In the lead up to the debut of Ballet Evolution's newest show, Carnival of the Animals, I sat down with Artistic Director Jonathan Tabbert to discuss his vision, inspiration and unique venture into the collaborative unknown. One-third of the artistic collective known as Ballet Evolution, Jonathan leads the ballet company, from finding the dancers to creating the choreography. Along with pianist and composer Laura Ball and the director of Chamber Music Charleston, Sandra Nikolajevs, he brings to life four original, full-length ballets per year. What I found out about Ballet Evolution from him was heartwarming, albeit not surprising--that working as a team with other artists, while rare for a dance company in today's day and age, has proved to be more than fruitful.
How did you get started with dance and what drove you to keep after it?
I started dancing when I was six years old. I was already interested in theatre and happened to see an audition notice in the Dayton Daily for a holiday ballet, so I decided to go. At the audition, I just remember being in awe of the professional dancers. I instantly fell in love with ballet.
Dance requires a tremendous amount of sacrifice to build a career. What has kept you going all these years?
I was actually attracted to the work and dedication. Having that sense of focus and purpose kept me constantly challenged. I found the technical aspect of ballet to be intriguing, but realized that it was the artistic side that fed my creativity. It felt so good to be able to express myself through movement, particularly while still working from a foundation of classical technique. Dance is unlike any other art form. Your instrument is your body and dance becomes a part of your identity and lifestyle. You don’t do it, you live it. I became interested in choreography at an early age as well, around 10 or 11. To be able to create expression within the technical confines of ballet has remained enthralling to me.
Ballet Evolution is the brainchild of three collaborators. How did the three of you meet and where did this idea of collaboration come from?
It really was circumstantial. I first met Laura years ago when she played accompaniment at CBT (Charleston Ballet Theatre) in classes that I was teaching. From the beginning, Laura and I automatically clicked. She hadn’t accompanied ballet dancers at that point, so I was able to guide her through class. At the same time, she helped me by deepening my understanding of what it's like to be an accompanist. Without even realizing it, we were already collaborating with each other all those years ago.
Fast forward ten years and we meet again and both start talking about ways we could work together. She mentioned her love of The Little Match Girl and I agreed that it was a wonderful and touching story. Then she said, “How about, let’s make a ballet?” That was three years ago and as Ballet Evolution wasn't a full company yet, we used the dancers from my school, the Charleston Dance Institute. From there, Laura reached out to Chamber Music Charleston and the rest is history.
Photo credit: Adam Chandler
How was it working with a team to create a performance?
Very invigorating and refreshing. To be able to bounce so many artistic ideas off of each other keeps a constant stream of creativity flowing. Each performance has snippets of multiple artistic voices and inspirations, so it is also easier to maintain perspective when you’re not the only voice in the conversation. I hate using this word, but our process happens organically—it’s a constant evolution of ideas with each team member inserting their passion and expertise into the conversation. We play on each others strengths. We’ve even invited other local artists to work with us in the past, creating a sort of playground for artistic exploration. Collaboration probably adds twice as much time and effort into the making of a project, but the artistic value of the performance far surpasses what one could achieve alone.
What projects are you currently working on?
We’re coming to the end of this ballet season and have a really fun performance called Carnival of the Animals on February 19th and 20th (stay tuned for another post highlighting this show). Our season closer is called American Tapestry and it will be April 8th and 9th. This will be a very special ballet dedicated to veterans of the armed forces and inspired by the American landscape. It’s a double bill program, with Dvorak’s “American Quartet” as the opening portion and an original work by Laura Ball as the second piece. The first half is a straight repertory piece loosely based on the song, "America the Beautiful" and the second is a narrative set at Arlington Cemetery at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We are currently looking for sponsors for this show and hope that as many vets as possible can be in attendance when we open our doors.
Finally, what is the most rewarding aspect of running Ballet Evolution?
The ultimate reward is seeing your vision come to life. Whenever you create anything as an artist, you give a piece of yourself to the world. Being able to share something so intimate and personal is an incredible experience. That, and having the opportunity to work with such talent everyday and be able to do what I love and am passionate about. It’s such a gift!
For tickets or sponsorship information, please visit Ballet Evolution's website.