As the din settled and dancers took their marks before a packed house at the newly-opened TheatreSquared venue in Fayetteville, the curtain rose on a creative medium yearning to be seen in Northwest Arkansas.
The performance was the culmination of a six-month pilot program to bring ballet and contemporary dance to new audiences across the region. What emerged were dancers pushing the creative limits of a classic art form beyond traditional ballet repertoire and boldly bringing life to original works by internationally recognized choreographers.
As the Walton Family Foundation’s Home Region Program works to help establish Northwest Arkansas as a leading destination for arts and culture, it recognized that dance as an art form has been historically underrepresented in the region.
Enter stage left: The NWA Ballet Theatre. Co-founded in 2011 by Margie and Mariah Bordovsky and the late Peggie Wallis, the organization seeks to create a quality professional ballet company that allows talented dancers to stay and build a career in the region.
“I kept seeing all these beautifully trained dancers that were either having to leave the state to dance professionally or just give up dancing,” says Margie Bordovsky, executive director of the company.
For several years, the organization mostly functioned as a ballet school for aspiring young dancers, periodically staging larger performances with visiting professionals.
In 2017, NWA Ballet Theatre expanded its ambitions, hiring its first artistic director, Ryan Jolicoeur-Nye, a professional dancer and choreographer.
With support from the foundation, Ryan is creating a unique vision, rewriting the rules of the traditional ballet company and making performances more accessible to new audiences.
Historically in the United States, ballet companies have been an expensive undertaking, with organizations heavily reliant on philanthropy and concentrated in major urban markets.
The result has been a national system focused primarily on well-known, “money-maker” performances with little room for companies to take creative risks.
And dancers, who often train from a young age for a limited and physically strenuous career, can find themselves unprepared for life after the pointe shoes come off.
The life of a dancer is often difficult, explains Ryan.
“One hundred percent of your time is spent training, there is often is no room for college. And when it’s over, you’re left with this huge chunk of something gone and you don’t know what to do,” says Ryan, who spent years as a professional dancer before he was sidelined by an injury.
He says it’s time to rethink the traditional ballet company structure, expanding dance’s reach to nontraditional venues, attracting new audiences and encouraging artistic experimentation within the medium.
“Our goal is to get dance in front of as many people as possible,” says Ryan.
To do this, Ryan and the company developed “Dance Anywhere/Everywhere,” a pilot program outside of the traditional theatre space aimed at “meeting people where they’re at.”
On sidewalks, in parks and at libraries, Ryan and the company staged over 40 free, pop-up, public art performances this past summer and fall.
Each work ran the gamut from traditional duets to contemporary works set to the music of The Beatles. After all, says Ryan, “If you see someone spontaneously breaking into dance on the sidewalk, how can you not stop and watch?”
The organization also invited community members into their studio space, or what Ryan calls The Kitchen. “The Kitchen is where we make a mess. Why not bring people in and show them how dance is created and let them see that mess before they see the final product on stage?”
The company is also developing its dancers to prepare for life after the stage.
“Our organization is just getting on our feet. Our dancers support the company through development, administration, marketing and social media, in addition to performing,” says Ryan.
“We want to recognize and hone these skills to give them a pathway, after their dancing career is over, to a career working with arts organizations.” One dancer apprentice at the company, for example, is building the group a new website, running its Facebook page and keeping track of analytics.
Building on the pilot program, “Dancing Forward” will continue the momentum of the past six months, hiring permanent staff and bringing in more artists and choreographers. “With this newest (foundation) grant, we are able to take some risks,” Ryan explains.
“We have the ability to shape the way the community sees dance as an art form and allow dance to evolve alongside it.”
NWA Ballet Theatre now includes a diverse group of 26 professional artists, from Northwest Arkansas and around the world.
“There is a lot of support here for the arts,” says Ryan. “We’ve been given the freedom to create a dimension of dance that is really unusual in an area of this size, or anywhere, really.”
As for the community, Ryan says the response has been overwhelming.
“We’ve tried to perform in front of as many different communities and types of audiences as we could, from four-years-olds to seniors. People didn’t know dance existed here. Now that they know, they are excited to see where we go next.”