Best Face Forward

Beauty 2015 SupplementMississippi Magazine
BEAUTY Supplement
Spring 2015

During the height of mid-winter, when the weather outside is truly at its most frightful, our natural instinct is to bundle up, cover up, and hibernate until spring once again comes gently knocking at our door. However, when the time comes to emerge from hiding, our skin doesn’t look quite as lovely as the flowers blooming in the garden.

There are numerous options available to prepare yourself for spring. After battling chapped, dry skin all winter long, a facial might be just the ticket to greet spring head on. Facials have come a long way from a mud mask and a couple cucumber slices. New treatments are being created everyday that can now clarify, remove toxins, smooth fine lines, improve texture – the list goes on. With all the options available, what are some of the most effective treatments?

Hollywood has pushed both oxygen facials and HydraFacials™ to the forefront of today’s beauty buzz. If you have never had one, or contemplating getting one, you may be wondering what all the hype is about. Unlike a normal facial, which is geared towards providing a relaxing experience in addition to cleansing the skin, these cosmetic facials are performed to achieve a specific goal utilizing products that provide a much more dramatic result than a normal facial.

If fine lines and wrinkles are your main concern, it may be worth giving an oxygen facial a try. True its name, oxygen facials use a stream of pure pressurized oxygen to push nutrients deep into the skin.

“We use oxygen in a different way, but oxygen is actually not the star of the show. It’s hyaluronic acid,” explains Deirdre Burke, director of sales at Intraceuticals, the company that that first introduced the technique and continues to lead in the oxygen facial market. “Hyaluronic acid is a lubricant that occurs naturally within the body. As we age, stress, pollution, and lifestyle factors deplete the amount of hyaluronic acid in our body. We apply different weights of hyaluronic acid directly onto the skin. The oxygen is used as a method of application. Once applied, it’s like a huge drink of water for the skin.”

The facial is completely customizable to provide each person with the most effective treatment. An aesthetician will start by asking a series of questions in order to evaluate the skin. Once the problem areas and objectives are determined, the skin is then cleaned and prepped. The aesthetician uses a small wand called an airbrush to deliver bursts of pressurized oxygen onto the skin. One can also elect to have a customized combination of serums containing anti-aging ingredients, vitamins, and moisturizers applied. The bursts of oxygen help push the serums into the skin at a deeper level than simply applying them topically.

How is this beneficial? First, many ingredients found in over-the-counter anti-aging creams contain molecules too large to effectively penetrate the skin and create a dramatic difference. The serums apply these exact same ingredients at a lower molecular weight. When combined with increased pressure, they are better able to penetrate the skin and increase their effectiveness.

During the procedure, which can take anywhere from 30-60 minutes, most people describe the sensation similar to a mini pressure washer applying cool air to the face. The results have been compared to that of Botox, only not as dramatic — smoother, more supple skin and an improvement in fine lines and wrinkles.

“People notice the results immediately,” adds Burke. “They notice a minimization in fine lines and wrinkles, a freshness around the eye area, lips look more plump, facial contours are enhanced. It provides the best version of yourself.”

HydraFacials™ are targeted towards individuals that desire a deep cleansing. The procedure uses a combination of microdermabrasion, chemical peel, automated extractions, and a final application of antioxidants to resurface and renew the skin. The entire procedure is conducted using the 4-in-1 Vortex Technology™ tool.

“We are a multi-benefit treatment,” says Ellen Markus, director of marketing for Edge Systems LLC, the developer of the HydraFacial™. “That’s what sets us apart from other facials on the market. The vortex tool provides greater control during application, which allows you to achieve the maximum benefit.”

The HydraFacial™ procedure is effective on most skin types, including ethnic, dry, or oily. First, skin is prepped by cleansing and exfoliating to open the pores. A light chemical peel is then applied to loosen impurities. Once the peel is removed, the vortex suction tool – which acts just like a mini vacuum for the face – extracts dead skin and bacteria from the pores. Finally, antioxidants are applied via the vortex infusion tool.

Says Markus, “The gentle suction during the extraction process opens pores, allowing the skin to be more receptive when the serum is applied during the last step. The serum contains a mixture of antioxidents, peptides, and hyaluronic acid.”

As with oxygen facials, HydraFacials™ offer a wide variety of serums that can be combined to provide a completely customized facial experience. Depending on the skin type and needs of the patient, HydraFacials™ can improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, clear congested pores, treat hyper-pigmentation, promote cell renewal, and treat acne-prone skin. Some people with sensitive skin may experience mild discomfort during the chemical peel application, but typically the entire procedure is relatively pain free. Results usually last 5-7 days.

“We don’t just focus on short-term aesthetics. We really strive to restore skin to a healthy state, which is key to long-term skin health. Once your skin is healthy, you will find that you don’t need as much maintenance down the road when you get older.”

Most aestheticians recommend either of these treatments monthly to receive the maximum benefit and see sustained results. However, if monthly facials aren’t in your budget, they are a great option when prepping for a special occasion.

It’s time to break free from the winter doldrums and embrace spring head on. By treating yourself to one of these cutting-edge facials, your outward appearance is sure to match the season.

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Houses Change; Memories Never Fade

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Mississippi Magazine
Home & Garden Insert
March/April 2015

While growing up in Jackson, James Blackwood always admired the stately houses in Eastover. His goal was to one day call one of these residences home.

“The neighborhood was my first priority,” Blackwood explains. “With all the old trees and the history of the houses, it’s the most beautiful neighborhood. Second priority was finding a house with good bones.”

Finding his dream home wasn’t easy. In fact, it took almost two years before an opportunity arose. Westerfield’s realtor, Shari Lackey called him one day and instructed him to meet her on Lake Circle Drive immediately. A home had just been listed and they would have to act fast.

Blackwood immediately fell in love with the floor plan and large rooms within 3,200 square foot ranch-style home, which was constructed in 1959. An avid gardener, he was also able to see potential in the home’s backyard and surrounding property.

Upon acquiring the home, Blackwood planned a series of renovations to turn the mid-century house into his own. However, at closing, the adult children of the former homeowners, Mr. B. E. “Corky” Grantham, Jr., and his wife Sarah, made a special request. The Grantham children shared many fond memories of growing up in the house on Lake Circle Drive. Their daughter Sally requested to tour the home once renovations were complete.

“This [request] really touched me in a special way,” Blackwood reveals.  “Having spent my entire childhood in the house my parents built and still live in, I often wonder what will become of that house one day.  With all the memories of my childhood, I want that special house to always exist. This inspired me to create a remodeled house that will stand the test of time, with hopes that my childhood home will one day be updated as well for another generation to create their own memories.”

The house has approximately 12 rooms, including a formal living and dining room immediately off the foyer, in addition to a den that leads into the kitchen. Blackwood enlisted the help of Kim Inzinna to coordinate the design elements of the project. Turns out, Inzinna already had a connection to the home. As a young designer, Inzinna was the was the protege of designer Jim Westerfield, who oversaw the house’s partial renovation in the 1970’s.

The home already featured several classic Westerfield details, such as signature molding, eye-catching wallpaper, and black and white marble flooring in the foyer. It was these details that Blackwood and Inzinna decided to incorporate into the overall design. Drawing on her experiences while working with Westerfield, Inzinna was able to create a plan that complemented his updates while creating a fresh and modern feel.

Blackwood selected Mack Chunn of Structural Solutions to oversee construction. The team immediately began working on the layout of the sitting room and kitchen. Because the kitchen had been given a facelift recently, no major changes were planned other than removing the wall that divided the kitchen from the sitting room and replacing it with a bar area, creating an open floor plan perfect for entertaining guests. A half bathroom and laundry room was also added.

Inzinna opted to open up the den by removing the original slanted ceiling and replacing it with an arched pickle-pine barrel roll ceiling. The painted cypress paneling was removed while the original brick floors were replaced with rustic, antique heart-of-pine floors.

One of the focal points of the room was the large brick fireplace and hearth. This was also given a facelift by adding stacked black granite stones over the existing brick, which coordinates with the black granite countertop used in the bar. Floor-to-ceiling windows were added, in addition to raising all the door casings, to let in additional light and create more height.

Elizabeth Gullett, interior designer for Summer House, was recruited to provide the decorative touches needed to complete the newly renovated den. Because Blackwood enjoys entertaining, it needed to have ample seating for guests. However, the large scale of the space also made functionality a challenge. Gullett solved this dilemma by dividing the room into sections and creating multiple seating areas.

In the center of the room, four deep, white armchairs are centered around a large white leather ottoman. A brindle cowhide rug layered over a large sisal and wool area rug sets the space apart while providing dimension and texture.

“Doing a group of four chairs in a room rather than a sofa is unexpected,” explains Gullett. “However, it allows guests to move around the room more freely.”

The armchairs are accented with kelly green velvet pillows, which tie into  two tufted, olive green, benches situated along the far wall of the den. A pair of striking, 40 x 60” black and white paintings done in the style of Franz Kline, combined with oversized wall sconces, brings the large wall down to scale. The most interesting element of the room is the carved wood and marble table created by New Orleans-based designer Tara Shaw. The table, which took almost a year to procure, combines both Baroque and French elements.

Finally, the huge oversized chandelier that hangs from the arched ceiling adds drama to the design and complements the gold in the wall sconces and the Tara Shaw table.

Once the den was complete, Blackwood still had two large rooms – the formal living room and dining room – to tackle. These are the first rooms a visitor sees upon entering the house, so they both had to have a major wow factor. Blackwood decided to incorporate a French-Old World theme into the design and approached designer Matt Nicholas to create the look Blackwell hoped to achieve.

The final phase of the renovation was updating the exterior. The entire house was repainted and the original red brick steps were overlaid with Pennsylvania Blue Stone. However, Blackwell’s most important project was installing a courtyard and open-air shower.

Blackwell dreamed of having an open-air shower after vacationing in both Cabo and Lake Michigan. Landscape architect Rick Griffin was consulted on the design, while contractor Monty Montgomery and Wright Plumbing headed up implementation and construction. Other outdoor elements include the addition of a deck and parterre garden.

During the nine-month renovation process, Blackwood never forgot the request made by the Grantham’s daughter Sally. During the renovation process, Sally was invited to tour the home she grew up in.

“It was one of the special moments during the renovation,” Blackwood adds. “I was so pleased to see her reactions to the updates that were being made. Once, while in the attic, I found an old invitation inviting Sally to an after-prom breakfast. I think the time frame was the mid-1970’s. As a reminder of the history in the house, I placed the invitation on the bedside table in the room that was once Sally’ childhood bedroom.”

Pastry Queens

Ms MAg Jan 2015Mississippi Magazine
January /February 2015

The sun won’t be up for at least another three or four hours when Alejandra Sprouts arrives for work. The head pastry chef and co-proprietor at the newly-opened La Brioche patisserie in Jackson unlocks the doors to her 1200 square foot kitchen in basement of Fondren Corners around 3:30 a.m. By the time the horizon turns pink from the first hints of a sunrise, Sprouts is pulling her first round of breakfast pastries from a stainless steel commercial oven. The pastries quickly make their way upstairs to the bakery storefront, where a few early bird customers are waiting to get their worm – or in this case, a freshly baked, from-scratch croissant still warm from the oven. It’s an experience that, until recently, most Jacksonians never had the opportunity to experience.

La Brioche is the brainchild of Sprouts and her sister Cristina Lazzari. Originally from Argentina, the girls arrived in the United States as preteens, but have since traveled and lived all over the world. They came to Mississippi to help their parents establish a farm that would later become the first certified organic farm in the state.

In 2010, a tornado destroyed the farm’s greenhouse. What might seem like a devastating event to most became the opportunity Sprouts needed to pursue a different dream. She decided to attend L’Art de la Patisserie program at the French Pastry School in Chicago, Ill. There she learned the fine art of making pastries under the direction of renowned chefs Jacquy Pfeiffer and Sébastien Canonne, M.O.F.

“The minute I stepped into the school, I said to myself, ‘Yes, this is what I want to be doing,’” recalls Sprouts.

Sprouts completed a six months internship at the school and gained experience through jobs at various hotels, restaurants and bakeries in Chicago.

“It was extremely hard, but I worked with some amazing chefs and the lessons I learned were invaluable,” she adds.

Sprouts left the Windy City in 2013 to rejoin her sister in Mississippi with the hopes of launching a new business venture.

“I like coffee and Alejandra has always liked sugar and pastries,” Larazzi explains. “We knew if we ever went into business together, it needed to be something focused around that.”

The sisters started with a 900 square foot commercial kitchen space on Highway 80 in Jackson. They sold their confections at the Mississippi Farmer’s Market on High Street, eventually landing a few commercial accounts including Sneaky Beans coffee and Whole Foods.

Adds Larazzi, “The business grew much faster than we expected. We always sold out at the farmer’s market and people were constantly asking us where our store was.”

The sisters looked at several storefronts around the Jackson area before fellow Fondren business owner Ron Chane convinced them to visit an empty retail space in Fondren Corners.

Says Sprouts, “He told us ‘I have the perfect place for you.’ When we saw this location, we knew that Fondren was the right place to start.”

“This is a great business community. You feel very welcome and a lot of people in this area support local business,” Larazzi adds.

When it came to the storefront design, Larazzi and Sprouts wanted customers to feel like they just stepped off the streets of Jackson and into a Parisian café.

“In Sweden and Italy, they have places where you go and sit down and enjoy coffee and a pastry,” Larazzi says. “I missed that kind of ambiance and we wanted to introduce it to Jackson and give everyone an opportunity to have access to something like this and be able to appreciate it.”

La Brioche officially opened its doors in October 2014 to overwhelming support. In fact, for the first month they sold out every single day. The sisters have done some tweaking to their business hours and Sprouts has since hired two additional chefs to help her keep up with the demand. However, Sprouts does still recommend that customers come early.

In addition to freshly baked croissants, bagels, Danish pastries, and brioche buns, La Brioche’s menu includes a variety of items not commonly found anywhere else in Mississippi. Patrons can also enjoy gourmet cookies from all over the world such as Argentinean alfajores and German linzer cookies, brightly colored French macarons, bite-sized cheesecakes and tartes, and a wide assortment of homemade gelatos. Everything served in the bakery is either made from scratch or sourced locally. All the breakfast pastries take at least two days to prepare and are made the morning they are sold.

“You cannot have a day-old croissant,” she points out.

The bakery also sells freshly baked bread from Gil’s Bread in Ridgeland, milk from T&R Dairy in Libery, Miss., and coffee from North Shore Specialty Coffees in Brandon. All of the bakery’s eggs come from Brown Egg Company in Bentonia, Miss.

While their business has proved to be wildly successful, the sisters have no plans of slowing down. They are still working on adding additional menu items and expanding the catering side of the business.

“I put in a lot of long hours and it is a lot of work,” says Sprouts, “But no matter how tired I am, this has been my dream and I love it.”

Deserted Dwellings to Cozy Cottages

Ms MAg Jan 2015Mississippi Magazine
January/February 2015

When Chris Rakestraw left the University of Mississippi with a bachelor’s degree in finance in hand, he never intended to become a designer. In fact, the seed wasn’t planted until a few years later when Rakestraw purchased his first “fixer upper.” Less than a year later, he sold the house for a profit and began the search for another house he could redesign.  By then, he knew he had found his true calling. Shortly after, he left his job as a credit officer at a local bank and enrolled in design school at Mississippi State, where he received a bachelor’s in design in 2010.

One of Rakestraw’s latest endeavors has been the renovation of three, one bedroom shotgun houses in the heart of downtown Tupelo on North Green Street.

“I passed these little houses all the time while out running errands. They had been vacant for years and I just kept watching them decay. I remember after a really bad storm one of the front porches fell off,” he recalls. “Something about these houses spoke to me.”

In 2012, Rakestraw was just completing one of his biggest projects to date when he learned the price of the three cottages had been reduced by half. After giving it a lot of thought, he called his real estate agent and was able to secure a deal for the properties within 2 hours.

The homes – each ranging from 700-750 square feet – were constructed in 1936. While unsure of their exact origins, Rakestraw believes they were built to house displaced families after a devastating tornado hit the area. He admits the 76 year-old-houses were the oldest he had ever worked on. No surprise, they came with their fair share of problems.

“Sometimes when you purchase a house, you assume a certain level of risk,” says Rakestraw, who purchases 75-80% of his homes at auction. “You have to do your due diligence. The houses had a lot of issues, things we take for granted. Every inch of these houses had to be redone.”

For instance, none of the dwellings had central heat and air. The plumbing, electrical, roof, and foundations had to be completely overhauled. When it came to designing the interior, Rakestraw tried play off the uniqueness of each unit.

Says Rakestraw, “Each house had a different personality. It tried to keep things simple to appeal to a wider variety of tenants.”

Because the houses were in such terrible shape, much of the original details had either been scrapped or were not salvageable. However, in the unit known as the Tupelo House, Rakestraw discovered original heart-of-pine floors and ceilings. He chose to compliment the wood with neutral light grey walls accented with darker grey trim and moulding. He also removed an out-of-place coat closet in the living room and replaced it with a built-in desk. All of the doors in the cottage had to be replaced since none met today’s codes. However, instead of tossing the original doors, Rakestraw refurbished them into a mantle for the fireplace.

The original layout of each house was somewhat awkward by today’s standards, so Rakestraw decided to redesign the floor plans to improve the flow. This included swapping the kitchen and the bedroom. Typical shotgun-style plans include rooms stacked one behind the other – living room, bedroom, and kitchen in the back. Rakestraw didn’t feel like tenants would want to walk through their bedroom to get to the kitchen. Since the house had to be completely rewired anyway, crews were able to complete the transformation in just a few days. The kitchen was updated with marble countertops, new stainless steel appliances, and a moveable island topped with butcher block.

In order to maximize space, Rakestraw chose sliding barn doors to transition from the kitchen to the bedroom. A queen sized platform bed gives tenants extra storage underneath. The bed’s high headboard is adorned with the numbers 1936, a nod to the year the cottage was constructed. Rakestraw also incorporated a proper bathroom with a walk-in closet and washer and dryer into the redesign, eliminating the lean-to addition that served as the home’s only bathroom previously.

Outside, a few architectural details were added to give the cottages the curb appeal they needed. New front porches were constructed, beautiful arbors were added, and each cottage received new siding and a fresh coat of vibrant paint. Lush landscaping, including a courtyard with seating tucked away between two of the cottages, adds the finishing touch. Since completion in early 2013, Rakestraw has had 100% occupancy.

“I really wanted to design a high caliber home with these units. The style is a little eclectic, transitional, with influences of modern,” Rakestraw adds. “I am absolutely pleased with how these turned out. I have always loved these cottages and the turned out wonderfully.”

Shape Up and Have Fun!

MS Mag March April 2014

Mississippi Magazine
March / April 2014 Beauty Supplement

Mississippi native Kajal Desai combines aerobics with Bollywood to create one of the fastest growing workouts in America

Move over Zumba, there are a couple of new girls in town.

Eight years ago, fate would change the life of Kajal Desai forever. A small town Mississippi girl raised in Ellisville, Desai was living and working in Washington D.C. as a consultant for the U.S. government.  However, her real passion lay in the Indian folk dances her mother taught her as a child.

While Desai was born and raised in the United States, her parents hail from Gujarat, India. As a way to help her stay close to her family’s heritage, Desai’s mother taught her the traditional folk dances from her village. Desai perfected her moves by watching Bollywood movies, which is the largest film producer in India and one of the largest film producers in the world.

By the time Desai was an adult, she already had a deep-seated love for dance and a desire to do something more with that passion. It was then that mutual friends suggest she meet Priya Pandya. Over a cup of tea in 2005, the two women realized they had the same vision and decided to launch a business venture that would combine their love of dance with fitness.

The pair started offering a dance class once a week to residents of the DC area and doing local performances on the side. By 2007, their following had nearly doubled in size and Desai and Pandya decided it was time to take the plunge. They quit their day jobs and devoted themselves full time to the new company they named Doonya, after the Hindi word for “world.” After that, the craze seemed to take on a life of its own spreading from DC into New York City.

Exactly what is it about Doonya that makes it so popular? For starters, it involves a lot of high energy aerobic movement that gets the heart pumping and the muscles moving. Then there is the music. The beats are infectious, invigorating, and after a few minutes, your body wants to move. It’s that perfect combination that keeps a person motivated, even during the most intense parts of the workout, and coming back for more.

“The music and the movements might seem foreign at first, but it’s about letting go of your inhibitions and having fun,” Desai says.

Over the last eight years, Doonya has managed to garner a huge amount of publicity. The workout has been features in such notable publications such as Cosmopolitan, Shape, Elle, and The Huffington Post. The women have also appeared on Dr. Oz, Kathie Lee and Hoda, and The Oprah Winfrey Show.

After all that success, where do you go next? Desai and Pandya wanted to make Doonya accessible to more people and knew a DVD would be on the horizon. However, they wanted it to be more than just a dance video, they wanted it to have some credentials behind it. Desai earned certification as a group fitness instructor with the American Council on Exercise, while Pandya became a certified yoga instructor. As plans for the DVD began to take shape, both women devoted a lot of time researching the fitness aspects of the workout and developed dance moves to incorporate it. The attention to detail paid off. Within the first week of launching in February 2013, the DVD made it into the top 10 fitness videos list on Amazon.com.

Desai and Pandya continue to bring their workout to more people. Currently, they are setting up new classes at fitness centers across the U.S. and are even working with Weight Watchers to make the workout accessible to online members. However, despite all the success, Desai hasn’t forgotten that she’s a Mississippi girl at heart. Frequently during her visits home, she will offer a few classes at fitness centers across the state.

“We are really bringing to life the spirit of Bollywood,” Desai adds. “In one hour, you might start out feeling a little silly, but you’ll also start to feel a little sexy and you will smile a lot. That’s what health and happiness is really all about.”

Family, Friends, and Love

ms mag jan 2014Mississippi Magazine
January 2014

It was a chilly, crisp evening in October when friends and family came together to celebrate the engagement of Callie Mounger and Reid Wesson.  However, the atmosphere inside the home of the bride’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. William Mounger II of Jackson, was warm and inviting.

During her off time, one can frequently find Crisler Boone moonlighting as event planner and wedding coordinator. It’s a skill that proves to be invaluable in her full-time job as head of external affairs at Jackson Prepatory School. Boone previously worked with the Moungers on a capital-raising project for the school, where her abilities to host a good party soon became apparent.

“Cissye [Mrs. Mounger] told me, ‘Whenever one of mine gets engaged, I want you to plan it,” Boone says.

The opportunity finally arose when several of the Mounger’s close friends came together to throw the young couple an engagement party to end all parties. As the initial planning phase began, Boone knew she wanted every aspect of the night to be representative things that were important to the couple – family, friends, good food, and great music.

The role of the Mounger home played a significant role in Callie and Reid’s time together as a couple. In fact, Reid proposed to Callie while sitting by the fire pit in the Mounger’s backyard. Boone used that as the starting point, using the Mounger home not only as the backdrop for the party, but also incorporating it into other elements. Fresh Ink was recruited to design the party invitations. A watercolor print depicting a scene from the Mounger’s backyard was used as the background.

Wendy Putt of Fresh Cut Catering and Floral oversaw the menu and floral arrangements. As guests approached the Mounger’s home, they were greeted by two vibrant topiaries made of apples, oranges, and artichokes flanking either side of the front door. The couple’s initials fashioned with moss-covered letters hung from each of the doors. Before entering, guests could leave their well-wishes on panes of glass in a reclaimed glass window that would later become a priceless memento for the newlyweds.

Once inside, a romantic pomander of delicate peach roses hung from the chandelier in the foyer. Guests then made their way to the beautifully landscaped backyard which overlooked the Mounger’s in-ground swimming pool and picturesque waterfront views just beyond. Floating lanterns, votives, and elegant lanterns provided soft and romantic lighting throughout the property.

Boone incorporated the couple’s initials “C & R” into several details throughout the party – from the cocktail napkins and menu place cards to the water feature in the center of the swimming pool. Neutral linens in bronze and taupe allowed the bright colors in the floral arrangements and surrounding landscape to pop.

Putt also found unique ways to incorporate the couple into the menu selections. The father of the bride provided vension for the wild game table, which was served alongside other unique dishes such as micro-deviled quail eggs and grilled quail legs with bourbon sauce. A s’mores station paid homage to the night the couple got engaged as well as allowed guests to indulge in a favorite childhood pastime. Graham crackers, chocolate, and marshmallows were on hand, as well as a few gourmet touches such as peanut butter and flaked coconut.

Guests mingled and danced to the soulful sounds of Pryor Graeber and the Tombstones.

“The party was very Callie and Reid,” said Boone. “The Moungers have such big hearts and are so generous in the community.  You could tell that everyone in attendance had a love for the Moungers and this young couple embarking on a life together.”

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.”