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What is Charlotte Ballet’s new leader thinking?

What's newest at Charlotte Ballet? She is ...

For the first time in 20 years, Charlotte Ballet has a new artistic director. What's she have in mind for the company? A lot ...
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For the first time in 20 years, Charlotte Ballet has a new artistic director. What's she have in mind for the company? A lot ...

Charlotte Ballet’s board of directors wanted a ball of fire when they hired artistic director Hope Muir. What they got was a supernova in no danger of flaming out.

In 14 months of affiliation with the company – only two as its artistic director – she has hired an astonishing array of new choreographers, rehired all but two members of the first company, endeared herself to donors from Charlotte to Chautauqua, N.Y., begun to investigate national and international tours, created a choreographic lab to inspire new dancemakers, put together a collaboration for the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s Classical series in April, said goodbye to resident choreographer Dwight Rhoden and instituted family matinees for mainstage works beyond the inevitable “Nutcracker.”

“She doesn’t sleep very much, I know that,” says Christopher Hampson, artistic director of Scottish Ballet.

‘Leading in three or four different places at once’

Muir was Hampson’s assistant artistic director from 2009 through June. After dancing for 17 years with three companies, she left the stage in 2006 to learn dance management. A decade later, she was ready when Charlotte Ballet sought a replacement for 20-year leader Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux. She accepted the board of directors’ offer and spent a year shuttling back and forth from Glasgow to Charlotte, taking the reins formally this July. Hampson sees a bright future for her here.

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“The challenge for any artistic director, when the buck really does stop with you, is leading in three or four different places at once,” he says. “Her natural forte is to work with dancers, but she’s very intuitive: She’ll think about how to balance all the constant demands on her time.

“She’s absolutely passionate about her art form, and she’s able to relate to anybody. One of the fantastic sides to her is that she’s the same, whether meeting a next-door neighbor or a high-level donor.”

Muir breezes into an afternoon interview at McBride-Bonnefoux Center for Dance with a wide grin, a voice marked by a British accent and auburn hair tugged back in a ponytail. She keeps her age to herself; a guess in the mid-40s would be accurate but belied by her energy. She meets you in a front conference room, rather than the spacious office used by Bonnefoux, because she converted that to a gathering place for staff: “I just didn’t need all that room.”

She has just been teaching class, the activity that won hearts when she made her first Charlotte visit in November 2015. Board chairperson Lise Hain said then, “Each candidate led two dance classes. Hope had an incredible air of confidence and command of the studio, but she was engaging. When she gave dancers a piece of advice or made an adjustment, you saw a light bulb go off for them. We got feedback from dancers and staff and the advisory board, and they all took to her.”

The Toronto-born Muir had already decided the next step in her career was to run a company and had, she says, been shortlisted for a job in the United Kingdom. She was also looking into the directorship at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal when she applied in Charlotte. (Ballets Canadiens hired Ivan Cavallari, who started in July, too.)

“The size of the company and the balance of the repertoire were a better fit for me in Charlotte,” she explains. (Scottish Ballet lists 17 dancers as principals, soloists or “first artists”; Charlotte Ballet has 20 dancers in its first company.) And, she notes, “ some companies need an artistic director who’s also a choreographer. I’m more of a curator.

“I’m always confident about my work in the studio: Getting hands-on with dancers is the most important thing for me, and I’ve been surprised and touched by how welcoming they’ve been. A new artistic director can walk into the room and find everyone protecting his own piece of ground. So to feel this inclusion was fantastic.”

1st performance: Past and future at once

She’s proud that all the active dancers in her first company signed up again to work with her. (Jamie Dee Clifton retired to have a second baby; Tendo Pereira never recovered from season-long injuries.) Rhoden, one of Bonnefoux’s two resident choreographers, left to concentrate on his own troupe in New York; the other, Sasha Janes, will have a piece in this year’s “Innovative Works” concert and is setting another down the road.

While most artistic directors inherit a season planned by their predecessors, every 2017-18 concert bears Muir’s stamp. The “Fall Works” opener epitomizes her philosophy of looking to the past and the future at once.

Johan Inger’s “Walking Mad” comes from a choreographer influenced by Charlotte favorite Jiří Kylián. George Balanchine’s “Apollo” reflects the New York City Ballet connections of Patricia McBride and Bonnefoux. “Elsa Canasta” introduces the company to Muir fave Javier De Frutos; he comes back later in the season for the American premiere of the full-length “The Most Incredible Thing,” set to music by Pet Shop Boys.

She’s not afraid to take on the world ... When Hope was hired, (booking) agents started calling us, not the other way around.

Doug Singleton

“Canasta” itself reflects what Muir’s all about. She danced one of the leads when Rambert Dance Company premiered it in 2003, forming a friendship with De Frutos that will pay off in Charlotte: He’ll be a 2018 artist-in-residence at the McColl Center and redesign the second act of “Incredible Thing,” putting dancers en pointe to suit their classical strengths. And “Elsa,” which requires a live jazz singer doing Cole Porter’s tunes, gives Muir a chance to collaborate with Jazz Arts Initiative.

“We have to collaborate,” she says. “We need to share resources with the arts community.” The first substantial fruits will come in April, as company members dance “Apollo” (sometimes called “Apollon Musagète”) and “Le Sacre du Printemps” on a Charlotte Symphony program, where choreographer Peter Chu will integrate adults and dozens of children. Muir also hopes to collaborate with the symphony on a Leonard Bernstein retrospective (his centenary is in 1918) and with UNC Charlotte.

Is anyone surprised that Muir’s firing at so many targets at once?

“No,” says executive director Douglas Singleton. “Her strength will be to take the dancers and the audience from where they are now to where she’d like them to be. She’s being strategic and methodical about getting them where they’ll need to be four or five years down the road. (Muir has a five-year contract, with early options to renew.)

“We’ve known how to run Jean-Pierre’s mission. She asks ‘Why?’ all the time, and that’s good for an organization. When a leadership team has been in place for five years or more, like this one, you’ve stopped asking ‘Why.’ You answered the questions years ago. But those were the answers for that time, not now.”

Says Hain, “An artistic director has to be aspirational, and she and Doug Singleton will be a dynamic duo. In April, I saw Scottish Ballet do a piece by Christopher Bruce (Muir’s mentor at Rambert) without music. It was set to Dylan Thomas poems read by Richard Burton, and it opened up a whole level of ballet I had not seen before. Charlotte audiences will be challenged by what she brings, and you have to be open to that. Some may say, ‘That’s too weird.’ Some may say, ‘That’s the most amazing thing we’ve ever seen.”

Muir has already launched three significant initiatives beyond mainstage programming.

A lab, a tour plan and...

First, she created a Choreographic Lab. Charlotte Ballet dancers will create new pieces on company members, working for two months toward an informal public performance in November.

“It’s difficult to be a young choreographer,” she says. “You have to find studio space and bribe dancers, because you have no money to pay them, and it all has to happen outside the regular season. Chris Hampson exposed me to this (lab) process, and it’s a great idea.” (Muir had a piece at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and it entered the Scottish Ballet repertory. But what she mainly learned is … she’s not a choreographer.)

Second, she has begun family matinees, a full-length one for “Incredible Thing” and shortened ones for “Fall Works” and “Spring Works.” Those reduced-price, hour-long programs will include pre-concert dance classes and an onstage host, who’ll explain things for kids.

“Parents don’t like programs with (intermissions), and having a bit of narrative and conversation helps kids get the bug for dance,” Muir explains. She herself caught it by the age of 3, when Saturday morning ballet classes became a habit, and never thought of pursuing anything else.

Third – and most crucially for the company down the road – Charlotte Ballet has signed with KMP Artists to investigate significant tours. The troupe toured a bit recently, establishing a beachhead in Charleston and performing each summer in Chautauqua, but this would be on a wider scale.

“Touring’s rooted in our mission,” says Singleton. “During the economic downturn in 2008, we stepped back from it. We needed to ground ourselves in Charlotte, make sure the (Center for Dance) opened smoothly. But Rambert toured all over the world, and Scottish Ballet does the same, so she knows what that’s like. Costs can escalate quickly, but you can make it work.”

Adds Muir, “To tour successfully, you need to be the best at what you do or offer something nobody else is doing. We’ve already had calls about ‘Incredible Thing,’ and we’re investigating the idea.”

‘Not afraid to take on the world’

Believe it or not, she does have a life away from the company. She’s in a romance, and that’s all you’re going to hear about that. She’s moving into a rented bungalow in NoDa, where belongings were arriving this month from Toronto and the U.K. She’s already immersed in the community; she and dancer Juwan Alston took part in the summer Harambee event by Freedom School Partners, and fans at this month’s Joedance Film Festival saw her and Singleton in the back row of folding chairs.

She’s an avid reader (Jack Kerouac inspires her) and a fan of many kinds of musicians, from David Bowie to Frank Sinatra. She follows U.K. soccer. Come Christmas, says former boss Hampson, Muir will go a little nuts: “If you ask her at any point in the year how many days there are until Christmas, she can tell you.” Says Singleton, “She’s really a citizen of the world, but she’s still a Canadian. So there’s always a maple leaf somewhere.”

Maybe being a citizen of the world increases her desire to bring the world to Charlotte. She has previously remounted work by Bruce, Helen Pickett and Crystal Pite, names better known in Europe than the United States. She says she has access to Frederick Ashton’s “Romeo and Juliet” and talks about doing full-length story ballets Charlotte has never seen. She wants to explore her own company’s catalog as far back as Salvatore Aiello’s pieces from the 1980s and ’90s, when he ran it as N.C. Dance Theatre.

“She’s not afraid to take on the world,” says Singleton. “She already knows she needs at least three years to build the kind of company she wants, and she has a good network of creative talent. When Hope was hired, (booking) agents started calling us, not the other way around.

“The hard part is finding time in her schedule for everything. It’s a major responsibility to be the face of a company like this one, but she inspires people.”

Charlotte Ballet 2017-18

“Fall Works,” Oct. 19-21, Knight Theater: Johan Inger’s “Walking Mad,” George Balanchine’s “Apollo,” Javier De Frutos’ “Elsa Canasta” (with a live jazz singer).

“Choreographic Lab,” Nov. 17, Center for Dance: Aspiring choreographers from Charlotte Ballet work with company dancers and students; artistic director Hope Muir and Charlotte Ballet II director and choreographer Mark Diamond serve as mentors.

“The Nutcracker,” Dec. 9-23, Belk Theater: Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s choreography and the Charlotte Symphony shape a visually splendid production that debuted last year. A “Night at ‘The Nutcracker’ Dec. 8 at the Belk offers a silent auction, children’s activities and excerpts from the show.

“Innovative Works,” Jan. 26-Feb. 17, Center for Dance: New contemporary ballets by Sasha Janes, Myles Thatcher and Robyn Mineko Williams, with a dessert reception afterward.

“Dancing with the Stars of Charlotte Gala,” March 3, Knight Theater: Six community movers and shakers will move and shake for judges in this charity fund-raiser.

“The Most Incredible Thing,” March 9-18, Knight Theater: The U.S. premiere of Javier De Frutos’ adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale about men vying for the hand of a king’s daughter, with music by Pet Shop Boys.

“Spring Works,” April 26-28, Knight Theater: New works by Bryan Arias (who danced here when the company was North Carolina Dance Theatre) and Felipe Portugal, plus Helen Pickett’s “Tsukiyo” and Ohad Naharin’s “Minus 16.”

Subscriptions range from $83.67 to $422.58, depending on the number of shows you wish to see, the performances you attend and the seating area you choose. Single tickets are also on sale. Details: charlotteballet.org or (704) 335-1010, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday.