The Body Electric: the Louisville Ballet Celebrates 60 Years

by Erin Keane on April 12, 2012

Bruce Simpson danced all over the world, from the Scottish Opera to South Africa’s State Theatre Ballet. His travels taught him that ballet companies dance like the city they live in.

“The Paris Opera is very chic. The Bolshoi in Moscow has this great sense of space like the Russian steps. The Royal Ballet’s incredibly aristocratic, and the New York City Ballet has got that New York energy,” says Simpson, who joined the Louisville Ballet as artistic director ten years ago.

What about Louisville? Founded as a community dance organization in 1952, the Louisville Ballet became a professional dance company in 1975 and now employs dancers from all over the world. This weekend the ballet will celebrate its 60th anniversary. Over the last decade, Simpson has had ample opportunity to discover what makes his new hometown tick.

“The wonderful thing about Louisville is the river, with its constant flowing, gives this city a constant sense of change,” he says. “Even if people don’t like the change, there is a sense that nothing is static, so everything to do with the Louisville ballet has to be the same thing.”

What that means to Simpson is that the Louisville Ballet repertoire ranges from classics like “Sleeping Beauty” to daring new work. The artistic director considers himself responsible for every detail, from the commissioning of new choreography down to the precise pale shade of a ballerina’s shoe.

“Without that, the audience is like watching a company like a snow globe. It’s really beautiful and everything inside is gorgeous and you can’t get through that glass,” says Simpson. “I don’t want that to happen. I want dancers in the company that the minute the curtain goes up they are connecting to the audience, that there’s a vitality in their persona.”

But when it comes to his 24 dancers, he’s not as interested in exacting perfection. Simpson is more interested in the unique way each dancer works with the music.

He says an opera baritone will always sing the baritone part. But dancers have to be flexible, in more ways than one.

“In ballet companies, you have to change the way your body sings in space. Like Walt Whitman says, it becomes the body electric,” says Simpson.

The ballet will celebrate its anniversary this weekend with a program that showcases its wide, flexible repertoire. The dancers will perform George Balanchine’s 1947 new classic “Theme and Variations,” inspired by the great Russian Imperial ballets, as well as Val Caniparoli’s “Lambarena,” which Simpson describes as “African dance en pointe” accompanied by Bach.

“‘Lambarena’ is an amalgamation and a fusion of true ethnic African dance from Sierra Leone and classical ballet,” says Simpson. “The costumes reflect that, the music reflects that, the lighting reflects that and the dance reflects that.”

New York City Ballet principal dancer and Louisville native Wendy Whelan will perform Christopher Wheeldon’s “After the Rain” with fellow City Ballet dancer Craig Hall. And resident choreographer Adam Hougland will premiere a new work, “Unyielding Radiance.” Simpson says Hougland’s cutting-edge new ballets help balance the company’s traditional work.

“Every single time I talk to him about the next ballet. I push the risk,” he says.

Adding new ballets by choreographers who know the company well helps Simpson keep the repertoire tailored to Louisville and its dancers.

This weekend’s program will also feature a dance choreographed by Mikelle Bruzina, a longtime member of the dance company who now serves as the ballet mistress. The 2009 ballet “Sansei,” a meditative dance inspired by her Japanese immigrant grandparents, is scored by pop cellist and fellow Kentuckian Ben Sollee, who will perform live with the ballet.

Bruzina choreographed at first without music, allowing Sollee to compose from her initial movements and their common ground.

“We talked initially about the sound or style we were trying to capture, which had hints, influences of Japanese traditional music done on the Kabuki stage or traditional Japanese dance, and you know he has a lot of Bluegrass background in his playing, and both of us being from Kentucky, Lexington, both drew from that as well,” says Bruzina.

Bruzina says Sollee’s composition provided a rich sense of texture and layering to the work.

“I feel like his soul and his heart is in a similar place, as far as the landscape we are creating together with this piece,” she says.

One worry an artistic director carries is the flattening of regional style to global homogenization. Collaborations like these are another way Simpson can ensure that the Louisville Ballet retains its unique voice.

“There is a quality of life, there is a sense of soul, a sense of spirit, a sense of what do you mean by that, what do you mean by your emotional dreams, your emotional intelligence?” says Simpson. “I do think Louisville is emotionally intelligent and I pay attention to that.”

The ballet’s 60th anniversary program runs for three performances Friday and Saturday at the Brown Theatre.

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