In A Dancer’s Shoes Ann Dunn of the Asheville Ballet

 

I am a dancer and poet, mother, scholar. I have always danced and written, mothered and thought. My first recollection is as a two-year-old, physically emoting in a beige living room to a scratchy LP of Caruso. My latest recollection is last night’s dream, in which I soared as beautifully as in the old days before the broken foot, the sprung and squashed discs, and the arthritis. In between ages 2 and 65 a lot of dancing happened: on major, international stages, in elementary school cafetoriums, in city squares, in salons, in churches, on rooftops, in art galleries, in barns, on university tours, at weddings and funerals, and even on a fire truck. The constants in my life have been dance, children, poetry, and scholarship. They sprang from the same source (boundless curiosity and receptiveness to mystery), they nurtured each other with the same rain and sun (love and inspiration), they required the same attention in order to mature (conscious and thoughtful research, study, and practice; an alert ear for the muse; and time), and they produced the same results (the arts of dance and poetry and the arts of spiritual and intellectual life).

 

The first half of my life was about pursuing those constants. In dance, becoming a professional included training and performing stops along the way, such as New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Martha Graham, Merce Cuningham, and my own company. In the children’s department, parenting began when I was twenty and continued through five children and now ten grandchildren. In poetry, I was fortunate to study with the greats (John Ashbery, John Gardner, Mark Strand, Ann Sexton, Richard Hughes, David Wagoner, Donald Justice, Marvin Bell, Robert Hass), including a full scholarship to Bread Loaf Writer’s Colony and three residencies at Weymouth, followed by publications and readings across the US and Europe. In scholarship, I fell in love with Shakespeare in high school and never looked back, although I glanced sideways at Milton, and the literature of the Italian Renaissance. My undergraduate work at NYU and IUSB, my Masters work at UNCA, and my PhD work at USC became like a trampoline for me, on which I continue to leap, bounce, fly and breathe the scary, invigorating air of ideas.

 

Not all of these details had occurred yet when I arrived in Asheville, but I get them out of the way early, in order to focus my narrative on dance in Asheville, and to sketch the character of just one person of the many who had an impact on the evolution of that scene over the last 32 years.

 

I pulled into Asheville in 1980 with one U-Haul, 3 children, a bad marriage, enough money for a down payment on a Montford House, and only one marketable skill—dance. I came from New York City via a thirteen-year hiatus in Indiana. I left because, at 33, I had lost myself in the bigness of the worlds I had created. All of those worlds, I am pleased to say, are going strong today. But I needed to start over. As a child, my favorite character was Daniel Boone, the pioneer who always needed to move on when things got crowded.

 

To my New York eyes, Asheville in 1980 looked like a hopelessly small but lovely, cultural desert. To my Indiana eyes, Asheville looked like a tabula rasa, if only I could find, or make, the magic words. I had learned long ago, however, that there is no find, there is only make, and as far as magic goes, if one wants a rabbit to emerge from a hat, one must put a rabbit in the hat before the show.

 

What was here 32 years ago? My initial scope-out discovered a new Arts Council; a new excellent arts publication (The Arts Journal); three competing dance organizations—two small and one huge (the old not-for-profit Asheville Ballet, the fledgling Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre, and the for-profit studio, Fletcher School of Dance); a small art museum; a small symphony; a community theater; a thriving producing organization (since called Bravo!) that brought art acts to town; individual visual artists hiding in outlying mountain towns with names like Weaverville; a few old-guard, loyal art patrons who seemed to make everything that happened happen; a vibrant State Arts Council in Raleigh; and The American Dance Festival, recently relocated to Durham. Downtown Asheville seemed to consist of pawn shops, a movie theater that smelled like urine and, of course, artists’ studios. Our home on Montford was bordered on both sides by houses of prostitution. Biltmore Forest and North Asheville did exist, but I did not immediately meet those folks.

 

Before I unpacked, I was on the phone. Appointments with all the above organizations yielded much, quickly. Before I knew it, I was teaching for The Asheville Ballet; choreographing for Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre; writing philosophical essays on art and art theory for The Arts Journal; running back and forth to Durham as the Western North Carolina official dance critic for The American Dance Festival; on the Board of Directors of The Arts Council; sharing good pre-show dinners with the director and staff at the North Carolina Arts Council, who became my enduring friends; booking Buncombe County school tours with my Indiana company; and founding the Blue Ridge Summer Dance Festival at Warren Wilson College. I began ballet and modern classes in my garage on Montford with four students. In the winter, when even the kerosene heater could not keep us warm, we moved into the dining room by the wood stove, using chairs and windowsills for barres. Grants were written and received, from local, state, national, international, and private funding sources. I co-founded The North Carolina Dance Alliance and served on its board. I became artist-in-residence for parts of North and all of South Carolina. My children who were not in school went with me. Sometimes I took them out of school, as when I had a residency on Daufuskie Island, only accessible by boat. We had to pack-in all our food for the week, sleep on the floor of the tiny schoolhouse beside the woodstove, and speak Gullah to the only 16 children on the island.

 

Visions require work and re-visioning. My vision for dance in Asheville was initially a big happy Eden where all dance groups worked together while maintaining their own autonomy. I soon learned that local rivalries and insecurities were strong. Finally, I threw my lot in with Art Fryar and the Asheville Ballet because we shared values and standards, and because he was not threatened by my parallel dream (about which I was honest) of growing my own business and dance opportunities. Thus, when Art decided to retire, he turned over The Asheville Ballet—with its Board, non-profit status, and all costumes—to me.

 

Meanwhile, my dance spaces gradually increased. From the garage, to a small studio on Wall Street, to a basement studio on Walnut Street. When my grandmother died and left me $20,000, I used it as a down payment on The Leader Building. Ah, a big space of my own.

 

My family moved in upstairs in the late 1980s. We were the only family in downtown Asheville for years—pioneers. The ballet and studio grew. Eight adult dancers performed a tour of northern venues such as New York City, Yale University, Keene State College. We were accepted into the Out-of-Town series in New York City. I performed my solo show Goddesses in Soho with five huge David Nelson pots, commissioned for the occasion, and then at The Asheville Art Museum with an actress reading my poetry and a live string quartet performing Beethoven’s Opus 131. Choreography poured out of The Asheville Ballet. We danced everywhere and all year in the Asheville area, reaching upwards of 20,000 people (mostly children) annually. Awareness for classical ballet, modern dance, and interdisciplinary performance rose. Our students went to Juilliard, Kirov, New York City Ballet, Martha Graham —on and on. We gained a national and international reputation as we erased boundaries and filled seats at home. The Diana Wortham Theatre opened and our central venue became focused, so we could offer a subscription season.

 

In 1996, The Fletcher School of Dance came up for sale, so I sold The Leader Building and bought it. But a rival undermined me and again stole students—I had to start over. Nothing new. I was happy, because I had finally been able to merge the two biggest studios in Asheville, and because I had access to The Nutcracker without being unethical by performing it when someone else local was already performing it. The Asheville Ballet’s Nutcracker became the glorious cornerstone of a three-event season, with the Fall Concert featuring original contemporary choreography with live music, and the Spring Concert featuring a full-length classical ballet. Always, the goal was excellence in community collaboration. We danced with The Asheville Symphony, The Asheville Choral Society, The Asheville Lyric Opera, Kat Williams, Stephanie’s Id, Chuck Lichtenberger, Matthew Richmond, poets, sculptors, and photographers.

 

Our decade in the Fletcher School of Dance building was another astounding time of creativity and teaching. Many dancers on international stages today trained there as children. The main thing is, and always has been, to make dance, to train dancers, and to love life in a deep sense—at breath level.

 

The Asheville Ballet made another change in 2007. Downtown got crowded. So Daniel Boone sold the FSD building and bought a lovely building in Woodfin. I lost my life savings as a result of a less than forthcoming real estate agent, but started over anyway. We continue to train dancers, collaborate with individual artists and arts organizations, and generate classical and contemporary work that garners rave reviews. Members of The Asheville Ballet are taking on more responsibility for choreography and other aspects of production. Community members are becoming more involved than ever in fund raising and promotion. The Asheville Ballet Guild will hold a Golf Tournament this summer, for example. There has never been more excitement in the air. The gig goes on.

 

Somewhere in the last 32 years I also managed family; school; poetry; academic publications; presentations at academic conferences in the United States, Italy and France;, and guest choreography for such places as The New York City Opera at Lincoln Center (Turandot); and The International Academy of Dramatic Arts in Rome, Italy (Macbeth). There was North Carolina Artist of the Year in 2004. There was the Distinguished Teacher Award in Humanities in 2007 from UNCA. There were five years of Little League. There were pilgrimages to Italy for Renaissance research, to Turkey and Israel for Crusades research, and to New York annually. I continue to write, teach a full load at UNCA in The Medieval and Renaissance World, take care of aging and ill parents, nurture children (grown and gone) and grandchildren, and take care of my baby—The Asheville Ballet. I have been single for 20 years. Why, when a 65-year-old looks back on life, does the vista look like a collection of lists? The events in these lists, professional and personal, generated much love and excitement, and were shared with wonderful people who became close friends. THAT is what makes the arts in Asheville function and continue to grow: people who do excellent work consistently in the face of all odds, people who endure, and people who bring joy, passion, and thoughtfulness to others through their joyous, passionate, and thoughtful labor. Such people are contagious.

 

And what does Asheville look like today? Too many dance, theater, music groups, galleries, and poetry readings to count. I credit what endures during hard economic times to those who have a generous vision for the arts, who commit to their community, and who persevere, often in the shadows. Many honorable names come to mind, mostly non-professional, self-less individuals who never had glory, power, money, or getting-ever-bigger on their minds. But that is their story.

 

The Asheville Ballet was incorporated on March 7, 1963. I have been Artistic Director for three decades. We are the oldest professional, non-profit ballet company in North Carolina, the only resident professional non-profit ballet company in Asheville, and the second oldest professional non-profit performing organization in Asheville (behind The Symphony, 1958). The 2011-2012 Season has been typical. In addition to out-of-town gigs, our Fall Concert featured an original work by a contemporary choreographer, a children’s ballet (Winnie the Pooh to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F Major, the Pastoral). And a mesmerizing, full-length premier of a more classical work called Moonshine, sponsored by Troy & Sons Distillery—a pun on the effects of the moon on our spirits and the legendary healing spirits of our mountains. The choreography was a company effort, set to on-stage, live music by the Chapel Hill band, Kangaroo. Nutcracker was our most elaborate and fabulous production ever. And now we are preparing, for your pleasure, a full-length production of Tchaikovsky’s beautiful ballet, Sleeping Beauty, May 18 and 19 at Diana Wortham Theatre. Tickets are on sale. Our newest excitement is free-movement classes for victims of Parkinson’s Disease. Next year, Cinderella.

 

I long ago danced out of the beige living room and painted the world all the colors of love with my body and spirit. The colors will endure beyond me.  ~Ann

 

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker