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En pointe 

Ballet Arkansas goes pro.

click to enlarge REHEARSING: Grace Tilley and Case Dillard in costume for the "Nutcracker."
  • REHEARSING: Grace Tilley and Case Dillard in costume for the "Nutcracker."

The second act of “The Nutcracker” is unfolding behind the picture windows of Shuffles & Ballet II, a dance studio in a west Little Rock shopping plaza. Six professional dancers (the soldiers, the princess, etc.) mingle with a handful of older teens and a gaggle of children as young as 6 years old (angels, bon bons). The music is that familiar Russian earworm, Tchaikovsky's masterpiece of catchiness, reminiscent of “Fantasia” and “Tetris” and holiday ads for everything from beer to pancakes. “Call the IRS, you get ‘Nutcracker' music,” says executive director Leisa Pulliam, who just happened to be on the phone with the taxman when a reporter visited.

In December, “The Nutcracker” takes on an inevitability akin to death and taxes; it has been an end-of-year staple at Robinson Center Music Hall (where it will again be performed this 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 12, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 13) since time immemorial. This year, though, for the first time in a decade, the 160-odd children and junior ballerinas from 29 dance programs around the state will be led by an artistic director and professional dancers in the full employ of Ballet Arkansas. The 31-year-old non-profit organization, lately unencumbered by debt, has spent 2009 assembling a company that puts muscle behind its stated goal of developing dance and dancers in Arkansas.

Most of the future dancers on this night are a squirmy line of black unitards and pink tights, sitting cross-legged beneath a long, mirrored wall. The room seems skinny for such numbers, and low, as dancers being lifted come perilously close to the turning blades of ceiling fans. On goes the Chinese Dance, then the Arabian Dance. The little ballerinas fidget. Then the three male members of the professional company burst across the floor, swooping, twirling, leaping. Dancers Case Dillard and Paul Tillman tumble lickety-split toward the front wall, stopping just shy of the now terrified/ecstatic little girls.

When the routine finishes, the room erupts in applause. Later, former Ballet Arkansas board member and “Nutcracker” cast member Perry Young says, “When you see those three guys dancing the Russian, and I'm getting goosebumps telling you about this, there's no way you can't say that's cool.” On this particular Sunday, though, it's just another number in the rehearsal. Away from the sweatshirts and textbooks on the edges of the floor, Dillard crouches against a wall and takes a pencil to the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle as he rests for his next number, a resident pro among the sprawling cast of young hopefuls.

Having full-time dancers, rather than bringing in “Nutcracker”-only performers for a couple of weeks at year's end, influences the children, Pulliam says as she watches: “It shows kids that people really do go on to become ballerinas for a living.”

 

Gah. That Russian dance.  Go ahead and YouTube it, then try not to hum it.

“I've had that stuck in my head for 27 years,” Dillard says, laughing. “Welcome to the club.”

If you wanted to convince dancers ? and especially boys, who have to weather years of taunts to grow up in the ballet ? that there's a future for them, you could do worse than to introduce them to Dillard. He's brick-jawed, ripped ? able and encouraged to hoist ballerinas into the air. So what if he was so dedicated to dancing that he didn't even go to, you know, school dances. He left Pulaski Heights Junior High after eighth grade to attend a boarding school in Virginia, went to college in Pittsburgh and then did three years on Broadway grinding out eight shows a week for Disney. It was the big-time, but he realized he was just going through the motions. “I didn't get into this business for that,” he says. “I got into this for what we're doing now.”

Working on Broadway brings a performer cachet, but New York is a hard place in which to live. In Little Rock, Dillard has a car, a dog, a porch.

But still, he says, “I left thinking there wouldn't be anything to sustain me here.” 

His fellow Ballet Arkansas pro Lauren McCarty sympathizes. The 2002 Mount St. Mary Academy graduate recalls telling her mother that she wouldn't return to Little Rock even if it held the last job in the world. Little did she know she'd not only be back, her hyperbole would prove prophetic: arts companies across the country have melted down in the past year. “When my friends call me, they ask, ‘Is your company still going? Do you still have a job?' ” McCarty says.

It was an accident of timing, mostly, that allowed Ballet Arkansas to expand its scope while theater around the rest of the country shriveled. Ballet Arkansas hasn't supported full-time dancers in the past decade, and the city hasn't supported a true company since the Little Rock Civic Ballet in the '70s, says Delanna Padilla, president of the Ballet Arkansas board of directors. When she joined the board in 2002, Ballet Arkansas was choking in red ink in the aftermath of what she calls “some mismanagement issues” that had precipitated a split on the organization's board; some former members broke away in 2000 to form the Arkansas Festival Ballet.

Talk seven years ago was of expanding from only the “Nutcracker” into to a full season, with several offerings. To do that, Ballet Arkansas would need a dedicated, year-round stable of dancers. Years of scrimping and saving put the organization on firm footing just in time for a buyer's market for arts talent.

“We're not the New York City Ballet,” Padilla says. “We can't have a Baryshnikov-esque dancer. That's just not in the cards right now. We got exceptional dancers at better cost because of the economy, plain and simple.”

Says Dillard: “The fact that Ballet Arkansas got not only out of the red but into the black to hire six dancers for a 40-week contract is a testament to how serious Ballet Arkansas is.”

In assembling the company last winter, Pulliam first signed Shuffles dance studio instructor Arlene Sugano as artistic director. Sugano, 55, grew up in Hawaii, where her mother, a ballet teacher, would import some of the world's great dancers to offer master's classes. Through her mother's connections, Sugano met Gerald Arpino, the co-founder of the influential Joffrey Ballet, who allowed her informal access to that influential New York company. “At the time, I would have never dreamt in a million years that I would be directing a ballet company,” says Sugano, known to her dancers as Ms. A. Most of her experience has been directing and choreographing professional pick-up companies; she sees her position with Ballet Arkansas as a project, and one that she constantly evaluates. “So far so good,” she says.

With an artistic director in hand, Ballet Arkansas could hire dancers. Auditions in Dallas and Little Rock turned up seven dancers, originally; one broke her foot, though, and the cast was down to six by the time their contracts began Aug. 1. Dallas turned up Dillard; an 18-year-old Louisianan, Kelsee Green, who brings a hip-hop background; and the tall, curly-haired and classically trained Tillman, who on sight struck Sugano as a potential “Nutcracker” prince. In Little Rock, Sugano found McCarty and Grace Tilley, who like Tillman was classically trained. Jonathan Bostick, Sugano's longtime student and collaborator, rounded out the company.

But a contract doesn't mean a living. Arkansas Ballet spends about $6,500 a month on the dancers, who it pays as part-timers. Some of the dancers supplement by teaching, while Tillman puts in a morning shift at Starbucks and Bostick is the most graceful man on the floor at the Olive Garden restaurant.

Ballet Arkansas's ambition for its new company and the season was evident in its first performance, in October, at the annual Arts in Concert, at Wildwood Park. Everything seemed to be shaping up for the six-person show until Tilley broke her tibia in rehearsal ? things went awry when Dillard lifted her and she landed badly ? prompting Green to move from an apprentice role to featured dancer and Sugano to rejigger the challenging and visceral piece, “Risk,” she had choreographed to end the show. Using just five performers to hold together a show of that scale is comparable to playing an entire basketball game without subbing in any players, the dancers say.

Sugano feared she would burn herself out to exhaustion and illness; Green tended to a sprained ankle until deep into rehearsal; nearing the show, the dancers got shots of B12 for focus and health. “I don't think people realize the caliber of the dancers,” Sugano says. “I've heard people say, ‘It's just Little Rock ? what do you expect?' And it's insulting. It's insulting to anyone in Little Rock, quite frankly.” Though they played to far from a packed house, you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone there who didn't consider it a triumph.

And then, immediately, Tchaikovsky.

 

Ballet, like any performance art, is nothing if not a business of rejection. In a large market ? New York, L.A., Chicago ? dancers and choreographers are clawing over each other for a handful of career-making gigs, and rejection comes from on high. In a small market ? Little Rock, let's say ? with audiences less accustomed to the art and a smaller patronage base, rejection comes from below.

There are signs the ballet may be worming its way into something bigger in Little Rock. Pulliam counted 80 parents at a dancers' meeting that usually draws 10, she says, and when Dillard, Green and McCarty attended the tree lighting ceremony at the Promenade at Chenal, the turnout was such that McCarty couldn't find parking.

“The crowd was huge,” says Pulliam. “We about passed out when we showed up, because we weren't expecting so many.” Little girls, seeing their teachers, called to them by name. It's not the same as checks being written, or houses being packed, but it's something.

“The public is coming to understand that ballet is one of those fine arts that a truly civilized city needs to have,” Young says. “I can't see that money is easier to get, but we're getting larger audiences.”

In a couple of years, maybe Ballet Arkansas will be on even more solid footing and won't rely entirely on ticket sales to fund its operational costs. This year, though, in the first year of the new company, with increased expenses and the dancers still largely an unknown quantity, a great deal rides on the four performances of “The Nutcracker.” In Padilla's view, the future viability of the company depends on expanding the annual offerings ? “We've got to get out of a rut,” she says ? but this year, at least, they've got to slay at the Robinson. Excel at what people have come to expect year after year, and then just maybe they can expand to a more cosmopolitan, less predictable slate.

“We need butts in the seats or we're not going to last,” Dillard says. “We're definitely on a trial basis right now. But we're definitely proving ourselves.”

 

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