher Hampson chose the contemporary piece for its thought-provoking, emotional impact. As the Scottish Ballet's repertoire keeps growing, Hampson continues to challenge the typical notions of ballet.
He established himself as a dancer and then as a choreographer for the English National Ballet, subsequently choreographing for Royal New Zealand Ballet, Atlanta Ballet and The Royal Ballet. In 2012, the Manchester native became the artistic director of Scotland's national dance company, in Glasgow, and incorporated the position of chief executive director in 2015.
After scouting for a ballet company to feature in the melodramatic reality show “Breaking Pointe," the producers made a U-turn back to Adam Sklute, the CEO and artistic director of Ballet West in Salt Lake City. “They said, In our screen tests, your company is the most photogenic. They have really interesting stories and we'd love to have them on camera," recalls Sklute. The show, which focused on Ballet West's backstage drama and intramural romance, premiered in 2012, ran for two seasons and brought fame to dancers like Beckanne Sisk and Allison DeBona. “Some of our dancers could be supermodels. They are as tall and as dramatic as the Rocky Mountains that we look at," says Sklute. “I want a company of tall, beautiful dancers who produce a glamorous stage picture." Still, there's far more than glitz and good looks at this midsized company.
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As the dancers processed through downtown Orlando—smiling, laughing, heads held high—Orlando Ballet artistic director Robert Hill allowed himself to relax and take in the moment. It was 2013 and the company was headed toward its future.
Rising from the rubble of a construction site was the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. The dancers were about to see their new performance space. “It was a game changer," Hill recalls. “I couldn't stop watching their faces."
The ballet had nowhere to go but up: A mold infestation, not uncommon in Florida's humid heat, had driven the troupe from its longtime rehearsal home. And every day seemed to bring new challenges, like instability in the company's business management and a cash flow that had slowed to a trickle.
Hill's mantra to his dancers stayed positive: “Let's hang on, everybody. We're going to get through this."
City Ballet of San Diego is admired in Southern California for its diversity of dancers, a sizeable Balanchine repertoire, lively story ballets and regular accompaniment by full orchestra—all from a compact company. Steven Wistrich, artistic director of CBSD, recalls a 2007 performance, an “aha" moment, when he knew his company, then only 14 years old, had matured: The sisterhood of dancers in Balanchine's Serenade delivered the aqueous grace that the ballet demanded. “Seeing Serenade onstage danced so beautifully was definitely a turning point for me," says Wistrich. “I was so impressed with the style, technique and quality of the dancing."
Kevin Irving is a man of eclectic tastes. It showed in Oregon Ballet Theatre's 2015–16 season, which opened with Napoli Act III, the company's first turn with Bournonville, followed by Balanchine's Nutcracker. Then came Romeo & Juliet, as envisioned by OBT founding artistic director James Canfield. The season closed with Beautiful Decay, an OBT premiere that Irving's partner, contemporary choreographer Nicolo Fonte, created featuring local contemporary dancers.
“A salient fact is that I'm very much a mongrel," says the 55-year-old OBT artistic director. As a Long Island teen, Irving aspired to be a jazz dancer, studying at The Ailey School and performing with Elisa Monte Dance before leaping seriously into ballet at 24. He joined Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal and was promoted to soloist, then principal. He finished his performing days with Twyla Tharp, then moved on to European posts, including associate director at the Madrid-based Compañía Nacional de Danza, artistic director of Sweden's Göteborgs Operans Danskompani and guest ballet master for the Royal Danish Ballet. His ever-changing circumstances taught him to adapt quickly, he says.
“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.