50 for 50: Asha Bala

Story by Sandra Davidson

Monday, April 9, 2018

Asha Bala is on a mission to make Bharata Natyam – an ancient South Indian classical dance – a celebrated American dance form. In this special 50 for 50 podcast, meet 2018 North Carolina Heritage Award recipient Asha Bala.


Asha teaches the history and technique of Bharata Natyam to girls and women of all ages at the Leela School of Dance in Cary, NC. The dance began in the temples of South India, and it communicates ancient Hindu spiritual fables and messages. Performers are trained to convey nine sentiments – love, laughter, sorrow, fear, heroism, disgust, anger, wonder and peace – through intricate hand gestures, facial expressions, and footwork. Bharata Natyam can be traced back thousands of years.

"This dance form is one of the oldest dance forms in the world," says Asha.

"It used to be done by a particular segment of society, a group of people called Devadasis. These were servants of God. These were temple dancers and dance was a part of temple worship. These Devadasis were highly talented and highly accomplished not only in the dance, but in all the related arts of music and history and philosophy. They had the responsibility of preserving this tradition."









The dance’s story is filled with drama around religion, culture, and politics. It was banned during British colonial rule and revitalized during the Indian independence movement, during which it was taken from temples into secular spaces. Asha, who was born in Mumbai in 1952, first encountered Bharata Natyam during an era of national cultural revitalization in a newly independent India.

"I started learning dance when I was very young. My mother and my grandmother tell me that my early classes they took me in the perambulator…so I was that young," says Asha. "Many people were doing it. We didn’t have television, we didn’t have computers, there was no digital media. So, you could just soak yourself into this dance form, and it was still a time when we had these masters…these teachers. They belonged to the traditional caste of gurus. They gave you a very strong foundation, but along with this art form we learned a whole way of life."

The dance's rich traditions and complicated techniques have enchanted Asha since she was a child. Her mastery of the form enabled her to travel and perform extensively across India as a professional dancer. Her desire to understand the dance's history and place within the broader dance community  led her to pursue two graduate degrees in dance – one in India and one in the United States at American University in Washingto D.C.

"When I came to American University as part of our assignments we had to go to performances and write about them. I realized that as much as it was interesting and exhilarating, there was very little presence of our dance form in these colleges," says Asha. 

"They were happy offering them for one semester, but not [as] a regular instituted program in dance, and that set me thinking.  I did my master's thesis within the context of multicultural education [and] how do you make dance education more inclusive? The argument is that it is a multi-cultural society, but the education system is still Eurocentric.”













Asha moved to North Carolina after completing her degree at American University to teach modern dance in the Cumberland County School system. She taught students about many different types of dance including Bharata Natyam. From there, she went on to teach at Fayetteville State University, the India Foundation, and finally at Leela School of Dance in Cary. Many of her students are Leela are part of our state's Indian diaspora community. 

"They are very much a part of American culture," says Asha, "But for the time they are with me…there is a switch, and they become connected to their roots in India.”

All told, Asha's educated over 500 North Carolinians about Bharata Natyam, and she wants the dance to reach new audiences beyond the diaspora community. Asha views winning the North Carolina Heritage Award as a victory for the dance itself.

"Growing up in India, being a dancer, you are a part of a cultural environment where this dance is so highly respected, and it has such a presence in the country, such a standing in the country. It is the cultural heritage. It is respected as one of the national treasures of the country," says Asha. 

"When I came over here, I was surprised to see that there was very little presence of this dance in this national cultural stage of this country. A dance form of this complexity, of this richness, of this depth, needs to be front and center, and this is one step that gets it closer to the national cultural fabric of this country. It shouldn’t just be limited to diaspora. It should become part of a bigger conversation of this country, and that is what I want to be able to do, to advocate for this art form. If I’m able to do that, that will be great. I don’t know if I can, but I will try.”



Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.


In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

50 for 50: Tony Williamson

Story by Sandra Davidson | Archival photos courtesy Tony Williamson

Friday, March 16, 2018

Tony Williamson's musical journey has taken him all over. It’s carried him to stages around the world where he’s played with bluegrass greats like Bill Monroe, Sam Bush, and Ricky Skaggs. It’s transported him into a hospital room where he was told he’d never play music again, and it’s led him to an Ashram in Taiwan, where he sought reinvention through Eastern philosophy. But before the big successes, crippling accidents, and spiritual awakenings, there was his family’s home in rural Randolph county and that’s where it all began.  It was there where he first picked a guitar, plucked a banjo, and strummed the strings of a mandolin - an instrument he was destined to meet 

In this special 50 for 50 podcast, meet Tony Williamson a 2018 North Carolina Heritage Recipient and mandolin virtuoso. 


“I know my family never saw music as a vocation...as a way to make money. For them music was fun, was joyous, was relaxation, was like playing ball.”  

Tony Williamson grew up immersed in the sounds and culture of North Carolina’s Piedmont. His grandfather - who built his own instruments - and his father were both mill-workers. He and his brother Gary learned to play by listening to the music their father made with friends from the mill every Friday night.  Like so many mandolin-players, Tony’s life changed forever when he saw Bill Monroe Play.  

“My cousin took me to hear Bill Monroe when I was nine years old," says Tony. "I was already playing the mandolin with my family, you know just kind of fooling around. But when I heard Bill Monroe....he had such a commanding presence in his singing and in the way he ran his show and in the energy...and then he would take a mandolin break and we’d all just lose our minds.” 

After that Tony doubled down on the mandolin. He learned to play every Bill Monroe song he could get his hands on. By 1969, he was racking up mandolin prizes from fiddle conventions across the Piedmont and he and his brother’s band The Bluegrass Gentleman were a regional sensation.  Then in 1970, he was selected to go to Governor's School, a residential summer program for academically gifted high school students.

“It was like a whole new world opened up for me," says Tony. "There [was] this incredible library of all this stuff, and there are other kinds of music, and art and literature. And so I start[ed] writing some pretty cool things. I expanded the harmonic range so that I can include more than just a song, more than just a story...but an actual multi-dimensional feeling.” 













After getting a degree at UNC-Chapel Hill, Tony moved to Kentucky and play music professionally. Over the next few years his reputation as a mandolinist grew, and he played with the likes of Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe and Bobby Hicks. Despite the singular experiences he had on the road and living in Kentucky, Tony couldn’t escape the harsh realities of the music business.  

“I kind of hit a brick wall. I really wasn’t all that successful financially. We just couldn’t get anywhere in the business. In retrospect it’s because we really didn’t understand the business of music which is a completely different aspect than being a musician.  

So in the early 1980s Tony moved back to North Carolina where he bought a farm and built a log cabin with his father. At some point he thought he’d never play music again. 

“I remember one of my students came up here to see me because I wasn’t out there playing," says Tony. "He said, 'You told me one time you’ve never swing a hammer because you care about your hands.' And I said 'Well I finally figured out that nobody gave a damn about my music.' I said that to him. I think that’s when the cosmic forces decided we need to slap this boy down. So I had a series of accidents, and I was told by an orthopedic guy in Chapel Hill that I would never play music again…and I entered into a dismal, dismal part of my life.” 













During that dark period, Tony opened Mandolin Central where he started trading and selling antique mandolins. In the years that followed the accidents, he sought relief through acupuncture and a retreat at an Ashram in Tawain. Today Mandolin Central has grown into an internationally known business and mandolin archive that’s drawn mandolin enthusiasts from around the world, and Tony is back on the mandolin playing pain free. 

When he’s not on the road, you’re more than likely to find Tony spending time with his wife and dogs at his farm in Pittsboro, N.C. Over the years musicians he’s mentored - like Andrew Marlin of Mandolin Orange and Chris Thile of Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers - have visited him there to play and to learn. A true renaissance man, Tony’s approach to mentoring and to creating mirrors his philosophy of being. 

“I definitely model the behavior I want. I think that’s completely silly not to. You can’t do that.  It’s absolutely important to create a kind of vibration in yourself and attract people who want to be a part of that vibration, and part of my role as a mentor is to show them how to stay on course.” 



Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.


In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

50 for 50: Glenn and Lula Bolick

Story by Sandra Davidson

Monday, March 5, 2018

2018 North Carolina Heritage Award recipients Glenn and Lula Bolick have carried many traditions of North Carolina's mountains and piedmont into the 21st century through the pottery and music they've made together for over 50 years. In this special podcast profile, Lula, a fifth-generation potter from Seagrove, NC, and Glenn, a fifth-generation sawmiller from Caldwell County, reflect on their lifetime commitment to preserving and sharing their family traditions.

This episode features music by Phil Cook and the Bolick Family.









If there were such a thing as North Carolina pottery royalty, then Lula Bolick comes from it. The rich piedmont clay that lies just beneath the topsoil drew her family to Seagrove over a hundred years before it was the pottery destination it is today, and Seagrove is North Carolina's most famous pottery community in part because of her family's work. Her great-grandfather founded Seagrove's Owen's Pottery in the late 1800s. But Lula didn't start throwing her own pots until after she married her husband Glenn Bolick. Glenn was born and raised in Bailey's Camp, a mountain community just outside of Blowing Rock. 

Glenn grew up surrounded by music, storytelling, and sawmilling. He comes from a long line of craftsmen who've worked timber of the Appalachians as sawmillers since the 1880s. 













Glenn and Lula met in the parking lot of a drive-thru grill in 1962. At the time, Lula was working third-shift at a local hosiery factory and Glenn was working at a nearby quarry as a rock crusher. They married several months later.

Glenn learned pottery under the tutelage of Lula's father, who had a booming pottery business in Seagrove.  In 1973, Glenn and Lula bought back his family farm in Caldwell County where they moved to start their own pottery business. 

"It wasn't easy when we moved here," says Lula. "He worked at a paper mill, sawmills, [and as a] rock crusher down at Lenoir before we actually made it with pottery. We didn't have an already established business. We had to do it ourselves."

Today Glenn and Lula's family farm includes an antique sawmill, a pottery studio and shop, and a stage where they hosted bluegrass jams for years. They have taken their pottery and music to folk festivals and fairs across the state, and today their daughter Janet Calhoun and her husband Michael continue the pottery tradition through their pottery business Traditions. 

Glenn, Lula and Janet will perform in their family band at the North Carolina Heritage Awards Ceremony on May 23. Tickets to the North Carolina Heritage Awards are available at here.



Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.


In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

50 for 50: Scotty McCreery

Story by Sandra Davidson | Archival footage courtesy Scotty McCreery

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Scotty McCreery was only 17 when he won American Idol in 2011. Viewers of the hit singing competition TV series fell in love with his authentic charm and powerful deep voice, which also impressed the show’s judges. During his audition tape, judge Randy Jackson remarked, “Dude. Love you. Love that you’re a throwback country guy singing low like that.”

It was and remains a fair characterization of Scotty’s music.

Eight years after Idol, Scotty is on the brink of releasing Seasons Change, his fourth studio album which drops on March 16. A life-long fan of old-school country—think George Jones, Conway Twitty and Ronnie Milsap—fans can expect the new album to be even more country than his previous three, which included the platinum-certified Clear as Day (2011) and gold-certified Christmas with Scotty McCreery.

The bright lights and big achievements haven’t blinded Scotty to his roots. Scotty spends most of his downtime in North Carolina. Success has only made him more grateful for where he’s from.  





We are here today in the Garner Performing Arts Center, so it seems fitting to begin by talking about growing up in Garner. What was it like?

I sang here quite a few times in my early days! It’s cool to be back here. Garner was a great place to grow up. They really embraced the arts. Garner had that small-town feel. High school football was king. Everybody would come out to the performances we had for chorus. I was in music education in schools from a very young age. They nurtured my love for singing and music and [they taught me] how to create music. It was huge for me to go to school and to have a whole hour to sing. That was my favorite time of day, every day.

What music did you grow up listening to?

My goodness. I was a young guy in the early nineties and 2000s, and all my friends were listening to the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC—and they’ve got some jams—but I listened to a lot of the older country music….Elvis Presley, Conway Twitty, Ronnie Milsap, Dolly, and Loretta. The older traditional music influenced me, and you can see that in my music today.





Why were you drawn to that kind of music?

I’m not sure what it exactly was. I do remember when I was like five-years-old my grandma gave me a book all about Elvis Presley, and I read it cover to cover and wanted all his CDs. I had a cassette with Elvis on one side and Little Richard on the other, and I wore that thing out. That’s just what I gravitated towards. That’s just who I am.

Do you see a connection between the values you were raised around and the type of music you like to make?

Absolutely. Elvis was from a very small town [and so were] a lot of the other folks. They’re just typical hard-working folks who grew up and had a chance to sing music. That was me! I was a local grocery store bagger here in Garner, and all of a sudden, I got this big chance and now I get to sing country music for a living. I never forget my roots or where I came from. The values I learned here — hard work, perseverance, dedication to what you’re doing — it’s stuff that I still carry over today, and I try to sing about.

How has North Carolina influenced the way you think about music and make music?

There were a lot of big acts from North Carolina that I listened to growing up. Randy Travis and Ronny Millsap are two guys I listened to constantly. Every artist is different, but I try to think about their sounds, their music, their words, how they told a story when I’m writing songs.

You're six years out from American Idol. How has your relationship to this state changed?

I think over the years I’ve gotten a better appreciation for Garner [and] for North Carolina. Especially with all the traveling I’m doing. They say there’s no place like home, and that’s the truth. Nothing beats getting back home, seeing my old friends, going back to the high school and seeing old teachers. I think my appreciation for North Carolina’s just gone up. I love this place. I really do.



Scotty's original audition for American Idol.









"Five More Minutes" is the first single off Scotty McCreery's upcoming album "Seasons Change."



What’s it like to play music for North Carolinians after being on the road?

 Nothing beats North Carolina to me. I’ve traveled all the way around the world. I’ve hit every state in this country except Alaska, but I’ve never found any place like North Carolina. It’s like a homecoming for me every time. It’s cool to see the [people] that gave me the support through the show. I really appreciate them.

Are there places in Garner or in North Carolina that you visit when you’re seeking creative inspiration?

There are a lot of little places I like to go to recharge the batteries and get creative in North Carolina. Recently my favorite spot has been the mountains. I only went there to ski when I was younger, but in the last three or four years I’ve really rediscovered the place in the summer and found swimming holes and hiked, and it’s just cool to get away from the hustle and bustle of everything and be out there in nature. It’s refreshing.

A number of North Carolinians have done well on American Idol. What do you think that’s about?

I don’t know! I do think North Carolina tries very hard to nurture the arts, to embrace the arts, and to teach the arts. I’m sure that has a lot to do with it. Also, I just think there’s a lot of crazy talented folks. I’m just amazed [by] the incredible local talent around Garner.

How can we better support and engage artists?

When I was growing up the schools were really all about the arts, and they’re still pretty good…but nowadays they’re cutting funding in certain parts of the school and the first place they always want to look is the arts, and I’m like no! That’s where folks learn to think outside of the box, think creatively, think differently than the person sitting right next to them at their desk. Everybody knows the exact formulas for math and science, but there’s no one way to do music or arts, so for that’s my biggest thing…really supporting the arts in the schools.



Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.


In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

50 for 50: Debra Austin

Story by Sandra Davidson | Archival Images Courtesy Debra Austin 

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Debra Austin was only nine years old when her first ballet instructor told her she didn’t have talent. Seven years later, Debra became the first African-American woman invited to join the famed New York City Ballet. She toured the world with the company before moving to Switzerland to join the Zurich Ballet. Debra made history again, when she joined the Philadelphia-based Pennsylvania Ballet in 1982, making her the first African-American female principal dancer in a major American ballet company. It’s a good thing she sought a second opinion about her talent. 

Today Debra is a ballet mistress at Carolina Ballet, where she works with Robert “Ricky” Weiss, her former artistic director at the Pennsylvania Ballet. 



In 1982, Debra Austin made history when she joined the Pennsylvania Ballet, making her the first African-American female principal dance in a major American ballet company.



How did you get into dancing?

I began dancing when I was nine. I went to a local ballet school next door to me. The teacher there was a Rockette from the Radio City Music Hall, and she told my parents [that] I had no talent. My parents said, “Well if she has no talent we’re going to take her somewhere else. She’s 9-years-old for God’s sake.” So they took me to Christine Neubert’s Academy of Dance, a studio in Carnegie Hall. My teacher [there] was Barbara Walczak, who was a soloist in the New York City Ballet, so from the time I was nine, I had really good training.

When I was 11, Barbara Walzack lured Diana Adams - who was the director of the School of American Ballet - to come and see me because she thought she’d done enough for me. Diana Adams came and watched my class, and said I needed to work on my feet which is funny because I don’t really have bad feet, but she said, “We’ll take her on full scholarship when she’s 12.”

When you go to the School of American ballet, you have to go to a professional children’s school, and you have to pay for that too, so I was really lucky because I got a full ride balletically and half a ride education wise. If it wasn’t for the Ford Foundation scholarship, I don’t know whether I’d have been given that opportunity. My parents definitely would not have been able to afford to send me to the School of American Ballet. I was really very fortunate.

So clearly you did have talent.

I did have talent I guess!

The minute I started doing it, it just became something I really wanted to do. I knew when I was 10 years old that this is where I want to be, this is where I want to go, and this is my dream. I’ve been doing this my whole life, and I’m thrilled that I was given that opportunity because I don’t know what else I would have done. I’ve been fortunate enough to still work in dance, and my husband works in dance, so for two people to get jobs in the same place in a community that’s not New York City or Chicago is just a miracle.

What did you like about dancing? How did you feel when you danced?

It was thrilling. Performing is such a gift. The fact that I became a principal dancer – it’s even a bigger gift because you get to be out there by yourself. The applause is for you. Even though when you’re in the core, that’s important too. I was there as well. When that curtain comes down and the curtain goes back up, and you’re bowing, and you’re amongst 16 girls, you still are a part of that production. It’s quite thrilling. It’s exciting.

You were invited to join the New York City Ballet at 16. Tell me about that day. 

Mr. Balanchine came into class and watched the class. [After he left I remember] they went and told two girls that Balanchine had taken them into the company, and they came to me and said, “We need your mother to call us.” I was like, “Oh no what does that mean? They didn’t take me? What are they going to tell me?” Arthur Mitchell had just started Dance Theatre of Harlem, and I was really scared they were going to say,” I think you need to go to the Dance Theatre of Harlem.” At that time we didn’t have cell phones, and we used dimes – believe it or not – to make phone calls. So I put my dime in the machine, I call my mother at work, and I say, “Mom you have to call this school immediately. I want to know what’s going on. I’m so scared.” She called the school, and I called her back. She said, “Debbie! Balanchine is taking you into the company.”

I never became a soloist there, but I danced soloist parts. I did dance a lot of principal parts in the New York City Ballet, and George Balanchine choreographed a solo for me. I have my signature solo in a ballet called Ballo Della Regina.

















Classical ballet has a history of racial discrimination.  How did this show up in your own experience as a professional ballerina? 

Arthur Mitchell [was] the first [black] male principal dancer in the New York City Ballet. After Martin Luther King was assassinated, Arthur decided he wanted to retire and start his own ballet company, and George Balanchine helped him. Lincoln Kirstein, who was the founder of the New York City Ballet, helped Arthur as well. So Arthur started the Dance Theater of Harlem, and Arthur wanted me to join, but my eye was set on the New York City Ballet. Balanchine had just taken me into the company. I wasn’t going to leave at 17.

It’s always been a struggle. I don’t really know why there’s that problem. I just think some people believe if you have a darker skin person out there amongst a lot of “white swans” [they] don’t blend in as well...that they don’t fit in.

In 1982 you became the first African American principal dancer for a major dance company when you joined the Pennsylvania Ballet. Were people talking about that back then? Was it a big deal?

No. Ricky, who is director of Carolina Ballet, was my director in Pennsylvania Ballet. There is a really funny story. We did La Sylphide, and the person who was staging it said, “I don’t really see her as a sylph.” And Ricky went, “Why?” and she said, “Well I’ve just never seen a black sylph before.” And he goes, “Have you ever seen a sylph before?”

So there you have it. It’s just what people perceive. The sylph is literally a white butterfly. Was that person saying something because they didn’t believe there would be a black sylph? Or just you know…I don’t see that happening in my vision?’

But Ricky was colorblind, and that was great. I was fortunate.





When did you come to North Carolina?

My husband was dancing for Miami City Ballet, and he was ready to retire. Ricky had just been given this opportunity to start the Carolina Ballet, and he said, “If it all works out in a year…if I raise the money, I would like you and Debbie to come join me.”

How would you describe North Carolina’s ballet community?

It’s amazing. Audiences love it. We get standing ovations. Ricky does a wonderful job and Zalman Raffael, our new resident choreographer, he’s 29 and he really does some beautiful ballets, and the audiences love the work.

How has Carolina Ballet changed?

You had to develop the dancers. We had to put on performances and make them look like they’re supposed to look – seasoned. They stepped up to the plate, and they continue to do it.

I think when you’re giving the community what they want to see, then it works. When the curtain goes up and the curtain goes down, and they’ve enjoyed themselves and want to come back and see it again that’s the most important thing.

What has dance taught you about life?

That you can be who you want to be and you can do what you want to do.

When you think about your career, what are you proudest of?

I think doing some of the full-length ballets [and] being given the opportunity to dance the role of La Sylphide or Giselle which were never danced by black dancers before. I’m most proud of those.

Why do you think public funding for the arts is important?

Without paintings without music without dance…. what kind of society could we be?

The arts bring so much love and so much education. When you take away the arts, you’re taking away so much education for children. It’s funny. Sometimes I teach at local ballet schools, and I’ll see one of my [former] students [all] grown up at the ballet. They become our future audience.



Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.


In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

50 for 50: Sylvan Esso

Story by Sandra Davidson

Thursday, January 25, 2018

There’s something special about Durham’s arts scene. If you’ve followed our 50 for 50 project, you know that by now. Sylvan Esso, the Durham-based electronic pop duo, knows that too.

Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn, who make music as Sylvan Esso, moved to North Carolina five years ago. Back then, Sylvan Esso was just beginning. Today they are arguably the Bull City’s most widely known band. Their songs and music videos have been streamed millions of times online, and last November their sophomore album “What Now” received a Grammy nomination for Best Dance/Electronic Album. Two days before they debuted a new single on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Amelia and Nick met me at their studio for a conversation about why they choose to make North Carolina their home.

Where did you each grow up?

Amelia Meath: I grew up in Cambridge, MA.

Nick Sanborn: I grew up in Madison, WI.

What brought you both down here?

Nick: I have been touring for most of my adult life, and this was the only place I’d ever been where I immediately felt like it was a place that I could live. I’ve never thought that about any other place I’ve been on tour. I immediately liked it. I think it’s because it’s so much like Wisconsin. The people are very similar.

I started playing with the band Megafaun because we knew each other from Wisconsin, so I started coming down here four or five times a year for work, and then eventually just decided I wanted to stop flying here all the time and moved.

Amelia: I had just gotten done playing backup for Feist and was living in Brooklyn. We had just started the band, and I came to visit and liked it and moved here for six months. That was five years ago.





Why is this a good place to do your work?

Nick: A lot of things make North Carolina a perfect place for a musician. The cost of living being low and service jobs being a-plenty is the crucial bedrock. I try to imagine if I had grown up somewhere else where it wasn’t possible to have a job that you left all the time and a place that you lived and a practice space. Being able to get a practice space is so crucial and so impossible in other places on a bartender’s or a delivery driver’s earnings. In that way this place is kind of perfect. That’s all really doable. But it’s more than that.

Amelia: The scene in the Triangle and in North Carolina is really, really supportive. I think everyone’s just deeply excited about what everyone else is doing and whenever anyone has a show usually at least half of us show up.

Nick: [All of] that has drawn this insane group of musicians here, all of whom are working together all of the time, so there’s this bed of inspiration that keeps bouncing back and forth and careening off the walls. Then the other part [is] the average person here goes to a lot of events a year and wants to! That’s super rare [and] I don’t think people who have grown up here get how rare [it] is, but that’s just a part of what everybody does. If something sounds like a good idea people will pay and go to it, which sounds like a low bar but—

Amelia: —It’s rare.

Nick: So rare and so wonderful and it means all of these things can happen that otherwise wouldn’t be able to happen. It means that the birth of a thing is so much easier, that it doesn’t have to go through these stages of pulling teeth…of dragging people out to things. There’s this great element to the culture here where everybody wants to help something good happen and does so non-competitively.

Amelia: And there’s a lot of other stuff going on as well as music. We’ve got ADF. We’ve got Full Frame. We’ve got a number of theatre companies. There’s a plethora of different artistic pursuits happening which is so refreshing, and I know all the people that do those things. It’s very different when the scene is so small that you can see everyone at the farmers market and say, “Hey! Hi!”













Talk more about the spirit of collaboration here. You collectively have worked on soundtracks and with other Triangle musicians. How does that fit into your life here?

Amelia: Here’s the thing...if we’re home and someone asks us to do something, we’re going to do it. It’s so fun to be involved. I wrote a song on Phil [Cook]’s record with him that’s coming out soon. I got to sing with Hiss Golden Messenger a bunch. It’s just a different way of hanging out with friends.

Nick: I think there’s this magical thing where that stuff’s just all happening all the time, which is a thing people associate with much larger cities, but it’s constant here. We started this weird little studio house like a year ago, and it’s been full pretty much since we first set up a microphone in it.

Amelia: And people have started coming here to make records from out of town and working with musicians that are here, which is also really exciting.

Nick: It just feels like this constantly stirring thing. It’s always feeding us. Right when we moved here I put on this show at Duke Performances. It was a show [with] all my friends who tended to be musicians in other people’s bands. We did this entirely collaborative show where we each backed up each other [and] rotated the front man. I can’t imagine having done that in any other place that I’ve lived and having it be that easy. Aaron Greenwald from Duke Performances it the only reason that show happened!

Amelia: We love you Aaron Greenwald!

Nick:  Yeah thanks Aaron! I wouldn’t have even thought to do that had he not sought me out and demanded that I put a show together. I think that set a tone for my relationship with the entire creative community here. It felt like I was stepping into a place where not only did everybody want cool things to happen, but they wanted to be a part of them, and if they weren’t happening they came and knocked on your door and made sure you came out and did something. That’s just not the case everywhere.  

How can North Carolina better support artists?

Nick: I know this isn’t you guys but those film subsidies going away were a huge deal. Like most musicians, I’ve worked in a lot of film myself and have a ton of friends who work in film. It’s just one of those no-brainers. It pays for itself so many times over. I never understand why states take them away because they bring in so much business for a creative class and all that does is generate income for everybody. That would be a gigantic win for North Carolina’s creative force. Look at other states where that’s happening right now! New Mexico is having a film renaissance because their film subsidy [went] up. They gave film companies tax breaks and [had] the arrival of Meow Wolf. All it took was these two pieces to get in motion to enable an entire group of creative people to bring back entire sections of a town.

Amelia: And [it involved] people who wouldn’t have necessarily been creative in the first place, and I think that’s the thing that makes me really excited when I think of a utopian North Carolina.

Art is created by people who have time, and time is only available to those who can afford to have it. The more people we can give time to, the more art we’ll create.

Nick: Which trickles into everything. It’s all-intersectional. The affordability of real estate and the cost of living affects the creative class anywhere. [In] Durham right now the rents are going up like crazy. If I moved here now, it’s not a place that I would be able to do the thing that I’m talking about.

Why do you believe public funding for the arts is important?

Nick: Why do you think Google is here? I think a thriving arts scene makes a city a desirable place to go and live and start a business. Where do you want to live? What do you want to be happening in the place that you live? Do you want everybody just to wake up and go to work and go home? What would be the purpose of living in a city? Why do I want to tell people that this is a great place?

Amelia: It’s the food. It’s the music. It’s the people.

Nick: It’s the things that are happening. It’s the energy of the city.

Amelia: Art is enriching [and] Durham has always been full of amazing art makers.



Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.


In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

50 for 50: David Joy

Story by Sandra Davidson

Thursday, January 18, 2018

David Joy’s had a big 2017: Putnam published The Weight of This World, his second novel which was described by the New York Times as “bleakly beautiful;” he wrote a much-acclaimed essay for The Bitter Southerner, and was published in the magazine Garden & Gun. This up-and-coming western North Carolina author opens up about his career, his relationship to North Carolina, and how receiving an artist fellowship from the North Carolina Arts Council in 2016 helped his career in our 50 for 50 interview. 





Your novels are set in Jackson County, and you’ve said you write about that place because it’s the only place you know. Will you describe your personal and creative relationship with that place? 

I grew up in Charlotte. All my daddy’s family’s been there since the late 1600s. My momma’s family was in the mountains in Wilkesboro. I moved up here when I was 18. I’ve been here ever since. What I found here was an older set of values that reminded me very much of the people and place that I felt had vanished from where I grew up. I think that’s part of the tie here…finding people that reminded me of my grandmother or my grandmother’s people.  

If I think about my work in the sense of a canvas, when I start to work the canvas isn’t blank in that there’s already place. Typically, when a story comes to me the place is already there, and the characters kind of crawl themselves out of that land. I think that’s indicative of Southerners in general, but especially in Appalachia. People and place here is kind of this inseparable thing. 

When did you begin writing? 

I grew up in a family of storytellers. They were oral storytellers which is an entirely different craft. I never could really tell a story orally, but I recognized early on that I was capable of doing so on the page. That was very, very early. There was an old typewriter in my house, and I can remember the way it smelled. It’s a very vivid memory. I wrote stories on that before I could spell. I would tell my mom what I wanted to say, and she’d dictate how to spell it. So, I was writing stories since I was tiny. When I went to college, I’d probably written a thousand pages. I probably wrote another thousand pages there. Looking back, I don’t think any of it was any good until maybe a year before I wrote that first novel, but I think I was always progressing towards what I’m doing now…it’s just I’m a pretty slow study I guess! 









Did you have a moment where you thought to yourself I know I want to be a writer? 

I’d say a couple of different things. I always took writing very seriously. I can remember writing something in high school [for an] assignment. We had to write a poem. Everybody had to get in front of the class and read this poem. I can remember nobody in the class cared; the teacher didn’t care – nobody cared! But I remember how much effort I put into those words and how much it meant to me. It meant something to me. And it didn’t mean anything to anybody else in the room. I think I was always different in that way. 

I can remember to the first time I ever heard Silas House read, and he sounded like me. He had an accent that was incredibly thick, and hearing that and getting the chance to see him and witness him and hear his story that night really affected me. Hearing somebody like Silas House read a story that could have very easily been a story that someone like my grandmother would have come up with…I think that meant something to me. 

Lastly, I’m not very good at anything else. I’ve forced myself to be able to make a living out of this because I can’t imagine spending my life doing anything else.  

There’s a big step from deciding that and making that happen.  

I was lucky to have some great teachers early on who pointed me in the right direction of people I needed to be reading [and] who helped me understand language. Looking back that was Diedre Elliot at Western Carolina University and Ron Rash. Ron is still a good friend of mind and a good mentor. More than anything else, I think with Ron it was watching him work and getting the chance to witness his craft. I was lucky to be there before he was a household name. I really got to see his rise and bear witness to that and bear witness to how hard he worked. I think that work ethic is one of the keys. Ron comes from cotton-farmer, tobacco-farmer people just like I do. That mentality carries on. He works harder than just about anybody I can imagine, and I try to do the same.  





How did that first novel Where All Light Tends to Go come together? 

I never was going to take no for an answer. I took a job as a receptionist, and I was working another job at night, and I was writing a novel. I’d be at my first job at 8 [and] stay there until 5. I’d get off and I’d go to my second job at 5:30. I’d get home at 10, I’d eat, then I’d start working about 10:30. I’d work until 4 in the morning. I did that until the book was done because I felt compelled to do so. I needed to tell a story, and that was the only time I had so that’s what I did. After that I sent a letter to an agent…the agent liked it. She asked to see the full manuscript, and I wound up signing with her. Later down the road she sold it.  

I can remember one of the first times I was in New York City. I was in this big hotel overlooking the whole city, and I remember standing there in that window and being moved to tears thinking that what brought me there was a letter. I’d never been anywhere! I’d never left North Carolina. The only way I’d made it out of North Carolina was I put a letter in the mail. I think there’s been a lot of things that have fallen in place for me, and at the same time I’ve had to work incredibly hard to try and make it a reality.  

You received an Artist Fellowship from the North Carolina Arts Council around that time. How did that help your career? 

I’d signed a book deal for Where All Light Tends to Go, and that novel was coming out, but at the time they asked what I was working on, and I spitballed an idea. I hadn’t even written a word, and they said we want it, so I wound up signing a two-book deal. I didn’t even have a sentence. At that point, I had about a 7-month deadline. I knew I had to really focus on that, so I quit my job and started going at it full-time.  

You probably would have had to on that deadline. 

Yeah! It’s one thing to say I want to be a full-time writer. It’s another thing to try and keep yourself fed and keep the lights on while you’re pursuing that.

Looking back, I think that’s the major way that fellowship helped me. It helped me keep the lights on. The amount of time and dedication that it takes to put in the work to create a good book…[it] takes absolute focus. Fellowships allow an artist to put all that focus into the work. You look at the work that these fellowships are funding, and the reality is it wouldn’t happen without it because otherwise you’d have to do something else. At the end of the day, I’m not going to go homeless because I couldn’t make it work. If it hadn’t worked, I would have gone out and taken another job.  


David Joy spoke on Weekend Edition about any essay he wrote for the Bitter Southerner:

Beyond your personal experience with it – why do you think public funding for the arts matters? 

When I think about how my tax dollars are spent, I can’t imagine a single better way for my money to be spent than education and art. To think of how much of our tax dollars go to things like defense budgets is terrifying, and to think that people want to strip away what tiny bit goes to support art and culture is disturbing. George Saunders had this idea about fiction. He said fiction serves as empathy’s training wheels. When he said that, I thought that’s exactly right. Fiction allows you to walk in somebody else’s shoes, and that’s an incredibly powerful thing. Literature has the capacity and the power to open doors and open eyes. I think all art carries that power, and I don’t know that I’ve ever felt that the world needs empathy more than right this second.

We are in a very fragile and volatile time where everybody is angry and everybody is pointing the finger at someone who’s not like them. I can’t think of a cure for that besides art. I don’t think there’s anything that can heal that but art.  

Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

If I think about some of the best literature coming out of the South in the past 30-40 years, it’s coming out of North Carolina. It’s writers like Jill McCorkle, Lee Smith, Tim McLaurin and Ron Rash. I think we’re lucky in the sense that we’ve had a very, very rich tradition, and we’re very, very grounded and rooted to this place.    



Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.


In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

50 for 50: M.C. Taylor and Phil Cook

Story by Sandra Davidson

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

M.C. Taylor and Phil Cook are anchors of Durham's indie music community. Phil is known for making music with his band Megafaun and The Guitarheels and for playing in M.C.'s American folk band Hiss Golden Messenger, an outfit widely praised for its genre-blending soul-searching music. 

Both M.C. and Phil transplanted to North Carolina in the mid 2000s, and they met each other in 2012 at a Hiss Golden Messenger album release show in Chapel Hill. They started working together the following week.

Collaboration, community, and a deep appreciation for southern music bind Phil and M.C. together, and last summer they reflected on all those things in an interview recorded at Brad Cook's (Phil's brother and M.C.'s manager) studio, where they've recorded many Hiss Golden Messenger songs. Listen to the interview on the latest episode of the podcast Arts Across NC or read an edited extended transcript of the conversation below.


This episode featured original music created by Phil Cook for the 50 for 50 project, and excerpts from two Hiss Golden Messenger songs: Caledonia and Heart Like a Levee.

You're both North Carolina transplants. What brought you here...and what makes this a good place to be a working artist?

M.C. Taylor: First of all there is a deep musical history here that I’m interested in that has been important to me to my formation as a musician. The thing that drew me to this place at the very beginning was that I wanted to live in the South because I love southern cultures, and I knew that if I had any hope of understanding it on a deeper level I had to be here. 

Phil Cook: Same. Same. Same. 

M.C.: Yeah. But you know [even] with having this musical foundation here people are also willing to push at it and stretch it and grow it and evolve it, and that’s also important. I and Phil and everybody in the band recognizes and understands the debt that we owe to all kinds of American music that was born here in the South especially in the Piedmont region, but also we live in the 21st Century and we’re doing our own thing. I feel like I can walk out my front door and be in touch with all of that. Someone was here doing an interview with me a couple of years ago from England, and I was able to drive them down Pettigrew Street and show them where Blind Boy Fuller would have played outside of the tobacco warehouse on payday. If you’re into American music, that’s a marker of American music. You could go find where Reverend Gary Davis lived. You can listen to an Etta Baker recording and know that she was doing her thing just a couple hours from here. Having that foundation to me as an artist is really important. 

Phil: My favorite thing about this place that I keep taking away from it is we all recognize the journey in each other.

I love seeing all these different artists and songwriters and producers and people that have these common goals of making great records [and] making great music.

We have a big opportunity in front of us to just coalesce all of that and realize we’re all on that same path and all on that same mission. It doesn’t matter what scene we’re talking about ...if we’re talking about the jazz and the hip-hop scene which is so vital and living in Durham [or] if we’re talking about our songwriters scene and things that are more folk-based [or] things that are more bluegrass-based like Mandolin Orange and Mipso...we all have started to recognize and see each other in the last five years. I think that's a great foundation to build community on: the artists all finding each other in the night and the evening and the dawns of our existences and just realizing we’re on that same path together. We’re all trying to do that same thing. 

How has your creative collaboration impacted your individual work?

Phil: Finding Mike and meeting Mike made me realize all these things that had been true about myself since the beginning of my musical journey that were just there all along. He opened up my own permission to realize how many skills I wasn’t using that have been there the whole time that are the most familiar to me. The most sacred things to me ended up actually becoming the focal point of how I was in a band and understood how to really be in a band for real. It was like working in my first kitchen. That gave me the confidence to open up my own kitchen because I see the formula and the ingredients for making something that is meaningful and something that speaks to people especially because it just has to speak from you. It has to speak from exactly where you’re at in an honest way with integrity and vulnerability, and that’s I think Mike’s biggest strength as a songwriter. He’s able to just open himself up and talk about his kids and his family and his wife and also just talk about where he’s at with his relationship with the universe. 

M.C.: I mean here’s a crazy thing to think about...before Phil started playing in Hiss, he wasn’t playing piano in Megafaun. I mean come to a Hiss Golden Messenger show and watch Phil play and just remember that when he started playing in Hiss, he had put his piano playing on the shelf. Now he’s also one of the great guitar players of our time in my opinion.

Phil: That is so nice.

M.C.: [And] people see that more. But it’s really been transformative to what we do in Hiss. I guess I kind of forced you to do it but...

Phil: ...That’s great. It’s still the thing that’s my favorite go to...realizing how comfortable I am sitting in a piano bench and sitting in front of your music. I realize over and over again this is exactly where I need to be.



Durham-based musician Phil Cook, who moved to North Carolina from Wisconsin in the early 2000s, reflects on why he loves living and working here.









Musician and folklorist M.C. Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger, a widely praised American folk band based in Durham, says the best job he had outside of playing music was working for the North Carolina Arts Council. Learn more at www.ncarts50.org.



How does a song come together for you guys? 

M.C.: I spend a lot of time alone when I’m writing a song. Phil and Brad his brother can read music. They have a pretty serious understanding of theory which I don’t have, so it takes me a long time when I’m writing a song to understand what the landscape is in terms of the harmonic content of a tune and melodically. So I usually sit with a guitar and do my thing [and] get the lyrical idea down. Then I bring it to Phil and he helps me understand what’s happening in the song. The most important thing for me at that stage is that I can show Phil what part of the song I really like and feel we need to emphasize because it pulls at the heart in a way, and then Phil can say, “Oh well that’s because there is this happening in the song...because there is this interval that is pulling right there."

Phil: It’s a burden of knowledge. I’m thankful for my burden of theory knowledge. So he’ll come to us with a pocket of songs. He’ll write in these really great cycles. I’ve written 10 songs [total as a solo artist], so it's a longer trajectory for me. The last thing that happens is I write lyrics. I’ve got probably 300 to 400 thirty second voice memo clips on my phone that are just me screwing around and playing guitar for 10 minutes. Then in the tour van if I see a long drive ahead of us I just scroll through them all, and I name them something like “Noodle Boy 1A” [or] “Sub noodlist 7B” or if it’s really good I’ll just put a thumbs up emojicon next to it. Then I have to somehow turn those thirty second things into a three minute song with the others sorts of ideas that I have. That’s our process for writing separately and together.

M.C.: Yeah I tend to just throw songs out and not everything is perfect. A lot of the stuff is junk and this would be stuff nobody’s ever heard except for me. Phil…if you hear Southland Mission (Phil's first solo record) that’s just a meticulously crafted album. It’s pretty watertight in a really beautiful way. It’s like a really beautifully cut gem. Hiss Golden Messenger...sometimes that vessel is a little leaky. But that’s okay. I’m okay with that. I think there’s a place in art to be really exacting and just follow the vision to the very, very end. Then there’s also a place to leave imperfections alone.

Phil: Absolutely.

M.C.: For me those are the things that I learn from. If I hear something on an old record, and I’m like "I wish that I would have fixed that," that’s always going to be a thing that lives for me as a reminder like a little flag that says remember that you can do again. Remember that you can do it better or remember to leave the imperfections in because it’s going to be a thing that gives you your bearings as you make art.

Why does public funding for the arts matter?

M.C.: I think public funding for the arts matters if you value culture and art.

I think that art is an important reflection of the places that we live and the things that we think are important.

I think on a cosmic level, the world is a lot less interesting of a place without place-specific artwork. There is less of that now than there once as. The way that we communicate with each other around the world now has sort of flattened culture. There was a time when you could hear a gospel quartet in North Carolina and you could tell what county they were from by what song they were singing [and] the way that their harmonies were working together. There’s less of that now. I personally think that's a beautiful thing, and I think that art doesn’t come free. It just doesn’t. If you want vibrant, progressive, rich art it’s gotta be paid for in someway. I think every little bit helps, but you have to figure a way to communicate that culture is important even when you can’t quantify it in the same way that you can a car. Culture is important because it tells other people who we are in the most beautiful way. That to me is something of value.

Phil: I think Mike speaks really beautifully about it. Since moving to North Carolina, I’ve had a pretty fair amount of experience teaching kids about art. I’ve taught rock band camps in both Raleigh and in Durham for about 10 years now, and making kids work together through music...I’ve just seen over and over again how many other things are at play there and how many other little pieces and little seeds are planted. Ten years later I'm able to run into those same kids and see [that] some of those camps really unlocked something for them because we weren’t just learning a rigid form of something that they needed to only recreate off of a staff paper. We were learning about how to play with something...how to actually manipulate sound, and how to work together with other people towards a common goal in a way that’s not a science project...in a way that they can add something to. I love seeing music be with somebody through their whole life. You’re just planting seeds when you’re helping kids [through the arts] and you don’t know what they’re going to sprout like, but they’re rarely not beautiful things when they blossom. 



Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.


In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

50 for 50: William Ivey Long

Story by Sandra Davidson | Archival images courtesy William Ivey Long

Monday, December 11, 2017

William Ivey Long has that spark of life the French call je ne sais quoi. Be it through the magnificent costumes he designs or the charm and wit he brings to even the most ordinary conversation, the six-time Tony Award-winning costume designer knows how to light up a room.

A prolific designer, Long’s worked on and off Broadway and in film, television, and operas. He's known nationally for his work on The ProducersYoung FrankensteinHairsprayNineGrey Gardens, and Cinderella, but here in the Tarheel State, Long is celebrated for his 45-year relationship with America's longest-running outdoor symphonic drama The Lost Colony. Though he primarily lives and creates in his Tribeca studio, he considers North Carolina - where he was born in 1947 - home. 



A costume can transform an actor, and no one knows this better than costumer designer William Ivey Long. He reflects on the evolution of his work and the magic that happens when an actor, or a dog, puts on a costume.











Long’s family is deeply rooted here. His direct ancestor was among the first graduating class at UNC-Chapel Hill, and he has vivid memories of time spent on his family's ancestral homestead in Seaboard, a tiny township in the Northeastern part of the state.

“Peanut climbing was my favorite thing, and chasing turkeys…[and] picking slugs from tobacco leaves,” he says. “I had a large collection. I think I tried to cook with them as a child.”

He grew up in the theater. His father was a drama professor and stage director, and his mother was a playwright, actress and drama teacher. The family spent every summer in Manteo working on The Lost Colony, and they even lived in the stage left dressing room of Raleigh Little Theatre for a number of years in the late 1940s.

When it comes to his career path, Long says, “The apple did not fall far from the tree.” 





















This fall the North Carolina based upholster manufacturing company Sunbrella commissioned Long to design four costumes inspired by famous French paintings for a special French edition of Elle Decor magazine. The assignment was simple: Long would choose the paintings and design the costumes and Sunbrella would provide the fabric.

Long was immediately drawn to challenge of creating costumes with upholstery fabric. “I was reminded that I once saw in a magazine an evening gown that was designed by Vivienne Westwood out of wall to wall carpeting,” says Long. “I thought that is the perfect goal! That just hit my funny bone.”

Long selected paintings by Pierre-Auguste RenoirElisabeth Vigée-LebrunHenri deToulouse-Lautrec, and Edgar Degas. He poured through dozens of fabric samples to find combinations that would capture the depth, color and complexity of each painting. Everything down to the buttons and shoes on each mannequin was made from Sunbrella fabric. The costumes premiered during Fashion Week this September in New York City, at a launch party for the French edition of Elle Décor hosted by the French Consulate.

The assignment became even better when Long realized Sunbrella is a North Carolina based company. “Totally a coincidence,” says Long. “But my theory is that all things lead to home. Everything leads to North Carolina.”











Long debuted a series of costumes commissioned by Elle Decor Magazine and the outdoor upholstery fabric company Sunbrella during the 2017 New York Fashion Week. The costumes, made entirely of Sunbrella fabric, were inspired by French master painters.





















Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.


In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

50 for 50: Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux

Story* by Sandra Davidson | Archival images provided by the Charlotte Ballet

Monday, November 27, 2017

Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride moved to Charlotte in 1996 with one goal: to build North Carolina’s dance community. Recruited by the North Carolina Dance Theatre, today known as the Charlotte Ballet, the couple brought decades of experience to the studio.

Bonnefoux was born in France, and he joined the Paris Opera Ballet at the age of 14, where he became a celebrated dancer. He joined the New York City Ballet in 1970 and performed with them for 10 years. He pivoted to teaching after retiring as a dancer.

McBride was raised in Teaneck, NJ. She joined the New York City Ballet in 1959 and was promoted to principal at 18 in 1961, the youngest in the company’s history. For the next 30 years, she danced under the director of George Balanchine, a man the New York Times described as “one of the greatest choreographers in the history of ballet.” When she was recognized alongside Sting, Al Green, Tom Hanks and Lily Tomlin by The Kennedy Center Honors in 2014, actress Christine Baranski described McBride as the country’s “Prima American Ballerina.”

Under their leadership, the North Carolina Dance Theatre added a company, built a new home and Center for Dance, and underwent a name change to become the Charlotte Ballet. This year Bonnefoux retired as president and artistic director of the Charlotte Ballet, but McBride continues her work as Associate Artistic Director and Master Teacher today.





What made you fall in love with ballet?

Patricia McBride: I started when I was 7. It just felt right for me as a child. I was very shy. It kind of gave me a confidence. It gave me great happiness and joy. I loved my teacher. She was instrumental in everything I did after. My mom and my grandma were so behind me all the time. They loved to take me to my ballet classes. It was the most wonderful feeling to be on stage. I loved the music, I loved the feel of it, and I still love it to this day as an old lady! It still inspires me. I guess I feel like I was meant to do this.

Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux: I think what I love the most in dancing was the connection with the music. I have wonderful memories of that.

How has dance shaped the way you see the world?

Patricia: Dance gave me so much. It made me a whole person. I was very young when I joined the New York City ballet. We went on extraordinary tours. I dance[d] in all the capitals of the world. We’d always get a chance to see other performances [and] to go to museums and experience culture from around the world, so it gave me such an extraordinary life. I never imagined as a 7-year-old that I would have the life that I had. You want your students to have that also because they are our future.

Jean-Pierre: Art did change our lives because of the collaboration with other artists. If you think that you can do it alone…then you are not using the wonderful talent that’s around you that can help you to grow. That’s how you continue to want to move forward…because of the people that you surround yourself with.

Patricia: I love to go to the theater and watch our beautiful dancers. It makes me so happy and gives my life meaning. Dance gives everyone so much passion and joy and happiness. We’re so lucky to being what we love to do and to pass it on.











Patricia McBride is one of America's most important ballerinas







You both had wonderful careers as dancers in major metropolitan areas. What was it like to move North Carolina to work with the ballet program here—which was then called the North Carolina Dance Theatre?

Jean-Pierre: Coming to Charlotte was exciting because we really believed in the city. There were preconceived ideas that we had to fight that made it difficult in the beginning, so showing the diversity of ballet was important to us. We wanted [to] make something that made people want to come back. I think we built a good reputation here, but we did it by being consistent…by making sure what we would bring would be sensational.

Patricia: And I think Jean-Pierre was such a visionary. He had a strong idea of what he wanted to bring to the audiences because there wasn’t a long tradition of ballet here in Charlotte like where we came from in Europe or New York or San Francisco. He had to think of how he would educate the public. He always tried to be a visionary…to bring all these different wonderful choreographers. He did not want a company of his own choreography alone.

Jean-Pierre: When you live in an ambitious city like Charlotte, you want to be ambitious too. We really wanted to be part of this community and we really wanted to serve this community. I think that’s why there started to be a larger and larger audience because they knew that we were part of Charlotte, not because we came from Paris or New York.

How has the North Carolina Arts Council supported the Charlotte Ballet?

Patricia. The North Carolina Arts Council has been remarkable. It’s made all of this possible. We’ve had a wonderful board, and people have supported our company...but the Arts Council is what’s helped us all these years.

Jean-Pierre: They have supported us from the beginning. I think one of my favorite memories of the Arts Council was that they helped us to do a program called cARTwheels. We brought the company into counties that had not seen much dance. That was exciting. There was really a need for that.



It was love at first sight for Patricia and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux



You mentioned the importance of reaching the Charlotte community earlier, and one of the ways you do that is through a need-based scholarship program called REACH. How did that begin, and why did it become a priority of the Charlotte Ballet?

Jean-Pierre: We have a second company that can go into schools and perform. I remember going to [a] program with the second company and seeing some kids in the audience who started to dance. They wanted to be part of it. Many of them were really dancers! So we started to give scholarships for school. They could not [otherwise] afford classes, and we [wanted to] give a chance to help them do what they love to do.

PM: It’s so important to start children who love it from a young age. My mom could not afford to send me to ballet when I went to George Balanchine’s school, so I think it’s so extraordinary that they can be on scholarships like I was on scholarship.

We’re having this conversation in the beautiful Center for Dance in downtown Charlotte. This building was named after the two of you at the 2009 groundbreaking. Will you talk about what this center means to you?

Jean-Pierre: This building is such a gift. So many people are behind it, and [they] gave us a chance to give the best to our dancers. I remember when it was starting to be built, one of the dancers looked at the building and said, “It makes me feel important because it means that I deserve to work in such a building.”

Patricia: There are certain people who’ve worked so hard behind the scenes to make this dream come true. We’ll always be grateful.











Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.


In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.


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