Raising The Barre: Ballet Arkansas Keeps Dancers In Step

Six of the nine professional dancers on contract with Ballet Arkansas are sitting in a semi-circle on the floor. Despite their street clothes, it’s not hard to tell what they do for a living. Many of the women sit with their toes pointed. The men have muscles that would give any professional athlete a run for his money.

“I love to dance. I love the work,” says Lauren Horak, a native of Little Rock who is in her fourth season at Ballet Arkansas. “It’s nice to wake up and know you’re going to work hard doing something you love, especially when companies across the country are scaling back.”

The recent economy was not kind to the arts nationwide, with donations lagging and ticket sales decreasing. Thankfully, Little Rock weathered the recession better than other cities its size. As a result, such arts organizations as The Rep, Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and, yes, Ballet Arkansas have been able to thrive and grow. This year marks the fourth year the nonprofit dance organization has employed professional dancers. Plus, the company is expanding its offerings – with three full-scale performances on three different stages – and recommitting to its educational outreach programs around the state.

“We are excited to say that all of our dancers from last season are returning again this year, plus a couple of new additions,” says Executive Director Lauren Strother, who is a life-long dancer herself and has a strong passion for the arts. Strother was hired in 2011 to ensure financial stability of the organization and extend its artistic reach.

Hired on 9-month contracts, the company dancers come from all over the country – drawn by the unique opportunity to be a part of a small, growing company that values input from its members and affords lots of stage time for each dancer. “In larger companies, dancers typically start at the bottom with an unpaid internship,” explains dancer Paul Tillman. Originally from Dallas, Paul trained with the Boston Ballet before joining Ballet Arkansas. “You practice with the company, perhaps get a small role in a production, but you’re never guaranteed a permanent spot. [Ballet Arkansas] is a great opportunity to grow as a dancer.”

Ballet Arkansas was founded in 1979 as a nonprofit arts organization but traces its roots back for decades to the Little Rock Civic Ballet. The organization quickly became known for its annual holiday production of “The Nutcracker,” a fan favorite for many years. During the ’90s, financial instability and a blurred corporate vision threatened to dissolve the nonprofit. But after many years of volunteer fundraising efforts, the organization is once again on solid footing with a clear vision of its mission and direction. “Over time, the makeup of the company has changed, but the mission of Ballet Arkansas has remained constant,” says Strother. “We are dedicated to educating Arkansas’ youth in the art of ballet, to stimulating interest and awareness of ballet as an art form, and to enhancing the quality of life in our community.”

In 2009, the organization formed Ballet Arkansas Professional Dance Company, a group of professional dancers from around the country. “We hold auditions every winter to scout new talent,” says Strother. “We do have a strong relationship with Butler University’s Dance Department, which has proven to be a wonderful resource for strong young talent.”

The Professional Company members, with their varied backgrounds, not only perform. Many teach at Shuffles and Ballet II, the official school of Ballet Arkansas. They choreograph the pieces for performances and lead dance workshops throughout the state. Then there’s the daily classes with Ballet Mistress Marla Edwards, followed by rehearsals to fine-tune choreography and performance quality for the three Little Rock productions and the tour shows. It’s a lot of work, but worth it.

“Because we’re a small company, we all have to dance more,” notes Sean Porter, a native of Little Rock who’s in his second season with Ballet Arkansas. “That means we have to train more. It’s like training for a marathon, except we not only have to worry about function, we have to worry about form – about making it look graceful and effortless.”

It’s not only the size of the Professional Company that makes Ballet Arkansas unique. The administration has worked hard to create a culture where the dancers know they are valued – both for their talent and for their ideas. “In most companies, a dancer’s only interaction with the artistic director is in hiring and firing,” says Strother. “We’ve worked very hard to create a more inclusive, creative work environment.”

“I feel very close to Lauren and to the board of directors,” says Leslie Dodge, a dancer from Indiana who moved here specifically for Ballet Arkansas. “I feel like I’m not just a dancer – like I’m a part of something bigger.”

Dancer Anna Kirkes agrees. “We have a voice here. We are consulted about our outreach programs and the direction of the company. We aren’t just told to be quiet and take direction.”

This creative, open culture encourages the professional dancers to trust each other and support each other – unlike larger companies where dancers are in fierce competition with each other. “This is a job for them, but it’s not a normal work environment,” says Strother. “They have to deal with coworkers, sure, but they have to lift their coworkers over their heads! They have to have complete trust in one another. They’re very much like brothers and sisters.”

To that end, Ballet Arkansas enlisted help from renowned dancer Michael Bearden to assist in building the artistic programming. A native of Searcy, Michael began his dance training with Ballet Arkansas. Michael is a Principal with Salt Lake City’s Ballet West. “Michael is an invaluable asset to the organization offering his expertise to help develop our repertoire and continue to raise the artistic caliber of the company,” says Strother.

In addition to growing its artistic offerings, Ballet Arkansas continues to build its tour and residency programs to spread its reach throughout the state. “We are fortunate to have Guy Couch on board with us as our tour and outreach director,” says Strother. “Guy is a veteran in the performing arts community in Little Rock. With 24 years experience in building arts touring programs in Arkansas, he is a vital part of our growing organization.” Currently, the external outreach programs include student and senior matinees, outreach workshops and classes for elementary and high schools students, dance residencies and in-service performances at such organizations as Arkansas Children’s Hospital, CARTI and THEA’s Dream Big.

For the dancers, the risk of injury and the physical toll that training puts on their bodies is worth the payoff of packed performances and educating the community about their craft. “When we teach master classes outside of Little Rock, many of the students don’t know that it’s even possible to be a professional dancer,” says Horak. “It’s great to make a connection with the audience through our performances.”

And ultimately, that’s what Ballet Arkansas exists to do: connect the people of Arkansas with the art form of dance. “Ballet Arkansas belongs to the people of Arkansas,” Strother says. “Our ultimate goal is to build programs and performances to benefit the greater Arkansas community.”

The 2012-2013 Season of Ballet Arkansas
The new season is comprised of three concerts including American Images, a fall concert at Wildwood Park for the Arts in October; Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” at Robinson Center Music Hall with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra in December; and Spring into Motion, a spring concert at Arkansas Repertory Theatre
in April 2013.  For ticket information, visit BalletArkansas.org.

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