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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: 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: 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.

50 for 50: Chuck Davis

Story by Sandra Davidson

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Raleigh native Charles R. “Chuck” Davis, who became one of the world’s foremost teachers and choreographers of African dance, passed away in 2017. A distinguished teacher, choreographer, and ambassador for dance, Davis is remembered across North Carolina and the country for his artistry, his contributions to American dance and his ability to use art to promote peace and healing.

Last spring, Davis was interviewed by Arts Council staff for its 50 for 50 project. Here’s Davis on Arts Across NC, reflecting on his time on the North Carolina Arts Council Board:

 

 

Chuck Davis founded the Chuck Davis Dance Company in New York in 1968 and, in 1982, returned to his native North Carolina to create the African American Dance Ensemble.

 

 

Davis received the North Carolina Award for Fine Arts in 1992, the state's highest honor. Davis has received many other awards and other recognition for his accomplishments, including an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from the City University of New York in 1998 and Dance Heritage Coalition recognition as one of the first 100 Irreplaceable Dance Treasures in the US in 2000.

Learn more about the legacy of Chuck Davis in this UNC-TV feature

 

 

 

 


 

 

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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