From left: Joseph Gatti, Zoica Tovar and Andres Estevez of the United Ballet Theatre Academy. Javier Vladimir, Courtesy UBT

United Ballet Theatre’s Joseph Gatti Takes His “Athletes of Art” Mission to His New Academy

Injuries can be a turning point in any dancer's career, but for Joseph Gatti, it was the catalyst for creating his own ballet company, United Ballet Theatre. Since its launch in 2018, UBT has been centered on cultivating "athletes of art," with an emphasis on daily cross-training and physical therapy to prevent injuries and increase career longevity. Now, Gatti is expanding that mission further with the launch of United Ballet Theatre Academy, which opened February 1 in Orlando.

Gatti, a former principal dancer with Cincinnati Ballet and Corella Ballet, always had the idea of opening an academy, but the company had been sharing space with Orlando's Xplosive Dance Academy. During the pandemic, Gatti began to look for a permanent space as he knew that more buildings might become available. Meanwhile, he also learned that former colleagues from his apprentice days at Orlando Ballet, husband and wife team Andres Estevez and Zoica Tovar, had just relocated to Orlando. Estevez had most recently served as ballet master and rehearsal director for BalletMet, and Tovar was on the faculty for the student division and trainee program. Gatti invited the Cuban-born pair to teach company class, and both he and the dancers of the company instantly connected with their teaching style.

With the couple's help, Gatti was able to lease the right space that would house both his company and school in November. The following month, Gatti announced the launch of UBT Academy, appointing Estevez and Tovar as co-directors.

Inside a large, low-ceilinged but sunny studio space, Joseph Gatti spreads his arms  and legs wide and smiles happily. The walls are covered in floor-to-ceiling windows and the black floor includes large squares of blue.

Gatti inside the new studios

Courtesy UBT

A New Approach

Academy students will experience the same method utilized by UBT's company members, called the "Gatti Method," alternating days of low- and high-intensity exercises and with conditioning built into the daily routine. Gatti developed this method after sustaining a severe foot injury several years ago, which caused him to take a hard look at how typical ballet companies operate. He noticed that the intense daily class and rehearsal schedules left little room for ample conditioning, rest and recovery.

"The Gatti Method will help students establish athletic conditioning early on in order to avoid injuries later in their careers," says Tovar. "Through the classical ballet curriculum Andres and I have put together, we will also develop their artistic skills drawn from our experience with the Cuban and Vaganova methods."

A young white baller student in black leotard and skirt and pink tights and slippers performs d\u00e9vellop\u00e9 devant with her inside leg while holding onto a portable barre with her right hand. A red resistance band is tied around each thigh. Joseph Gatti, wearing black practice clothes and ballet shoes, stands behind her and touches the small of her back to help her balance.

Gatti and a student demonstrate one aspect of the Gatti Method, which uses resistance bands to improve placement and extension.

Javier Vladimir, Courtesy UBT

Using the Gatti Method, students might incorporate equipment, like resistance bands, for barre combinations to create more challenging exercises that improve placement, rotation and extension. On certain days, students may do longer jump combinations (e.g., one and a half to two minutes long) to increase stamina. Even the length of technique classes may be different compared to other ballet studios. For instance, a typical level-one technique class (around ages 7 to 8), may only last 45 minutes to an hour at some schools. At UBT Academy, the class will be extended to an hour and a half—one hour being dedicated to technique, followed by stretching and conditioning, with a break in between.

"It's never too early to prepare students to understand their bodies and enjoy exercise," says Gatti.

A full studio is dedicated to fitness equipment with four Pilates reformers, a Pilates tower and cadillac, and medicine balls. It also houses a VertiMax V8, a small platform with resistance cords that extend out to 30 feet to improve cardio and vertical jumps, used by many professional athletes. The equipment will be available for students to use under staff guidance and supervision.

Two women with long brown hair and wearing masks, T-shirts and shorts use rollers to paint a wall with white paint. Behind then a young man in black shorts and a multi-colored shirt stands on a ladder.

United Ballet Theatre company members helped with painting the new academy's walls.

Emily Sipnick, Courtesy UBT

Gatti is quick to point out that the Academy is not meant to be a rehabilitation center. "Ballet is an athletic career, and our goal is to prevent injuries by giving our students the proper training regimen," he says. As with other professional ballet schools, Gatti hopes the Academy will serve as a good stepping-stone for UBT's next generation of company members.

The city is also home to Orlando Ballet School. Is there room for two pre-professional ballet schools in the same city? Gatti thinks so. "We are so different in our training approach and repertory," he explains . "In England, for example, you have both The Royal Ballet and the English National Ballet. Two can exist, so I say the more, the merrier."

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Victoria Morgan is shown from the side standing on stage right, turning to smile at a line of costumed dancers to her left during bows. She wears a patterned green dress with chunky green high heels and holds a red rose in her hand.

Peter Mueller, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet

Why leave Cincinnati Ballet now?

It's been an amazing run and I have seen it all. I am not sure where I would go from here. I also feel there is a required stimulus and infusion of new ideas and energy that always needs to be a part of a growing, evolving and exciting arts organization.

What made you happiest at Cincinnati Ballet?

The people, from the devotion of patrons and donors to learning from and feeling the pride in work from the staff. It has also been so satisfying for me to choreograph on and watch so many dancers evolve in their dance careers and lives.

Were there things you wanted to do for the company that you weren't able to?

There were other collaborations I wanted us to explore and choreographers I wanted us to work with. It takes quite an investment to make those happen.

Your legacy includes actively creating opportunities for female choreographers. What motivated that?

I started realizing, in a profound way, the gender inequities in our art form. Because I was in a leadership position, I thought I could do something about this and try to get to a 50-50 balance of male and female choreographers. It took a little time to find women to step forward, but it happened. Now there are many more prominent female choreographers, including our resident choreographer Jennifer Archibald, and I am proud of that.

If you could handpick your successor, what qualities would you look for?

Somebody creative, charged up, and who can be visionary. Someone who has had a high-level experience in our art form. A leader who is demanding but also kind and supportive, and who opens doors to find new ideas while still embracing Cincinnati Ballet's philosophies.

What do you feel will be one of the biggest challenges for the new artistic director?

The important cause of DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility). Whoever steps into that position has to have awareness of the culture of today's conversation.

Do you plan to keep choreographing?

I am not being proactive about it, but if the opportunity presents itself, it would be fun.

What's next?

I feel my next calling is bringing movement to the biggest segment of our population, baby boomers. I want to be part of an initiative that makes moving and wellness enjoyable and enlivens people.

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