By Stephanie Wolf.
The blockbuster hit Black Swan had people gasping, “Is the ballet world really that harsh and horrific?” While some elements were based on truths, they were grossly exaggerated. But, more importantly, this negative portrayal of ballet appears to be a favorable approach when placing the art form in the public eye—perhaps a cheap ploy to boost mainstream interest?
Yes, a slender physique is essential. And, yes, competition is a necessary evil of the profession. However, there are ballet companies that prefer a positive, stable work environment, with healthy, realistic goals and relationships built on trust. One such company is Charlotte-based North Carolina Dance Theatre (NCDT), where Artistic Director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux strives to transform his dance studios into viable places for dancers to grow.
When considering dancers for NCDT, Bonnefoux looks for some of the obvious attributes: strong ballet technique and versatility in various movement aesthetics. But, above all, he’s looking for individuals and wants to build the type of artistic home in which dancers feel comfortable enough to express their individuality.
“We have a very open door policy,” says Sasha Janes, the company’s Associate Artistic Director who shares the title with Patricia McBride. Janes joined NCDT 11 years ago as a dancer. Now, he is responsible for getting all of the repertoire performance-ready, organizing daily schedules and acting as a direct liaison for the dancers. This makes him an integral part of building and understanding relationships within the company.
Communicating openly and regularly is a high priority at NCDT, which makes for an encouraging, nurturing work environment that produces a much stronger result on the stage. “The dancers need to know that they are not just a number,” continues Janes. “They need to know that…the artistic staff [is] very interested in both their well being and their artistic growth.”
Traci Gilchrest agrees whole-heartedly and says she felt very comfortable approaching Bonnefoux or McBride during her 16-year dancing career with the company about both professional and personal issues. Now, she serves as NCDT’s Répétiteur, working closely with the main and second company on new and already choreographed repertoire. “The dancers actually support each other and you can see it,” she says.
This type of directness and sincerity in the rehearsal studio also makes it easy to act quickly and effectively if a dancer’s health is at risk. NCDT has an exceptional medical team and the dancers receive health benefits through the company to help cover medical expenses. Every day, the dancers have access to a nearby physical therapy facility to address any physical aliments. Additionally, NCDT has an orthopedic surgeon, who is familiar with the physical demands of dancing and available whenever necessary via his personal cell phone. The dancers also have access to a variety of medical specialists and a primary care physician who is available for immediate appointments.
NCDT’s approach to dancer wellbeing doesn’t stop at optimal physical performance. Bonnefoux and his artistic staff want to ensure each dancer is able to combat the extreme mental and emotional challenges that come with the profession. Therefore, the dancers have regular access to a sports psychologist – “a wonderful tool for any performance related anxieties,” says Janes. A nutritionist is on call at all times, which Janes says has proven to be particularly beneficial for the company’s younger members. And, every six weeks, the dancers have health meetings that discuss specific health topics—a recent meeting covered “how to take care of oneself while on tour.” All of this facilitates a holistic approach to dancer health.
If and when a health concern with one of the company dancers should arise, specifically one concerning weight, the artistic staff will intervene by initiating a private conversation. The medical team will then be consulted to help determine the best course of action. Janes is very involved in this process; after the initial conversation, he continues to communicate with the dancer and medical team, and monitors the progress, while making sure everyone’s privacy is respected.
This type of care and investment in the health of the dancers transcends into the rehearsal studio. “Some of these dancers are very young, away from home, and under perhaps the most stress that they have had to handle for the very first time in their short lives,” says Janes. “They have to know people care about them, and this, in turn, will create a positive work environment.”
According to Gilchrest, Bonnefoux always has his dancers’ best interests in mind. She can recall one summer while dancing in Chautauqua when Bonnefoux pulled her aside and suggested she go home, rest and maybe eat a cheeseburger. With a particularly demanding workload, Gilchrest had lost a significant amount of weight that summer and Bonnefoux wanted to make sure she stayed healthy—it was a testament to his efforts to keep his dancers happy and dancing for a long time.
NCDT is not merely a regional ballet troupe of talented dancers, but also a close-knit community of artists that genuinely care about each other. Janes expresses that Bonnefoux has a knack for sensing who will be a good fit for the organization and knows how to build positive, valuable working relationships. Through this approach, NCDT’s artistic staff is able to achieve the desired effect—a world-class, prospering dance company with a reputation of artistry and talent—without sacrificing the happiness or wellbeing of its dancers.
Photo (top): Dancer Traci Gilchrest in Alonzo King’s Salt. Photo by Jeff Cravotta.