Madison Ballet Comes Into Its Own Under Director Ja’ Malik

March 7, 2024

Madison Ballet’s long-term goal of becoming a full-time professional ballet company finally came to fruition in 2022 with the hiring of new artistic director Ja’ Malik. Founded in 1981 as Wisconsin Dance Ensemble to produce an annual Nutcracker production, the organization’s fortunes had waxed and waned over its four decades. A turning point came in 1999 with the arrival of previous artistic director William Earle Smith, a name change to Madison Ballet, and a plan to become a professional arts organization.

Under Smith, the company did professionalize and in 2005 opened The School of Madison Ballet. The dancers’ contracts were sporadic, though, “almost like a pickup company,” says Michaela King, who has danced with Madison Ballet for seven years. “It was much smaller, our contracts were shorter, and we brought in a lot of seasonal guest dancers.”

Ja' Malik is shown from the chest up in a black collared shirt. He touches his chin with his right hand and looks toward the camera with a closed-mouth smile.
Ja’ Malik. Photo by Tom Davenport, courtesy Madison Ballet.

Since Ja’ Malik came on board, the organization has taken steps to become a full-time repertory company with full-time dancers, without the need to fill out its ranks with guest artists. “I saw an organization with so much possibility and no direction,” he says. “I knew I could help guide it and build it into something special.”

Ja’ Malik says the company was financially solid when he took over, allowing him to focus on rebuilding audience and school numbers lost during the pandemic. His other main area of focus was creating a company identity.

“I wasn’t interested in looking to its past for one,” says Ja’ Malik. “I wanted to develop a new identity going forward.”

A Space for New Choreographic Voices

A graduate of the Joffrey Ballet School and The New School’s BFA program, Ja’ Malik danced professionally with Cleveland Ballet, Oakland Ballet, Ballet Hispánico, and BalletX. Before coming to Madison Ballet, he founded and served as executive director of New York City’s Ballet Boy Productions, an organization that provides performing, training, and mentoring opportunities to young men of color.

Ja’ Malik’s vision for the company is one of inclusion and framing the art form to represent the world we currently live in. A fundamental tenet in that vision is to reshape and evolve the company’s repertory. 

Dancers Da'Von Doane and Shannon Quirk dance a contemporary pas de deux. Doane holds Quirk's right hand as she does a backbend on pointe, bends her knees and pushes over her pointe shoes. They both wear blue unitards and perform in front of a dark backdrop.
Da’Von Doane and Shannon Quirk in In Grief by Yusha-Marie Sorzano. Photo by Becky McKenzie, courtesy Madison Ballet.

Like many of his contemporaries running ballet companies, Ja’ Malik says he plans to program ballet classics retooled for today’s sensibilities alongside new contemporary ballets and new story ballets.

“I wanted to expose Madison and this community to the other choreographic voices out there,” he says. “Ninety percent of my commissions for the company so far have been from choreographers of color and female-identifying. I want us to be a creative hub for new voices in ballet.” The 2023–24 season has included works by Alia Kache and Stephanie Martinez, as well as Paquita Suite, staged by former Dance Theatre of Harlem principal Andrea Long.

Along with rehearsal director Richard Walters, Ja’ Malik has also choreographed for the company. He will mount a new production of Giselle in April. 

An Expanded, More Diverse Dancer Roster

Since taking Madison Ballet’s helm, Ja’ Malik has doubled the number of company dancers from 6 to 12 and added 18 weeks to their contracts (for a total of 28). He has also added more apprentice and trainee positions.

“We have diversified our ranks, as well,” says Ja’ Malik. “I call it the United Nations of ballet. The company comprises Black, white, Latino, and Asian dancers from around the globe, including a dancer from Ukraine. I wanted to make sure any company I was representing was reflective of the world we live in.”

A large group of male and female dancers in various, colorful dance clothing pose for a group photo. They stand or sit close together and smile for the camera.
Ja’ Malik (center) with dancers of Madison Ballet. Photo by Tom Davenport, courtesy Madison Ballet.

King says he also embraces body diversity among his dancers. “He encourages us to be strong, athletic, and healthy, which I appreciate.”

In hiring artists, Ja’ Malik says he looks for individuals who are mature, passionate, and hungry. “I want to see how they bring movement and an emotional quality to life through their artistry and technique,” he says.

Shannon Brianne Quirk, a native Californian and the company’s longest-tenured dancer, says that there is a lot more hunger in the studio to keep pushing and expanding as a company. Because Madison Ballet is unranked, she adds, there are equal chances for everyone to be cast. “We are all in the room, and choreographers get to pick whom they want to work with,” says Quirk. “We all have the opportunity to dance everything from corps work to principal roles.”

Forging Ahead

Ja’ Malik says his long-term goals are to increase the number of dancers to 25 and their contracts to 40 weeks, raise the dancers’ wages, and find the company a permanent home. Currently, the troupe rents three small studios in a strip mall on the west side of Madison.

“I would love for us to be in Madison’s downtown arts district and have more of a presence there,” he says.

Even so, the company under Ja’ Malik is impacting Madison’s arts scene and building a reputation for diversified, top-notch ballet productions. “We are no longer a random ballet company doing random work,” says Ja’ Malik. “There is a specific purpose and meaning to show ballet is for everybody. Even with a small budget like ours, if coached, trained, and guided in the right direction, we can produce something phenomenal.”

Madison Ballet at a Glance

Number of company dancers: 21 (including 7 apprentices and 2 trainees)

Contract length: 28 weeks

Starting salary: $500/week

Performances per year: 33 (4 program series)

Annual operating budget: $1.7 million

Audition Advice

Video submissions are taken year-round, and the company holds auditions by invitation between February and April. Check and the company’s social media channels for details. Ja’ Malik’s advice for auditioners: “Show that you are mature enough to be in a professional ballet company. In the actual audition, take space and show yourself.”