Local Arts

A homegrown ballet success story: Jared Sutton

A Charlotte ballet success story

Jared Sutton began, half his life ago, in a scholarship program put on by Charlotte Ballet. Today, the Ballet pays him to dance. Sutton and the Ballet's Hope Muir talk about how this success came to be.
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Jared Sutton began, half his life ago, in a scholarship program put on by Charlotte Ballet. Today, the Ballet pays him to dance. Sutton and the Ballet's Hope Muir talk about how this success came to be.

Hope sports a pencil-thin mustache.

It stands 6 feet 2 inches tall, tips the scales at 147 pounds and knows it needs to put on some weight to hoist ballerinas on a daily basis.

It has a soft voice, a pragmatic attitude rare for an 18-year-old and a name: Jared Sutton.

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Jared Sutton Alex Hall

Of the hundreds of dancers who’ve passed through Charlotte Ballet’s Reach program over its 10 years, he’s the first to earn a professional contract with the company. His presence in Charlotte Ballet II tells every novice dancer in the city, “This could be you — with guts, grace, patience and parental support.”

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Jared in the pre-professional program, in 2016. Jeff Cravotta

If you attended “The Nutcracker” in December, you saw his long-limbed leaps in the Chinese section of Act 2. He wasn’t supposed to get that solo. But, as so often happens in the ballet world, another dancer’s minor injury put him in the spotlight.

If you go to “Peter Pan” this month, you’ll watch him buckle a swash as a pirate and belly along the ground as the crocodile — a genial rather than a scary one, as befits his personality.

But you really have the key to that personality if you saw an Innovative Works concert this winter and sat in the hall through intermission. Charlotte Ballet projected photos of dancers on a screen next to quotes about their dance philosophies. All but one of them spoke about beauty and inspiration and dreams. Sutton said this:

“I always tell myself I just need to put my best foot forward today and every other day beyond that.”

Remind him of this down-to-Earth dogma at an uptown coffee shop, and he reaffirms it: “I never knew whether I would be hired here. All I could do was work to my own potential. It takes a long time to get things right, and I’m still not where I want to be. But I want to be better tomorrow than I was this morning.”

He entered Reach exactly half his lifetime ago, in the first group of students to sign up at recreation centers around the city. He has been airborne since: in Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, at the dance academy run by Charlotte Ballet, briefly at UNC School of the Arts, in Charlotte Ballet’s unpaid pre-professional program, and finally as a professional in Charlotte Ballet II, where he’s now in his first season.

But the urge to move came over him before any of that.

“Saturdays and Sundays were chore days, and I hated to get out of bed,” he says. “My dad would be blasting his music – he listened to a lot of OutKast – and I’d hear him and mom dancing in the kitchen. I’d end up mopping the floors to those rhythms.”

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In 2011, in Reach: “There are never enough boys in dance classes,” Jared says. “You get lots of chances to partner.” Mel Morganstein

Those floors are in a house off South Boulevard, near the next-to-last stop on the Lynx Blue Line. He still lives there with his parents, Denise and Pierre, who brought him and his siblings down in 2007 from Oak Park, Michigan. They realized Jared needed an outlet for his dancing and enrolled him in Reach at Naomi Drenan Recreation Center. (He recently completed the circle by dancing a lecture-demonstration there with CB II.)

A $78,000 grant from the Women’s Impact Fund launched Reach the year he joined. The program offers need-based scholarships of up to three years, gives free tickets to multiple Charlotte Ballet performances and even provides dance gear free for the first year.

Teachers don’t try to turn youngsters into long-term performers. They mainly promote “self-esteem, discipline, a strong work ethic and an appreciation for the arts,” says the CB website. Corporate sponsors and private donors back Reach now at five recreation centers.

“We audition children aged 7 to 10, and we know there’s potential if they can get through the whole (audition) hour and stay focused,” says Bianca Bonner, CB’s director of education and community engagement. “They’ll take two-hour classes, no different from a student at our academy. If they keep up with attendance and show an affinity for dance, they can stay in Reach all three years.”

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In 2011, Jared (back center) was in the Ballet’s Reach program. Mel Morganstein

But some don’t have to. Bonner says academy director Ayisha McMillan Cravotta and then-artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux saw little Jared during his first year and offered him a scholarship to the academy. “We have three to four slots (each year) for those scholarships,” says Bonner. “The odds are long for Reach students.”

The boy had already studied at two arts-based public schools, First Ward Elementary and Northwest School of the Arts (in middle school). Now he had a unique opportunity, aided by height – helpful when paired with tall girls – and gender. “There are never enough boys in dance classes, usually a maximum of five but maybe only two,” Sutton says. “You get lots of chances to partner.”

He credits former teachers Sarkis Kaltakchian with “a lot of what I know today about dance (technique)” and Kathryn Moriarty with “helping me to improve the most in two years with her.” At 15, he flew from the nest – but not, as it turned out, for long.

“Staying in the dorm my freshman year at UNCSA, I grew up real fast,” he recalls. “Seeing everyone as dedicated to dance as I was – or more – boosted how I felt about it. I loved the entire time. But I would come back to Charlotte to take dance classes, and UNCSA has no company attached to it. In Charlotte, I could aspire to the place I’m in now.”

At 16, he convinced his parents to let him join CB’s pre-professional program, where academy associate director Laszlo Berdo “polished every single skill I have.” His folks, he says, gracefully acknowledged that he would not follow his brother and sister to college and let him finish high school online. His world narrowed, and he prospered:

“In pre-pro, you learn from choreographers like Peter Chu, who (sets pieces) for the main company. You work on discipline and focus. You get to perform some repertoire in the black-box theater at the (McBride-Bonnefoux) Center for Dance.”

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Misty Copeland with Jared Sutton while he was in the academy, in 2016. Jeff Cravotta

And if you’re good enough, Hope Muir notices you. The company’s artistic director teaches pre-professional classes, among others.

“Jared had technique but was also personable. I was impressed with that,” she remembers. “He’s versatile, he’s mature at a very young age, he communicates well, and his work ethic – his flexibility in working with choreographers -- is remarkable.

“We’re not necessarily trying to promote dancers (internally). Of the eight in Charlotte Ballet II, four come from here and four from other places….There is a continuity in training that’s valuable. I can see their strengths and weaknesses as they progress, watch how they deal with stress and injuries, learn their personalities and level of discipline.”

One of her happiest tasks, she says, is offering a young dancer a paying contract. So last year, “on a bad day of dealing with the nuts and bolts of my job, I called him into my office.” The gleeful Sutton wanted to sign on the spot; she told him to think about it overnight and discuss it with his parents. They supported him, as they always have.

Ask Sutton to assess himself as a dancer, and he pauses. Finally, he says, “I’m proud of my jumps and landings; I land softly and correctly, and I’m not prone to injuries. I can keep things light in a work setting, when people get flustered on a long day. I hope the audience can see that I’m always connected to everyone else onstage.

“What do I need to work on? Physical flexibility in my feet, legs and hips. And putting on some weight! All the men in the company are bigger than I am. That’s what I’ll work on next year.”

Next year will be his last with Charlotte Ballet II. Then he’ll be promoted to the first company or have to seek full-time work elsewhere.

Muir says hiring decisions for the first company depend partly on how many people leave or retire, partly on the demands of upcoming repertoire and partly on balance: Does she need men or women? Dancers who are taller or smaller?

Sutton thinks he’d like to dance in Charlotte for another 10 years. But “(Getting hired for the first company) is not always about you. Skill and personality may not be the deciding factors. I didn’t think I was the most polished or technically advanced (dancer) in pre-pro, and I got hired for Charlotte Ballet II.

“I am trying not to think too much about the future yet. I’m going to get the most that I can from the experience I’m having right now.”

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

Peter Pan

WHEN: March 8-17 at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

WHERE: Knight Theater, 430 S. Tryon St.

TICKETS: $25-$85.

DETAILS: 704-372-1000 or charlotteballet.org.