Take a look at Charlotte Ballet’s repertoire, and it’s clear it’s a company fueled by innovative contemporary works yet rich in ballet pedigree. Led by former New York City Ballet stars Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride, the company has challenged its home audience with Dwight Rhoden’s civil-rights themed Sit In Stand Out and delighted attendees at the Chautauqua Institution, its summer home in upstate New York, with Sasha Janes’ inventive and sophisticated Chaconne.
Founded in 1970 as North Carolina Dance Theatre, the company relocated from Winston-Salem to Charlotte in 1990. Bonnefoux took over, in 1996, with his wife McBride as associate artistic director. Both left positions in the ballet department at Indiana University to inherit a financially struggling company that hadn’t yet solidified its place in Charlotte. But they were able to quickly turn the company around with a vision focused on a wide-ranging repertoire.
“We were not there to say ‘We come from this specific ballet tradition and that is all you will see,’ ” says Bonnefoux. “I wanted to find the new talent in America and bring it to Charlotte. You need exciting choreographers to attract exciting dancers and vice versa.”
Bonnefoux hired both. Over the past 19 years, the non-ranked company has built a consistent roster of dancers to perform new contemporary ballets by the likes of Alonzo King, Jirí Bubenícek and resident choreographer Rhoden; modern classics from Balanchine, Forsythe, Kylián and Tharp; and full-length story ballets.
Aside from the repertoire, many dancers come for the chance to learn from the legendary McBride, who acts as a mentor and coach, as well as a master teacher in the company’s affiliated school. Bonnefoux, too, “is very selfless, understanding and genuine,” says 10-year Charlotte Ballet dancer Alessandra James. “Yet he commands so much respect. His stories about his career and insight into ballets are absolutely priceless.”
James is the poster child for the type of dancer Bonnefoux hires: not just an excellent performer and technician, but someone who’s eager to grow. “If a dancer is not working to improve and stays the same from year to year,” says Bonnefoux, “it is not good for the company. There is no routine here.”
Bonnefoux has also been supportive of his dancers as choreographers, including former member Janes, who shares the role of associate artistic director with McBride.
In addition to their annual five-program season and occasional regional touring, Charlotte Ballet’s dancers get extra weeks of work at Chautauqua, where they present new ballets and preview their upcoming home season. Bonnefoux has headed Chautauqua’s summer dance program since 1983, and the relationship led to Charlotte Ballet’s summer residency officially starting in 2001.
Beginning this season, a partnership with South Carolina’s Gaillard Center in Charleston will add more performances—including major productions like The Nutcracker—and educational programming. The goal is to help build an audience in a community which recently lost its lone professional ballet company, Charleston Ballet Theatre.
Another change came in 2014 when the company rebranded to Charlotte Ballet. Bonnefoux and McBride wanted to better define the company as a ballet troupe with Charlotte as its home, and it has already led to increased ticket sales. The key element in the marketing strategy? Using the dancers’ faces and stories in advertisements to personalize the company/dancegoer relationship.
For Bonnefoux, that face also needs to be a diversified one. “You don’t have that many African American dancers coming to auditions, and that is disappointing,” he says. But the company has been proactive via an ongoing program with Dance Theatre of Harlem. For the past three years, Charlotte Ballet II has taken two students from DTH’s school into its ranks. The company has also been cultivating homegrown talent through Reach, its community outreach scholarship program for young beginners.
With its new performance partnership and diversity initiatives, the freshly rebranded company has become an increasingly desirable destination. “The dancers that come here know the repertory is not easy,” says Bonnefoux. “It is going to challenge, excite and transform them.”