Balletmet Turns 30

February 21, 2008

Clearheaded leadership, a steady rise in quality, and balanced budgets have marked the history of BalletMet Columbus. So have occasional outbreaks of whimsy, like the company’s first international tour—not to Canada or Europe—but to Egypt.


But was it whimsy or temporary insanity that led the troupe to open the current season, its 30th, with a program of 30 new works by 30 different choreographers?


“The initial idea for 30×30 was mine,” says executive director Cheri Mitchell. “I was thinking about how a theater company sometimes puts on a new play in 24 hours and it evolved from there.”


Artistic director Gerard Charles quickly seized on the concept and began contacting choreographers. “People are not afraid to take risks here,” Charles says. “I think we owe it to choreographers to support them while they are still alive.”


A few were chosen from among the dancers, like Jimmy Orrante, winner of a 2005 Princess Grace Award. But many, like Nai-Ni Chen, Alex Ketley, James Kudelka, Harrison McEldowney, Michael Uthoff, and Stanton Welch, are established dance artists who traveled to Ohio especially for this occasion.


“It was guerilla choreography,” says Ketley of San Francisco’s The Foundry. “We each had only five hours with the dancers so we had to be really focused. But I thought the results were fantastic. The dancers were energized, and the audience got 30 small presents.”


For Orrante, in his 13th season with BalletMet, functioning as both a dancer learning material and a choreographer creating work was a double challenge. “It was hard to come up with new movement,” says Orrante, “and get the things I had learned as a dancer the day before out of my body.”


The program turned out to be a showcase for dancer Jeff Wolfe, who came to Columbus three years ago from Houston Ballet’s second company. He was a bravura classicist in BalletMet dancer/choreographer Dmitri Suslov’s Old World Pas de Deux of Niriti & Vayou and a chic urban cut-up in Randy Duncan’s solo Everyday People. “I lucked out to be sure,” Wolfe says. “It was a little crazy but we had so many people from around the globe you had to learn something new every day.”


Work ranged from Kudelka’s typically enigmatic See #3, at 11 minutes the longest work, to McEldowney’s atypically dark Between My Legs. Overall, the program turned out to have both depth and variety. There were pieces by company members like Suslov, Orrante, and Adam Hundt, whose dramatic Bang, Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) caught everyone’s attention.


The range in movement styles exemplified the kinds of dancers BalletMet seeks out. “I look for performers who can move comfortably in a variety of styles,” says Charles. “I also look for a dancer who understands where a movement originates, who can connect to an audience with an individual voice. They must also be smart and inquisitive.”


Audiences ate it all up—even in the August heat. Mitchell regretted scheduling only one weekend because the show created a buzz and sold out each performance.


The 30×30 series is actually built on a long BalletMet tradition of supporting choreographers and their creative visions, a practice that has made its 28 dancers unusually versatile. “I was surprised,” says Ketley. “They are very responsive to lots of different kinds of material.” Since 1978, the company has added 134 company premieres to its repertoire, and produced 111 world premieres, an impressive record for a regional company operating on a $5 million budget.


BalletMet’s roots run deep in the community. The seeds were planted in 1974 with a small civic company called Ballet Metropolitan created to offer instruction and present an annual production of The Nutcracker. With support from Columbus’ Battelle Foundation, the group turned professional in 1978 and hired its first full-time artistic director, Wayne Soulant (now deceased).


From the start, the goals were diversity in company makeup, an eclectic repertoire, and a commitment to education.


If Soulant was the company builder, John McFall, artistic director from 1986 to 1994, was its visionary. He advanced the organization on every front, acquiring a spacious permanent home, adding more dancers, extending the season, and presenting ballet stars on tour like Baryshnikov and Nureyev.


He expanded the repertoire with bold, contemporary work by himself and renowned choreographers like Choo-San Goh, Kirk Peterson, and Liz Lerman (her only work for a ballet company). McFall also extended a hand to up-and-coming choreographers like James Kudelka and David Parsons before they became big names.


David Nixon, artistic director from 1994 to 2001 (now at the helm of the Northern Ballet Theatre in England), added to the legacy. He created a second, more intimate performance home for new and experimental works at the 900-seat Capitol Theatre, while maintaining the larger ballets at BalletMet’s traditional venue, the 2,800-seat Ohio Theatre. Nixon set about making new versions of the classics like Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet. His own choreography also favored big story ballets. Beauty and the Beast, Dangerous Liaisons, Butterfly, and Dracula did brisk business at the box office and established a sense of dramatic flair. Eerie and erotic, Dracula has proven as “undead” as its namesake, and become an annual tradition at Halloween—the evil twin of the family-friendly Nutcracker. During Nixon’s tenure, BalletMet was recognized by Ohio Magazine as the best dance company in the state.


Current artistic director Gerard Charles and his wife Catherine Yoshimura came to BalletMet as dancers at McFall’s request in 1986 but moved on to Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal in 1992. A few years away taught Charles a lesson. “I found I missed BalletMet,” he says of his return as assistant artistic director and ballet master, and Yoshimura’s as a dancer. “We came back in 1996 and stayed. There is a great tradition and love for this company and everyone wants the best quality without a lot of pretensions.” (One of the elements in this mix is Yoshimura, or Yo as she is known, who is now on the faculty of the BalletMet Academy.)


Charles did not view himself as a choreographer at the level of McFall and Nixon. He took over the helm only after Stanton Welch made a three-year commitment to be artistic associate. (Welch continues a choreographic relationship with the Ohio company even in his more recent role as artistic director of the Houston Ballet.) Charles gave Welch free rein and de-emphasized his own creative talents for the first few years as he established direction of the institution. But he is proving himself in the choreographic arena as well with his own versions of Cinderella and The Nutcracker, and most recently an inventive and hugely successful new Alice in Wonderland. Under Charles and Cheri Mitchell, the company has purchased its home and acquired real estate adjacent to it, where last season it opened a new 225-seat BalletMet Performance Space as a third venue.


Continuity, commitment, and creativity appear to be in good balance at BalletMet. So do budgets. In a state where two well-known institutions—the Cleveland Ballet and the Ohio Ballet—have gone under in recent years, BalletMet has had only one small deficit in three decades. It has maintained its budget, its season, and its dancers throughout the post-9/11 malaise, and unlike some companies, continues to employ an orchestra (the Columbus Symphony) for all its Nutcracker performances.


BalletMet is a congenial place. “We’re very tight, like a small family—or large family, actually,” says Christian Broomhall, a company member who began taking lessons at 4 at the academy.


Ketley noticed the same thing, from the outsider’s perspective. “I don’t know why some institutions go dark and dour, but BalletMet is a great community. People are very sweet and supportive. It’s a happy place.”


Barbara Zuck, a former critic at
The Columbus Dispatch, writes about dance and the other arts.


Photo by Richard Termine, Courtesy BalletMet.