Ballet Arkansas is ranked among the top 100 ballet companies in America, according to a Dance Data Project report based on annual expenditures, and presents classics, masterworks of American dance and premieres by some of the world's most daring dancemakers.
According to Michael Fothergill, executive and artistic director of the company, the BA of today is a regional leader in the presentation of innovative and inclusive dance programming. Its K-12 education programs and community outreach initiatives reach more than 10,000 people each year. And, along with serving all counties in Arkansas, the organization’s digital programming reaches patrons in all 50 states and in 21 countries.
The mission of BA is to captivate the public through artistic excellence in the presentation of world-class performances and education programs. The organization’s goal is to grow, develop and educate a devoted and diverse audience of dance enthusiasts, and by enriching lives and bringing joy to the masses, BA says it embodies excellence in the arts.
And Michael and his wife Catherine, the associate artistic director at BA, are both committed to continuing to make all of this possible.
“When we arrived five years ago,” Michael says, “the company had all the makings of a world-class organization, though it lacked the internal organization and dance community connections to be competitive in a changing arts and culture landscape.”
He notes that while community support was high, the company needed new energy and a renewed commitment to advancing its mission, and the staff and board were eager to get creative.
Since arriving in Little Rock in 2018, Michael — who enjoyed an impressive 20-year career as a classically-trained dancer traveling the U.S., Europe and Asia and graced stages from Milwaukee to Tokyo and pretty much everywhere in between — and Catherine — hailing from the Alabama Ballet and the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet — spearheaded the rebranding effort for the organization.
To make its programming accessible and relatable, the couple has used a lens of collaboration, innovation and education to drive every decision they make.
The Fothergills agreed that in order to give Arkansas the very best, the dancers deserved to be challenged by repertory, community dancers needed more professional performance opportunities and the public deserved a bolded programming model.
With the duo’s guidance, the company is now ranked nationally, carries no debt and provides its performance and education services to a tripled audience base.
“The community has been truly wonderful and has embraced the direction of BA. We will always act with their evolving interests in mind and welcome all to experience what we have to offer,” Michael says. “We could not be more grateful for the support of our community.”
This season, BA hired eight “exceptionally trained,” diverse dancers from a pool of nearly 1,000 applicants from across the globe. With the combination of existing and new faces within the ranks, the Fothergills feel the company is at its strongest point in its history, though Michael emphasizes, “Of course, BA would not be where it is today without the talent and passion of the dancers who came before them.”
Teaching the Masses
Over the Fothergill’s tenure, the organization has increased its education programs threefold, both for K-12 educators and enrolled students.
On stage and in the classroom, BA brings stories to life through movement, introducing educational content in innovative ways providing students with avenues for self-discovery. The organization’s academic approach produces emotional and physiological benefits, fosters an understanding and appreciation for the performing arts and supports existing curriculum in schools.
“Education is at the core of BA’s mission,” says Catherine, the chief caretaker of the organization's repertory. She curates the education programs and is the architect of BA’s marketing strategies. Through her leadership, BA’s repertory has diversified, its education program enrollment has tripled and its marketing efforts have grown the audience by more than 60%.
“We aim to make the arts accessible to our community through collaboration and partnership, such as our programs with the city of North Little Rock and the city of Little Rock which provide free dance performances and education programs to the public throughout the year.”
This year, BA has increased the number of education programs, both in the studio and on stage. Educators now have access to programs that introduce world history and STEM principles through the body, those that provide experiential opportunities in dance and much more.
With the click of a button on the newly redesigned BA website, educators can reserve custom-catered classroom visits that back up what they are already doing in the classroom.
“It’s a bold new era at BA,” Michael says. “This means new dancers, new imagery, new repertory and new ways for the community to engage with BA. We are a fun, accessible, forward-focused organization, and we want that to be reflected in our digital presence.”
For children and adults, BA also offers classes and has crafted a training program for both recreational and pre-professional dancers.
“While we spend much of the day rehearsing for upcoming productions and events,” Catherine says, “we are also visiting K-12 classrooms, presenting student matinee performances and HIPPA compliant performances for community organizations and partnering with others to build a dynamic culture of arts in the region.”
Future of the Stage
BA’s hope is to continue to deepen ties with communities across the state by expanding the footprint of its performances, education programs and community outreach initiatives in all directions.
“BA can be, and should be, a household name because of the benefits people experience through our programming,” Michael says. “This ultimately means providing the public with a longer performance season, reaching new populations through new partnerships, an increase in the volume and scale of our enrolled education programs and the hiring of more dancers to spread the organization’s mission throughout the state.”
With big plans for BA, the Fothergills say more will be announced in the months ahead, and all with the goal of bringing people together “to celebrate the beauty of the world.”
BA commissioned world-premiere works from four female choreographers in the spring of 2022 as part of its “Vivaldi’s Four Seasons” concert with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. The organization received accolades from the national dance community and from the Dance Data Project for its commitment to providing a platform for the female voice.
“The organization is passionate about providing women and choreographers of color with abundant opportunities to share their talents with Arkansas audiences. This not only shines light on their incredible talents, but also informs our audience of the importance of fostering an environment of belonging,” Michael says.
"It’s a bold new era at BA. This means new dancers, new imagery, new repertory and new ways for the community to engage with BA."
- Michael Fothergill
With future programs devoted to choreographers of color and residencies for female choreographers in the works, BA is introducing more creators from all groups and ensuring each has the same access to mold the dance world.
“It’s a huge deal that the Dance Data Project ranked us among the top 100 companies in the nation,” Michael says of the 2022 Largest 150 U.S. Ballet & Classically Based Companies & Financial Scope of the Industry Report. “It is such an honor for Arkansas. I always remind people that it’s like eating at one of the nation’s top 100 restaurants.”
Over the course of its 44-year history, nearly half a million Arkansans have experienced BA. Through audiences at performances, educational opportunities, broadcasts and community cast members, BA serves nearly 500,000 each year.
BA’s roots can be traced to the Little Rock Civic Ballet, founded in 1966 by Donald C. Cranford. The organization was incorporated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation in 1979 with a dream to become the region’s foremost professional ballet company. In its early years under the direction of Lorraine Cranford, BA presented performing greats such as Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev and Edward Villella, in addition to a number of internationally celebrated dance companies.
Today the organization is committed to setting new standards for artistic excellence, innovation and creativity. It wants to attract the most talented performers, collaborators and staff while also anticipating and responding to the programming needs of its community.
In order to educate and develop the next generation of dance artists, the company is committed to building a devoted and growing audience, strengthening financial and organizational foundations and creating and celebrating an atmosphere of inclusiveness.