Bringing North Atlantic Ballet back to life
CAMBRIDGE — What does it take to run a ballet company? You need to find and train dancers, of course, providing choreography for them to dance, costumes for them to wear, venues where they can perform, publicity so people will come and watch them dance, and more. But whether it all really works boils down to the pragmatic (money) and the poetic (artistry).
And sometimes it helps if you’re bossy, according to Lucy Warren-Whitman, artistic director of the newly resurrected North Atlantic Ballet. “There are always dancers around who are looking for more performance opportunities,” she explained before a rehearsal at Green Street Studios in Cambridge earlier this summer. Some of those dancers told her: You’re bossy enough! Why don’t you be artistic director of a company?
For Warren-Whitman, 34, daughter of North Atlantic Ballet cofounders Skip Warren and Rachel Whitman, that company already existed, though it had been fallow for more than a decade. The chamber-size North Atlantic Ballet, which officially relaunches with two weekends of performances at Green Street beginning Friday, was created in 1979 as an outlet for Warren, who wanted to try his hand at choreography and provide more performance opportunities for dancers like himself and his then-wife Whitman, both of whom had been dancing for Boston Ballet.
Riding on the tail end of the ballet boom of the 1970s, North Atlantic Ballet and other small local troupes that sprang up around that time coexisted and even, to varying degrees, thrived for a while.
Indeed, soon into the enterprise, Warren and Whitman, who by now had young twins Lucy and sister Sarah, were at least eking out a living, income derived both from a series of schools they ran in conjunction with the company and through such funders as the Stevens Foundation, the Rockefeller Family Trust, and the Globe Foundation. A successful partnership with Dorchester’s Strand Theatre, beginning in 1982 and lasting for more than a decade, brought schoolchildren to the theater for an introduction to ballets such as “The Nutcracker.” These Strand lecture-demonstrations were the seed for further outreach programming throughout New England, with support from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. “Skip really loved kids and he loved educating them about dance,” Whitman, 64, said over the phone recently.
The nomadic troupe — throughout its history Boston, Cambridge, Cape Ann, and Gloucester were among the organization’s many bases of operation — finally slowed to a stop in Cape Cod in 2003.
“Anywhere with a coastline in Massachusetts, I’ve lived,” Warren-Whitman says with a laugh. Though she resides in Dorchester, she hopes to ultimately base the company in Lynn.
It’s a community that North Atlantic Ballet performed in, and that Thomas Vacanti, 51, who danced with the company beginning in the late 1980s and eventually co-directed after Whitman left the troupe, encouraged Warren-Whitman to check out. “I think [North Atlantic Ballet] filled a void in smaller areas, like up in Lynn,” Vacanti said by phone. “In some ways, when you’re in smaller theaters, the performances are more accessible.”
Warren-Whitman agrees. “I know Lynn is the right place to be,” she said. “It’s an amazing arts community [with] a lot of potential and I can see a company growing there.”
Via e-mail, Lynn community development director James Marsh wrote that Warren-Whitman’s desire to house a ballet school and company there would “fit nicely into our newly created arts and cultural district.”
But one must walk before one can run, and if Warren-Whitman has plans eventually to fly, she is fairly grounded about the process: one step at a time. She teaches company class and holds rehearsals at Green Street as part of a new residency program that offers discounted rates to choreographers and/or companies.
“The only way for choreographers to dig deep is to get into the studio more often,” Green Street director Lorraine Chapman said in a recent phone call. “I knew Lucy was looking everywhere for space to rehearse, [so] it just seemed to click.” The result of the residency will be “Vivaldi’s Four Seasons,” a ballet for four women and two men that will premiere Friday.
Warren-Whitman, who is a beautifully-trained classical dancer, made the conscious decision not to perform in this piece because, she explained “I can’t see what I’m choreographing when I’m also trying to dance it. It’s either my dancing suffers or the choreography suffers.” A self-described “curvy” dancer who doesn’t see herself fitting into a larger ballet company with traditional ballet body types, she is content freelancing for various ballet and modern groups, including Chapman’s.
Choreography is a newer venture for her (she has created two pieces for Fall River’s Spindle City Ballet, and a recent work was featured in the 2013 Massachusetts Dance Festival). But during a rehearsal in late July, she seemed at ease directing her cast. As her dancers worked through a breezy, intricate section, Warren-Whitman called out corrections that were sometimes technical (“Tight fifth there. Tight!”) or droll (“Remember,” she said to one man as he stepped into a big pose, “Orgasm!”) In moments like these she seemed to channel both of her parents. As now, the work back then was filled with integrity, but raucous laughter was frequent, too.
While her “Four Seasons” is distinctly balletic, with the women on pointe and the choreography largely drawn from the classical vocabulary, she has also joined forces with filmmaker Eli Power, whose organization Horsegod Productions is creating projections for “Four Seasons.”
“It’s becoming a really eclectic show,” Warren-Whitman said. “There’s the baroque music, then this kind of very neoclassical movement, and now this [use of] projection. I really want the audience’s senses to be filled to the brim.”
Her excitement about collaboration extends even further: She’s not planning on being the sole choreographer of North Atlantic Ballet. “I want other choreographers because I want more eclectic rhythms within the company. You can’t just [present] one thing: It dies out.” She is also matter-of-fact about the next phase of her career. “Becoming artistic director of North Atlantic Ballet is my next outlet for dance. I know what it will take for this company to exist, so if I don’t dance, so be it.”
Warren-Whitman’s mother is confident her daughter is ready for prime time. “Lucy will bring North Atlantic Ballet to the 21st century,” said Whitman. “I think she’ll find her way as she goes, and obviously the company will have a new look.”
Vacanti points out that “in so many ways she is like her father: She’s upfront, she’s funny, she’s personable, and all of these things are good personality traits for a successful director.”
Warren died at 58 in 2013, although he and his daughter spent about a year prior to that discussing the relaunch. “He had full confidence that I could do this,” Warren-Whitman said. “I know it’s a cliche, but I feel like he’s just standing behind me and pushing me.
“Every single time that I slow down, he’s there,” she adds, with more of her infectious laughter, “kicking me in the ass, telling me to push a little bit harder and see what happens.”