March 4, 2014

New York pact gives N.C. Dance Theatre a different look

Three-year teaming with Dance Theatre of Harlem means more jobs and more diversity on Charlotte stages.

Young ballerinas usually dream of soaring to symphonic music on a vast stage, while an audience of dance aficionados sits in silent appreciation.

They don’t dream of whirling, stomping and sashaying to the music of a fuzzy boombox on a hard gymnasium floor, while an audience of elementary school kids buzzes with deafening enjoyment.

Yet there were Courtney Holland and Lacey Thomas, crisply delineating moves in the shadow of a basketball scoreboard at Bruns Academy one rainy afternoon. They have come to Charlotte to perform in two worlds: lecture-demonstrations by N.C. Dance Theatre 2, which opens young minds across the region, and formal productions such as Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s “Cinderella,” which opens Thursday at Knight Theater.

And they have come a long way, both in mileage and maturity. Last year, they were in a training program at Dance Theatre of Harlem in New York. This year, due to a unique new partnership between the companies, they’re N.C. Dance Theatre employees embarking on a professional career.

“I came here to challenge myself more, to learn what’s expected of a professional dancer,” Thomas says. “Here the second company dances in the big pieces: ‘Carmen,’ ‘Nutcracker,’ ‘Western Symphony.’ It was a positive shock to learn the contribution I could make.”

Says Holland: “This is a quick company: You learn whole pieces as fast as you can and then work on them, rather than learning as you go along. Whether you’re in the opera house (Belk Theater) or in front of elementary schoolers, you give it the same attention.”

There’s been mild shock of another kind: Holland comes from Toronto, Thomas from Manhattan, and neither needed a car to get around a city before. But both rate George Balanchine among their favorite choreographers, so they’re delighted to train with teachers who danced for him (Patricia McBride and Bonnefoux).

Partnership with deep roots

The two NCDT artistic directors knew Dance Theatre of Harlem founder Arthur Mitchell in the 1960s at Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. Current DTH artistic director Virginia Johnson taught at the Chautauqua Institution, where Bonnefoux heads the dance program. Somewhere along the line, an idea was born: Bonnefoux would come to New York three years in a row and take two dancers home, starting this season.

The benefits seem obvious. Two young artists get salaries and improved résumés. NCDT gets more diversity, and its audience sees a company that looks more like the city around us. DTH gets a program that can inspire its own donors, maybe especially those who’ve come up from the South.

“We’re always looking for reasons people might contribute,” Johnson says. “One of our Partners in Pointe (supporters) said this connection is important to her; it’s a personal buy-in. You can’t just keep telling people, ‘Art is meaningful, so you should help us.’ ”

There are intangible benefits, too. Whether Holland and Thomas return for a second year here or move on, they will have learned “how to be a professional,” says Bonnefoux. “They’ll know how to adapt to a new environment, to make friends in a company. There’s a real generosity of spirit here – older dancers don’t judge you when you come in – and that’s something they will ask of other companies in the future.

“I was looking for talented people when I auditioned them. But apart from technique, the most important thing was to find someone who is open to what we have to offer here, who is flexible. We are not just hiring a dancer; we are hiring a dancer and a person.”

Encouraging dancers of color

Someone had to cover two extra salaries, however modest they were. Step Up stepped up.

Kobi Brinson helped start the program in 2011. It supports NCDT’s Dancers Fund, which lets the company develop dancers of color who may not have the money to pursue careers.

Brinson, a five-year NCDT board member, and the Step Up Committee decided in 2013 to devote money to bringing Thomas and Holland here. Wells Fargo doubled its normal $10,000 contribution, and the group raised $35,000 at the 2013 gala. (The next Step Up gala is April 11. Go to ncdance.org to register.)

“There was an audible gasp in the room when we announced this partnership last April,” Brinson says. “The African-American community has two dance companies it thinks of as its own: Alvin Ailey and Dance Theatre of Harlem. So this was exciting for us.

“There’s a large, prosperous community of African-American donors here, and we want to diversify the ballet onstage and offstage. We want audiences to understand this isn’t the Myers Park Ballet Co. The black community has to show up to see a Pete Leo Walker or Amanda Smith and support them (financially).”

Johnson hopes Dance Theatre of Harlem forms similar partnerships with other companies. “There has been discussion for years about diversity in ballet,” she says. “Until recently, I think people thought this would solve itself.

“It takes 10 years of nurturing and care and preparation to make a dancer. If you don’t do that, you won’t suddenly have dancers coming into the field who were never there before.”

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