Dancing Into Leadership: The Brooklyn Ballet Finds Its Community

 
 Brooklyn Ballet dancers Paunika Jones and Michael "Big Mike" Fields in the "Brooklyn Nutcracker," choreographed by artistic director Lynn Parkerson. (Photo by Julie Lemberger) BROOKLYN BALLET

Brooklyn Ballet dancers Paunika Jones and Michael "Big Mike" Fields in the "Brooklyn Nutcracker," choreographed by artistic director Lynn Parkerson. (Photo by Julie Lemberger) BROOKLYN BALLET

 

Like an elite athlete, the performing life of a professional ballet dancer is short. By the time most dancers reach their late thirties, the demanding physicality of ballet takes its toll. Decades of learning and experience shape dancers into mature artists just as their bodies are declining. It's a cruel and inescapable paradox. 

On retirement, some choose to leave the world of dance altogether. Organizations like the Actors Fund and the Dancer Transition Resource Centre work with retiring dancers to find new careers. Others switch to the directorial side of the theater and become choreographers. A few dancers create independent companies to share their artistic vision. Of those, an even smaller group will enlarge the audience for their art and become beloved institutions in their community.

For Lynn Parkerson, Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Ballet, it was a gradual process. A former member of the Boston Ballet and Chicago Ballet, Parkerson was working as a choreographer in Europe and New York, but when she moved to Brooklyn in 1998 she saw an opportunity for a new ballet company. "There were a lot of resources coming into Brooklyn. Things were really starting to move."

In 2000 Parkerson registered the domain name for her company, but another two years passed before she incorporated as a not-for-profit. "A friend of mine said, 'Lynn, just do it. We love the idea of the Brooklyn Ballet.'"

 
 Brooklyn Ballet Artistic Director, Lynn Parkerson. (Photo by Tameeka Colon) BROOKLYN BALLET

Brooklyn Ballet Artistic Director, Lynn Parkerson. (Photo by Tameeka Colon) BROOKLYN BALLET

 

Like many performers, Parkerson learned the business side of the arts out of necessity. Friends who worked in management and fundraising guided her in the beginning, and leadership courses offered by the Kennedy Center were also helpful, but the work itself has always taught her the most. "You just have to say 'We're going to do this,' and then you take action. If it doesn't happen in that way, then you evolve, you keep adapting."

Leading the company has also evolved for Parkerson. "When you're working with much younger dancers it becomes a different relationship. You have to assert discipline, you can't be as chummy. Of course, nobody is getting paid as much as they should, but because it's art you have to be as demanding as you can."

Three years ago one of her principal dancers, Richard Glover, made a similar transition to the other side of the stage. Glover started dancing with the Colorado Ballet when he was 18 years old. He then moved to London and performed with the English National Ballet and the Royal Opera House. More recently, he returned to his native Brooklyn where he joined the Brooklyn Ballet as a performer in 2012. Now he is the company's Manager and Ballet Master, responsible for teaching the regular class, scheduling and leading rehearsals, and generally making sure that dancers are taken care of and no one gets hurt.

For Glover, being near in age to the dancers he directs is an important factor in his success as Ballet Master. "They respect me as a peer. They don't feel like they're being talked down to, which happens a lot."

 
 The Brooklyn Ballet in "At The Intersection." (Photo by Julie Lemberger) BROOKLYN BALLET

The Brooklyn Ballet in "At The Intersection." (Photo by Julie Lemberger) BROOKLYN BALLET

 

Teaching ballet to a new generation of dancers and bringing the art form to the community reinforces the artistic mission of the Brooklyn Ballet. In 2003, not long after starting the company, Parkerson approached the New York City Council for support. "The first funding we got was for a dance program in public schools in south Brooklyn. Council Member Lew Fidler gave us our shot. He said, 'Let's bring ballet to our schools. Instead of baseball, we'll do ballet this year.'

Now called Elevate, the Brooklyn Ballet's educational outreach program has expanded to eight schools, serving students in the second, third and sixth-grade. Those who show exceptional promise are offered scholarships to study at the Brooklyn Ballet School. Some even go on to professional careers in dance.

But students who just enjoy a taste of ballet still gain critical life lessons. "Dance teaches discipline. It teaches how to listen, how to feed back what you're given," said Richard Glover.

Everything comes together in the Brooklyn Ballet's annual Nutcracker, a highlight of the company's season. This production transforms the holiday classic into a reflection of a diverse and vibrant Brooklyn, merging and juxtaposing traditional ballet with hip-hop and dance styles from around the world. Everyone in the community takes part, professional dancers and students alike.

 
 

Despite the challenges of leading an arts institution in the 21st century — audiences, fundraising and competing community interests — Parkerson is optimistic about the future.

The Brooklyn Ballet School has grown to more than 600 students, new internet services for not-for-profits like Board Assist has helped Brooklyn Ballet attract younger board members who are bringing a fresh passion to their volunteer service, this season's Nutcracker will be at the King's Theatre in Flatbush, the Brooklyn Ballet's biggest venue yet, and the borough itself is only growing in importance as a cultural destination.

I asked Parkerson if, with all her many responsibilities for the management and growth of Brooklyn Ballet, she still had time to dance and create dances. Parkerson repeated words of advice she got from a theater colleague when she started the organization. "She said to me, 'Lynn, you're going to fight for every minute.' She's right. I did and I do. I don't have any energy if I'm not creating. You just have to throw your hat over the wall and be open to the possibilities."
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Published here on Forbes.com
August 29, 2018