Jeté, croisé, pas de chat. The air swims with symphonic overtures and irregular French as sunlight pours through the windows of a dance studio. Young dancers bend and turn in transfixing motion, an impossible union of strength and grace.
Michael Bearden stands against the wall, watching with a keen eye earned from years steeped in the art. When he steps forward to speak, each body freezes and attention is on him before he opens his mouth, something else he earned as a professional dancer.
Yes, they say 40 is the new 30 and 30 is the new 20, but they are not in ballet. At age 34, Bearden is already a retiree. His 14-year career with Ballet West in Salt Lake City, Utah, ended in 2013, quite a lengthy span in the world of dance. Now in his second career when most people are really settling into their first, Bearden is a professor at the University of Utah Ballet Department and serves as artistic director of Ballet Arkansas.
Executive director Karen Basset and Bearden work side by side, Basset covering the administrative side while Bearden handles the creative, almost in a left brain-right brain relationship. With his primary goal to guide the company’s artistic vision, he researches and recruits dancers and pieces that will benefit and help enrich the artistic culture of a community.
In a role that used to allow a lot more studio time, Bearden likens the artistic director position to being a general manager in professional sports, a role without the nitty gritty daily grind, but one involving decision-making that will put the team in a position to have success.
Before all of this, Bearden was a kid in soccer gear watching his little sister’s ballet class, telling his mom how stupid it was. The teacher overheard him, as 11-year-olds are not prone to discretion, and smartly challenged him to get up and try it if it looked so easy.
“It hit me immediately that it was really athletic and really hard, and that’s what attracted me to it at first,” he says. “Somewhere along the line, I fell in love with formalized dancing. Maybe it was in there the whole time and I was just too macho or culture taught me that it wasn’t cool.”
He justified it to his friends, and to himself for a while, by saying ballet was to help him with soccer, with his balance and agility. There eventually came a moment of choice in high school between soccer and ballet, an internal struggle, but still a clear choice.
After graduation, Bearden received a full scholarship to the University of Utah through its dance program, where he studied for a year and was then hired at Ballet West at the ripe age of 19.
But a career in ballet is brief and fierce. It destroys the body and celebrates it at the same time. The stress of injury and relying on your physicality are an afterthought compared to the high of dancing well and living your passions, but not forever.
When the time to retire inevitably comes, many dancers struggle with their seemingly lost selfhood. Bearden saw these crises all the time and made a decision early on.
“I tried to make a conscious effort during my career not to let my art form consume me, to find my identity outside of dance and let it be what I do, but not who I am.”
Double ankle surgery at age 28 didn’t stop Bearden from performing at a high caliber. What flipped his world upside down was the birth of his daughter, Charlotte. The quick priority shift left him confident about ending his career with clear eyes on the future of his family.
He now lives in Utah with his wife and two kids, teaching and finishing his degree, and spends a week in Little Rock every other month, during which, the dancers of Ballet Arkansas drink up his wisdom. Bearden never expected a second career in dance, and yet the position fulfills other passions like business and project management, blending with dance in a uniquely seamless opportunity.
Recently, Ballet Arkansas became the first dance company in Arkansas to receive approval to perform “Who Cares?,” a ballet by New York City Ballet’s co-founder and founding choreographer George Balanchine, set to George Gershwin’s music. This is a huge milestone for the company; certainly its greatest artistic achievement facilitated by Bearden, and is slated for April.
The landmark is one that will help put Ballet Arkansas on the same plane artistically as both the Arkansas Repertory Theatre and Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, which comes right as the company moves from a shared space in a west Little Rock strip mall into its new space with the two powerhouses in downtown Little Rock’s brand new Creative Corridor.
“It’s exciting to be where the arts are coming together. It gives us the chance for dialogue, and amazing things grow out of that,” Bearden says.
So he works with the young dancers. He trains them not only to perform better, but instills an appreciation for the art form and their role in this time of brilliance and reawakening for ballet in central Arkansas.
“We have the ability to establish ourselves as a pillar in the arts community that we can’t do when we’re tucked around the back corner of a strip mall. There shouldn’t be a question who we are.”
There certainly isn’t anymore.