En pointe: Celebrating 50 years of ballet in Mississippi

MS Mag Nov Dec 2013Mississippi Magazine
November / December 2013

You sit in a darkened auditorium.  Music fills your ears as the curtains part.  Elegant ballet dancers swirl across the stage in beautifully designed costumes.  For a moment, you wonder if somehow you have been magically transported thousands of miles away to New York City.  As the performance ends and the auditorium lights once again fill the room, you realize the performance you just witnessed took place right in your own backyard, in Jackson, Miss.

In 1964, a group of local Jacksonians established the Jackson Ballet Guild to promote an appreciation of dance within the community and cultivate the talents of rising and aspiring local dancers.  Fast forward almost 50 years later, the Jackson Ballet Guild has since transformed into the professional dance school and company now known as Ballet Mississippi.

David Keary has served as artistic director for Ballet Mississippi since 1994.  He began his training as a ballet dancer with the Jackson Ballet under the direction of the guild’s very first artistic directors, Albia Kavan Cooper and her husband Rex Cooper.  Keary would later go on to complete his training at the School of American Ballet, one of the most famous classical ballet schools in the world and the official school of the New York City Ballet.

As the golden anniversary of the founding of Ballet Mississippi approaches, Keary and his staff have begun preparing for a celebration to commemorate the momentous milestone.  Although the official anniversary is not until 2014, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to host Stars of American Ballet presented itself as the perfect kickoff to next year’s festivities.

Stars of American Ballet is a New York-based touring group of top ranking principal and soloist dancers hailing from many of the most prestigious ballet companies in the United States.  The group travels across the country to cities where such a caliber of performance is not usually seen. Because the group’s schedule is rigorous and extensive, convincing them to make an unplanned stop is almost impossible.  However, that’s exactly what happened.

“I had been in contact with [Stars of American Ballet founder and director] Daniel Ulbricht off and on for several years,” explains Keary.  “One day he calls me out of the blue and tells me they will be traveling through Jackson on their way to Longview, Texas, from Mobile.  I told him we would make it happen.”

On November 3, Stars of American Ballet will showcase a series of performances, including four pas de deux by George Balanchine, co-founder of the New York City Ballet and its balletmaster for more than 35 years.  Known as the father of American ballet, Balanchine is one of the most renowned choreographers in the history of dance.

The troupe will also perform Jerome Robbins’s masterpiece Fancy Free set to the music of Leonard Bernstein.  Robbins is well-known for his work as a producer, director, and choreographer for everything from classical ballet to contemporary musical theater.  His most recognizable works include the choreography for the 1956 motion picture The King and I and 1961’s West Side Story, for which he received an Academy Award for Best Director.  However Robbins’s original ballet, Fancy Free, is considered to be his most prolific work.  The story centers around three sailors on leave in New York City during World War II.  Both Balanchine and Robbins received Kennedy Center Honors, an annual award that recognizes individuals for their lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts.

“Only a few dance companies in the world have the rights to perform these works,” explains Millie Clanton, associate executive director for Ballet Mississippi.  “Normally you would have to travel to New York City to be able to see such a performance.  This will be a top notch ballet performed right here in Jackson.”

In addition to providing Mississippians with the opportunity to view a world class ballet, the works being presented have special significance to Ballet Mississippi.  Albia Cooper studied at the School of American Ballet and was one of the first dancers to perform with Ballet Caravan and Ballet Society, companies both founded by Balanchine that would later become the New York City Ballet.  She was also close friends with Jerome Robbins.  In addition, Rex Cooper performed in the original 1944 performance of Fancy Free at the old Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.

“I grew up hearing stories about George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins when I studied under Albia,” recalls Keary.  “This is a very exciting opportunity to iconic works that have shaped American ballet.”

Immediately following the 4 p.m. performance at Thalia Mara Hall, a special gala reception – Sunday with the Stars – will be held at the Mississippi Museum of Art.  Attendees will have the opportunity to meet the dancers and raise a toast to Ballet Mississippi, kicking off its 50th anniversary celebration.

Adds Keary, “The spring will bring all sorts of wonderful opportunities to shine a spotlight on ballet in Mississippi, not only for our 50th anniversary but also the upcoming International Ballet Competition [in June].  We will be honoring Albia and Rex, in addition to Thalia Mara [Ballet Mississippi’s first artistic director].   All three of these individuals are a part of our legacy and the backbone of everything Ballet Mississippi has been.”

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