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

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.

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Ballet Careers
ASFB in rehearsal with director Tom Mossbrucker. Jessica Moore, Courtesy ASFB.

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.

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

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."

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Angelina Vorontsova in the company's revival of "Cinderella." Photo by Stas Levshin, Courtesy Mikhailovsky Ballet.

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.

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Ballet Stars
Ashley Wheater rehearsing Antony Tudor's "Lilac Garden." Photo by Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Joffrey 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.

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Ballet Careers
Mills coaching Miki Kawamura and Alvin Tovstogray. Photo by Amy Haley, Courtesy OKCB.

Some might call it bravado. Others would say fightin' spirit. When Robert Mills grabbed the reins of a struggling Ballet Oklahoma in 2008, the company was at a crossroads: To sink under a $400,000 deficit or to merge with Tulsa Ballet.

“I wanted to show them what ballet could really do for this community," says Mills of how he approached the city's heavy hitters with a third option. His stump speech—“Why Oklahoma City Needs Its Own Ballet Company"—helped pull the organization back from the brink.

After off-loading some company property to settle the debt—a costume warehouse, as well as their studios, which were sold to an energy company that is ultimately donating space back to them—Mills started fresh. The troupe got a new name, Oklahoma City Ballet, and a new mission.

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Ballet Careers
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.

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Ballet Careers
Martínez at work in the studio. Photo by Jaier Cortes, Courtesy CND.

As the Compañía Nacional de Danza moved nimbly between Alejandro Cerrudo's sleek style and Mats Ek's earthiness in Paris last winter, it was hard to believe that just five years ago, Spain's national dance company was primarily a single-choreographer troupe under longtime director Nacho Duato. Since José Martínez, the only Spanish male étoile in the history of the Paris Opéra Ballet, took over in 2011, CND has reintegrated ballet and caught up fast, without losing its contemporary edge.

It's not the first U-turn in CND's history. Created in 1979, the company initially filled a gap as Spain's only state ballet under directors such as Víctor Ullate and Maya Plisetskaya. With Duato's arrival in 1990, however, it became mostly devoted to the choreographer's contemporary repertoire, leading to complaints about the lack of opportunities for ballet dancers and choreographers in Spain.

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Ballet Careers
Winslett teaching company class. Photo by Aaron Sutten, Courtesy Richmond Ballet.
In 1980, just months after graduating from Smith College, Stoner Winslett attended a performance by Richmond Ballet. Though it was then just a student company, with a modest budget of $164,000, they were performing in a large venue, with the Richmond Symphony in the pit. “I saw so much potential on that stage," says Winslett. “And I thought, Boy, I should help these people."

At the time, one director ran the separate school and company. “They wanted someone to come work as her assistant, for the company," says Winslett. Three months after Winslett took the position, the director resigned, and at just 22 years old, Winslett became Richmond Ballet's artistic director and the company's first full-time employee.

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Ballet Careers
Edwaard Liang. Jennifer Zmuda, Courtesy BalletMet.
Newly appointed BalletMet Columbus artistic director Edwaard Liang says he didn't know he wanted the position until it fell into his lap. The 39-year-old internationally known choreographer had just returned from creating a work for Bolshoi Ballet's Svetlana Zakharova in Russia when he received an invitation from the BalletMet executive committee to apply. Though he was reluctant to interview at first, he was soon convinced to throw his hat into the ring, realizing that no matter the outcome, it would be a learning experience at the very least.
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Ballet Careers
Watkin leading rehearsal at Dresden Semperoper Ballett. Costin Radu, Courtesy Semperoper.

Every once in a while, a ballet company will come out of left field and reinvent itself in a matter of years. Until Aaron S. Watkin took over as artistic director in 2006, Dresden's Semperoper Ballett was mainly known as a midsize classical hub. As its dancers took to the stage last February in William Forsythe's newly arranged Neue Suite, however, their energy signaled a hungry, fierce and disciplined troupe. Couple after couple put on a display of speed and precision, conjuring feats of articulation as if to the manner born.

Under Watkin, the Semperoper Ballett has fast developed a voice of its own within the well-funded German state theater system, transforming into a modern neoclassical ensemble with a precious calling card: its association with Forsythe. Inspired and shaped by his repertoire, the Semperoper has stressed individuality and creativity, attracting choreographers such as popular Forsythe alum David Dawson—and a slew of dancers ready for prime time, including Sarah Hay, the star of the new TV series “Flesh and Bone."

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Ballet Careers
Lourdes Lopez coaching MCB dancers. Daniel Azoulay, Courtesy MCB.

It was Labor Day weekend of 2012 when Lourdes Lopez received the phone call. Edward Villella, Miami City Ballet's founder and artistic director of 27 years, had left abruptly, eight months ahead of schedule. Just two days later, Lopez, who wasn't supposed to take Villella's place until May of the following year, found herself in the MCB studios. “It happened literally over a weekend," says Lopez, “and it was scary. I was walking into an environment and company I didn't really know."

It was no secret that Miami City Ballet had been going through hard times. Despite the successes Villella had brought to the company—a strong Balanchine lineage, the first U.S. commission by Liam Scarlett and celebrated tours to New York and Paris—it was over $3 million in debt. Tensions between Villella and the board were running high. In 2011, MCB announced that Villella would step down after the 2012–13 season, a “mutual decision," though his supporters quickly said that he was forced out.

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