Few leave legacies as distinctive as Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux as he retires after 20 years as Charlotte Ballet’s artistic director.
He steps down from that position after the upcoming “Inspiring Works,” June 1-3, in which he’ll present parts of six works described as favorites, from Balanchine’s “Rubies” to Dwight Rhoden’s “Ave Maria.”
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Under Bonnefoux’s watch, the company started a second company of professional dancers in 2001. It welcomed choreographers famed for innovation in both classical and contemporary dance. In 2009, the company broke ground on the 34,000-square-foot Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance. In 2014, it adopted a new name after four decades as North Carolina Dance Theatre.
Bonnefoux’s personal accomplishments are broad and deep. As a young man he danced with the Bolshoi, the Kiev, Paris Opera, and the New York City Ballet. In 1970, he was first partnered onstage with future wife Patricia McBride – by George Balanchine in Tchaikovsky’s Pas de Deux.
His choreography has been commissioned by the Lincoln Center Institute, the Pennsylvania Ballet, and the New York City Ballet. It spans “The Nutcracker” to “Shindig,” a ballet rich in classical technique set to bluegrass. And teaching is a passion. Since 1996 the number of students attending the Charlotte Ballet Academy has more than quadrupled, to 700-plus.
But let’s let dancers talk ...
URI SANDS: ‘He challenged his dancers to be adaptable’
Sands, 43, co-founded Tu Dance in St. Paul, Minnesota, and is a guest choreographer for companies including Charlotte Ballet, where he danced for three years in the mid-2000s. Sands was brought into the company to dance a role created by choreographer Dwight Rhoden.
Q. How did Bonnefoux’s creativity affect you as a dancer?
A. His leadership, with regard to the choreographers he was bringing in, influenced and challenged his dancers to be adaptable. When he put us in the room with Alonzo King, or Nicolo Fonte, that’s where his influence was greatest; to bring artists in the room together for a shared artistic experience.
Q. Did Bonnefoux influence your company, Tu Dance?
A. He was not just supportive, he encouraged us to be creative with our choices, and he encouraged us to utilize the networks we had already built – and N.C. Dance Theatre was one of those networks.
Q. You received the Princess Grace Award to create the 2005 “Tearing for a Cure” in Charlotte.
A. Jean-Pierre provided an environment where creative work could take place in a very natural way. It allowed us to explore difficult themes, and take risks.
KATI HANLON MAYO: ‘He would try to find your personality within his choreography’
Mayo joined Charlotte Ballet in 1992, and retired from her professional dance career in 2007. She is now artistic coordinator for the Charlotte Ballet Academy.
Q. Can you describe Bonnefoux’s style?
A. He has always been a ballet dancer deeply rooted in classical ballet. He was also quite interested in all other styles of dance, modern, contemporary, jazz. I think that was his mission, to find choreography and styles and pieces that were iconic, and that would push the audience to get more flavors of dance, so they could see where their tastebuds were. The work that we did with Paul Taylor was very contemporary. He also brought in the William Forsythe ballets, and Alonzo King, innovators who are pushing the limits of ballet. To bring them to the dancers is really a gift. It let Charlotte see there is more to dance than ‘The Nutcracker.’
Q. Is there a particular role you cherish?
A. He choreographed a really lovely solo for me called Syrynx. He came in with a sketch in his mind, and he worked alongside you, collaborating with you to hear your voice come through. He would try to find your personality within his choreography.
Q. Why have you chosen to continue, in an administrative role?
A. Jean-Pierre has (encouranged his dancers) to plant roots in Charlotte. Living in the community changes your investment. He concentrated on creating a company that was cohesive, and kind, and that felt at home in Charlotte.
AYISHA MCMILLAN CRAVOTTA: For students, he wants ‘the way of the future’
Ayisha McMillan Cravotta, 39, arrived in Charlotte in 2002 at age 24, after six seasons dancing for Houston Ballet. She currently leads the Charlotte Ballet Academy.
Q. What was your initial reaction to Charlotte Ballet?
A. Ballet is very competitive, but there was something intangible that made me think I could really live here, I could really be here. It is the people and how warm and accepted and excited everyone was, and also they had the repertoire that I really wanted to be able to do.
Q. How did Bonnefoux encourage you to succeed?
A. He was so positive of my potential. I had a lot of expectations of what I wanted and I had a lot of hope. He was interested in connecting with me, building me up, and telling me to go for it.
Q. How did Bonnefoux shape the Charlotte Ballet Academy?
A. His vision is the students must be well trained classically, but also that they have some regular exposure to contemporary dance, because he knows that is the way of the future. With approach, it is important to him that we shed some of the old school in training that tends to look down on the dancers. He is very generous of spirit, and that is what he is interested in seeing in his professional dancers, and the teachers of the academy.
DAVID INGRAM: He taught me ‘to ask myself deep, hard questions’
Ingram joined Charlotte Ballet in 2007 and performed many principal roles. His “Piso sto miden” had its world premiere at Charlotte Ballet in 2015. Ingram is an assistant professor with East Carolina University School of Theatre and Dance.
Q. What did Bonnefoux teach you about dance?
A. How to ask myself deep, hard questions about what I was doing, how to allow my true self on stage, and how to forgive myself, which is difficult to do in the dance world.
Q. How did he challenge you artistically?
A. Instead of waiting for others to give me exact directions and incarcerate the body, he produced a platform for the individual to thrive. He is an artist as a teacher, an artist as a choreographer, an artist as a dancer.
Q. What principal role did he give you that pushed you to the limit?
A. Any time I worked with him there were a thousand things that I hadn’t thought about. I was quite fortunate to dance “Apollo,” a work that he danced for Balanchine. I learned it from him, and that was a pinnacle of my life. That’s another thing that is quite exceptional to him; he has access to that place and time; the words of Balanchine.
DAVID MORSE: ‘He finds ... a level of detail that you hadn’t thought of’
As a preteen, Charlotte’s Morse was a student in the Charlotte Ballet’s boys’ scholarship program. He joined the second company at 16, and at 18 was promoted to the main company where he danced for six years. Morse, 25, currently dances at Cincinnati Ballet.
Q. How did Bonnefoux’s instruction help you achieve placement in the main company?
A. Coaching is his strength. He finds nuance, and a level of detail that you hadn’t thought of previously. You really get a sense that you are pushing yourself to a new level, someplace I’ve never been before.
Q. What of Bonnefoux’s influence did you bring to your current career at the Cincinnati Ballet?
A. He basically made me into the dancer that I am. Every piece of a repertoire that you do adds a little bit to your movement. When you dance for someone for a decade, you pick up what their taste is in choreographers. The Balanchine style has been a huge influence on the company. I wouldn’t call myself a Balanchine dancer but I have that influence from the two of them. The blend of classicism and contemporary work is a hallmark of this company. It made me a versatile dancer, which I think they really appreciate in Cincinnati.
ALESSANDRA BALL JAMES: ‘It is like gold to be in the studio with Jean-Pierre’
James, 33, was in her late teens when she was hired by Charlotte Ballet in 2002. She’s in her 12th season with the company.
Q. What does Bonnefoux bring to Charlotte Ballet that makes it unique?
A. Jean-Pierre has a great eye for talent, and potential in a dancer, but he also has a great sense of character. He doesn’t stand for any sort of cattiness, or any kind of negative. We aren’t perfect, but we get along great, and at the end of the day we are all there for each other.
Q. What is it like to work with Bonnefoux?
A. It is like gold to be in the studio with Jean-Pierre. I attribute the way I dance to him and Patty. He wants the technique, but he doesn’t want it to look stuck. The way he coaches the arms, and the breaths in the dancer. His corrections are not normal corrections. They are above and beyond. I love his musicality.
Q. What will you miss most about his leadership after he retires?
A. I’m going to miss him in the studio, his knowledge, his presence. I’ll miss talking to him about life, and food and restaurants. I’ll miss his presence in the room. I feel like he is rooting for all us.
When: June 1-3. Pieces will include work from George Balanchine’s “Rubies,” Mark Godden’s “Angels in the Architecture,” Sasha Janes’ “Lascia la Spina, Cogli la Rosa,” Bonnefoux and Quentin Talley’s “Transformation,” Jiri Kylian’s “Sechs Tanze” and Dwight Rhoden’s “Ave Maria.”
Where: Knight Theater at Levine Center for the Arts, uptown.
Details: Tickets $25-$85; charlotteballet.org/tickets/inspiredworks.