A Look Inside Ballet Arkansas’ Pursuit of Perfection

Justin Rustle’s alarm goes off at 5 a.m. He begins the day with yoga at 5:30, followed by an hour of weightlifting and wrapping up with a mile swim. Then he heads to the Shuffles and Ballet II studio in west Little Rock where he joins the rest of the Ballet Arkansas dancers for a full day of rehearsals for the company’s upcoming seasonal production of “The Nutcracker.”

They make their way through each jeté and pas de chat as warm-ups turn to “Nutcracker” scenes. One by one, the dancers take on various roles as the hours tick by — this time a sultry Spanish dancer, a mouse the next — needing no costumes to portray their new personas. Their bodies know well by now that a simple tilt of the head or twist of the hips tells a different story.

Thirteen dancers comprise the Ballet Arkansas Professional Dance Company, five of whom don’t wear the iconic silk pointe shoes, don’t attend tutu fittings and whose tiny likenesses won’t turn inside tiny music boxes.

Toby Lewellen, Justin Rustle, Tony Sewer, Paul Tillman and Zeek Wright are the men of Ballet Arkansas, and though their Nutcracker costumes are bedecked in rhinestones, they serve as the gritty, less glittery counterparts to their female dance companions.

Credit: Jason Masters

The plight of a male dancer is unique. Not only are they assigned the ambitions of talent and passion, but they’re also pushed to portray both raw strength and poised vulnerability, characteristics our culture inherently assigns to opposite sexes.

It begins with the physical. Ballet Arkansas bills its company members as “elite dance athletes,” and one look at them proves why. Their bodies are wrapped in lean muscles that only come from untold hours in the gym each week and years of jumps, turns and lifting dance partners.

Glancing at the Fitbit on his wrist, Sewer shrugs off his daily goal of 18,000 steps as if it doesn’t leave the suggested 10,000 in the dust. “I mean, sometimes I don’t reach it on the weekends.”

Though some of them favor post-rehearsal workouts to early morning gym sessions — Lewellen much prefers his mornings with coffee, thank you very much — the guys must all still put in hours of cross-training on top of full days of dancing. Ballet Arkansas has a partnership with the Little Rock Athletic Club, where company members spend much of their free time.

Credit: Jason Masters

The current show determines each dancer’s cross-training regimen as he prepares for a specific role. Some productions require lots of stamina, so that means more cardio. Since Nutcracker is mostly classical, it doesn’t call for drastic measures, just the weight training necessary to lift, twirl and toss another human being gracefully across a stage for a few hours.

“Deep down, we’re all a little bit masochistic,” Lewellen laughs. “The pain in your muscles, that fatigue, it’s kind of addictive.”

Pointe Break

Like other athletic careers, professional ballet isn’t built for longevity, and it isn’t necessarily kind to the body. These young men rattle off a laundry list of injuries: black eyes, bloody noses, sprains and strains, a torn meniscus here, a broken foot there, dislocated kneecaps and “a lot” of slipped disks.

“How many of you have a workers’ comp claim open at the moment?” Ballet Arkansas’ artistic associate Laura Hood Babcock calls out to the five. Four raise their hands.

But the physical obstacles are only a part of the world of ballet. The realm comes with various cultural, emotional and personal barriers to overcome.

“It’s the happy place. Growing up, there were definitely times in my life where ballet was the only constant,” Lewellen says. “Sure, there are days, it’s like any other job, where you don’t want to get out of bed, when you’re tired or sore, but that’s when the desire comes in. And once you’re in the studio, all the other stress goes out the window for a little bit. The studio is that place you can always come back to and reset.”

Credit: Jason Masters

Growing up in ballet class, that was more true than ever. Kids can be mean, and so the boys caught more than their fair share of ridicule in a society that crowns football as king of masculinity. Far from the dainty hobby their classmates assumed it to be, ballet gained new respect when the dancers pointed out that they were stronger, faster and better jumpers than their peers.

Where do the misconceptions come from? The dancers feign anger as they declare the faux culprit: “It’s the tights!”

“You know, it takes a certain chutzpah to put on a pair of tights,” Rustle says. “If you don’t have that and you’re not used to being around people who do, then you’re going to assume that the tights mean something they don’t.”

But things are different in 2016. The arts are more en vogue, and for the most part, archaic assumptions about a male dancer’s masculinity are a thing of the past. Television shows like “So You Think You Can Dance,” “Dancing With the Stars” and even “Glee” have helped to make dance a more mainstream concept, though not always as a career in the eyes of the everyday viewer.

“We’re a novelty,” Tillman says. “It’s really fun as an adult to tell people that you’re a professional ballet dancer, though I still have family members that ask me when I’m going to get a real job. They can’t wrap their minds around it.”

It’s a Man’s Twirl

In cities like New York with world-renowned programs, a career in dance receives unquestionable respect, not to mention a hefty paycheck. At Ballet Arkansas, each company member has at least two jobs, and sometimes three. They teach classes at the studio, give private dance lessons, or work at the gym in order to pay rent.

“You definitely have to love this,” Sewer says. “I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t love it, but honestly, I don’t know what else I would do. I think about ballet all the time. It’s like breathing.”

“But loving ballet doesn’t pay your bills,” Rustle adds.

None of this is news to these guys. In this profession, decisions are made very young to pursue ballet careers — sometimes as young 9 years old. Dance requires that you dedicate your life to the art form, and with an average retirement age of 35, it’s a commitment that is better made sooner rather than later if a child hopes to compete for a scholarship, apprenticeship or future job.

Ballet Arkansas’ newest addition, Zeek Wright, began dancing uncommonly late as a freshman in high school.

“I did all the sports, but I wanted more of a challenge,” Wright says. “I thought a ballet class would be just that. I found that I had a love for it, and I wanted to keep going.”

It happened for each of them. At some point, everything else fell away, and they all wanted to keep going. Becoming nine-to-fivers at desk jobs was unthinkable, so they handed their lives over to their craft.

Credit: Jason Masters

Now, coming from all over the country, they’ve joined forces under the Ballet Arkansas banner to help establish the program as a pillar of the state’s performing arts community. The company is much bigger than just its annual “Nutcracker” production, boasting a full season of shows and statewide tours, and is finally settling into its new headquarter space in the Main Street Creative Corridor in downtown Little Rock after years of delays. Dancers and staffers alike hope the area’s foot traffic will help bring an awareness to the company that the previous strip mall location could not, encouraging passers-by to educate themselves on the company’s work beyond the holiday season.

This year’s “Nutcracker,” however, is a monumental one as it marks Ballet Arkansas’ return to the Robinson Center after a two-year renovation. The $70 million rebuild will allow audiences an entirely new Robinson experience as doors open first for the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra in November and then for “The Nutcracker” in December.

And when these dancers step into the glow of the brand new spotlights, the hundreds of hours of rehearsals and costume fittings, of cross-training and nursing injuries will all be worth it because to them, ballet is the blissful itch that can never be fully scratched.

“It’s the pursuit of perfection,” Tillman says. “It’s unattainable, but it’s always the pursuit. I always want that feeling.”

So they’ll perform. As sultry Spanish dancers or mice, they’ll perform. Then they’ll go home and set their early morning alarms and sleep with visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads, knowing they’ll chase perfection again tomorrow.

Nutcracker By the Numbers

Credit: Jason Masters

Years that Ballet Arkansas has been performing “The Nutcracker”
There is a lot of debate about the number of years that Ballet Arkansas has been performing “The Nutcracker” for Little Rock audiences. Ballet Arkansas can trace its roots back to “Nutcracker” performances from as early as the late 70s, with their professional company bringing the ballet to the stage since 2009.

Roughly 160 hours of rehearsal go into “The Nutcracker.”

The costumers do over 300 costume fittings for “The Nutcracker.”

Costume changes
The professional company dancers change costumes an average of five times per performance.

Performers in each show

• There are 226 performers between the two casts of “The Nutcracker.”

• There are 206 roles to perform in each cast.

• There are 148 cast members in each cast.

Crew members
There are 20-24 professional crew members and 70-100 volunteer backstage crew members.

Three public shows, two student performances.

Tickets sold last year
4,592 tickets sold to public performances, 1,935 tickets sold to student performances.

Credit: Jason Masters

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