When Cindy Free decided to resurrect Birmingham Ballet 17 years ago, she says there was just one professional ballet company in town — the Alabama Ballet — and the thinking of the city’s grand dame of classical dance was that Birmingham wasn’t big enough for the two of them.
“The Alabama Ballet was afraid they would lose their audience,” Free says now of her ballet academy’s early days on the dance scene. “They didn’t want me to do The Nutcracker. They didn’t think that both could coexist.”
Free disagreed with that assertion and pushed ahead, establishing Birmingham Ballet as a thriving academy and now a repertory company with a full season of performances that includes The Nutcracker and the recently added “Mutt-cracker” that features local dogs alongside company dancers.
Free, who danced for the Birmingham Ballet’s first incarnation in the 1970s when she was a teenager, says it was the competition she felt and still feels within the city’s burgeoning dance community that helped Birmingham Ballet succeed and continue to foster a growing love for and participation in the art form.
“When there is competition, you rise to a new level of excellence,” Free says. “It is exciting for me to see all of the different companies here now. We all excel in different areas.”
Many dancers in Birmingham’s ballet and modern dance companies agree that the dance scene has grown in the last 10 years, and now the offerings are as varied as the high-flying aerial performances of Arova Contemporary Ballet, the grounded and athletic performances of Sanspointe Dance Company and the grand productions of Alabama Ballet.
Lindsey Barber arrived at Alabama Ballet in 2003 after training for many years in Miami. Barber spent 10 seasons as a principal dancer with the company. She retired after last season and now teaches performance at Alabama Ballet, which she says is unique in that it spans both classical and modern ballet with a level of production not found everywhere in Birmingham.
Alabama Ballet’s performance of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker remains a favorite of the company’s patrons and audiences, but it pushes its classical boundaries with works such as last year’s performance of choreographer Jiri Kylian’s Six Dances and Twyla Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs. Upcoming this season are performances of Romeo and Juliet and Ovation.
Barber, a Buffalo, New York, native, recalls a very small dance community when she arrived on the scene. “The Alabama Ballet, along with the smaller Southern DanceWorks, was pretty much it at the time,” Barber says. “It is great to see the smaller dance companies making a go at it.”
Modern dance company Sanspointe is one of those smaller companies offering a fresh perspective for dance in the city. Founded in 2003 by Michelle Knutson, the company performs works with an emphasis on collaboration, said current artistic director Rhea Speights.
The company’s upcoming season includes a performance on November 3 called Etched in Collective Movement, which focuses on the city’s commemoration of the 1963 and the Civil Rights Movement at the Birmingham Museum of Art.
Speights, a graduate of the University of Alabama, says when she started searching for professional dance opportunities after college, her options were limited.
“Now it seems that people have a place to use their voice and show their work,” Speights says during a break from classes at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where she is working towards a Master of Fine Arts degree.
Speights and other dancers say there is a real appetite for dance in Birmingham. Free, of the Birmingham Ballet, says as long as local dance companies continue to push their performances to higher levels, that desire for dance and the arts will continue to grow.
“We want to make ballet current and innovative,” Free says, who has lately drawn inspiration from Cirque Du Soleil. “Ballet needs to be alive and entertaining,” she says. “I have made it my goal that ballet should touch your heart.”
In 2010, Alison Page and her Arova Contemporary Ballet Company incorporated the use of aerial stunts into one of its ballets.
“It was something I just wanted to try,” says Page, who started Arova back in 2006. “I wanted to convey something otherworldly in the piece, and it struck me that we needed the aerial silks.”
After training with performers in Atlanta to learn how to perform the aerial work, the company debuted the stunts in its performance of Le reve Boheme.
“We have seen our ticket sales double since we added that to our performances,” Page said. “It was an experiment…the audience fell in love with.”
The aerial performances are now signature to Arova because the exciting feats the dancers accomplish on the aerial silks resonated with audiences.
Page, a graduate of the Alabama School of Fine Arts, left the state for Arizona and then on to New York City, where she received a Master of Fine Arts from New York University and worked as assistant to the dance supervisor for the Broadway production of The Lion King. Page says she felt she had to leave Birmingham to start her career in dance, but she sees a different dance community now where professional dancers can find work with several companies.
Arova will next perform alongside the Alabama Symphony Orchestra on Nov. 11 at the Southern Museum of Flight — a collaboration of the three organizations to honor veterans.
It’s collaborations like these that the dancers would love to see more of as the dance scene continues to grow in Birmingham.