By Kathi E. B. Ellis
Entire contents are copyright © 2013 Kathi E. B. Ellis. All rights reserved.
Brandon Ragland’s Silent Conversation is part of the Louisville Ballet’s closing program of this season: Breaking Ground, an evening of short ballets. Mr. Ragland’s choreography has been seen at the Ballet’s intimate studio performances several times and, of course, he has been a familiar face on stage for the past three seasons.
In a world in which so much knowledge, expertise and skill are passed down individually and personally from generation to generation, it is good to hear Brandon Ragland speak passionately of his influences and mentors as a choreographer and dancer. He grew up in Alabama destined, as far as his parents were concerned, to go to school for “regular” subjects. But while attending his church’s Boy Scout troop and gymnastics classes, he also discovered the dance ministry and his first teacher, Jacqueline Crenshaw Lockhart. His enjoyment of these classes led to his first choreographic opportunity – a piece for a Black History Program at the church. Even the word “choreography” was new to Brandon, but he embraced the opportunity and discovered that he enjoyed this aspect of the dance. With the encouragement of Ms. Lockhart, he was able to enroll in Birmingham’s Alabama School of Fine Arts (ASFA) – to major in math and science at the behest of his parents, who wanted his education to be well-rounded.
At ASFA Brandon continued to dance. He remembers the spring of his freshman year having a conversation with his mother in which she said they could check into switching to majoring in dance…next year. According to Brandon, “next year” was the part he didn’t hear. The next day he went to the school’s scheduler and changed immediately – an exceptional action even at a fine arts school – to the dance program. Not his mother’s intention, but the deed was done. His senior project was to create a 10- to 15-minute dance piece. At the time, he says that “it was challenging to keep it interesting” for that length of time. The project included picking the music and writing a proposal for what he was creating, an intimidating prospect for a 17-year-old. But even then Brandon was drawn to the intricate endeavor of translating what he sees in his imagination on to the bodies of dancers, negotiating how this vision shifts, and is different in real time and space as it evolves.
A key mentor, and experience, for Brandon at ASFA was when fellow Alabaman Thaddeus Davis taught there for a semester. From a technical point of view, Mr. Davis brought to Brandon and his classmates an exposure to more contemporary styles of ballet. From a practical point of view, the semester that Mr. Davis taught brought Brandon a taste of the professional world of ballet. They rehearsed during the school year in preparation for performing at the prestigious Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, preceded by three days of rehearsal in a New York City studio: a glimpse of “living the dream” in NYC.
This experience led, in part, to Brandon’s decision to go to Butler University in Indianapolis, which has an excellent dance program and where Mr. Davis was teaching at the time. Still acceding to his parents’ concerns about earning a living, he enrolled as a double major in dance and arts administration. At Butler, Brandon continued to choreograph as well as dance, learning, in the process, about working with his peers as choreographer. During this time he was also exposed to the work of Dwight Rhoden, founding artistic director of Complexions Contemporary Ballet. Rhoden and Davis provided not only choreographic influences, but Davis was also a mentor as an African-American man in the ballet world. Brandon’s University experience also brought with it the challenges of balancing not only the schedules of classes and rehearsals but of his academic studies. At the time, the administration courses were to please his parents, he admits. But as he approached graduation and the realization of how highly competitive is the world of dance, he acknowledged that this training could be valuable either later in his career or as an alternative career.
However, after graduation Brandon moved on to the Alabama Ballet and then to the Louisville Ballet, where he has had the opportunity to pursue his choreography as well as dancing and also teach in the Louisville Ballet School. While many companies have studio opportunities for dancers to choreograph, it is rare that these pieces end up in the main stage season. Brandon’s then-titled Stalemate was part of the 2011 Choreographers Showcase, after which Artistic Director Bruce Simpson approached him to say that he liked it and was considering including it in the 2012-2013 season. Brandon was in shock. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says. He anticipated that he would be asked to make changes, but this has not proved to be the case. Translating a piece that was created for the studio at the Ballet’s main stage headquarters into a piece that can inhabit the Whitney stage at The Kentucky Center for the Arts is something that initially Brandon says he found intimidating. Taking a step back, he realized that this “resizing” was about the overall architecture of the piece, a realization that brought him into focus for the rehearsal period. Still, he acknowledges that it is hard to be the person in charge of the room when the dancers are all colleagues and friends. But he also cites that everyone is supportive and co-operative because they’re all committed to whatever piece is in rehearsal.
Silent Conversations, as seen in its earlier form Stalemate, exhibits the qualities that Brandon says inspire him in Balanchine’s choreography: how he uses space and how he uses the relationships between dancers when there is no linear storyline.
Performances of Breaking Ground are Friday, April 12, at 8 p.m. and Saturday, April 13, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. in Whitney Hall at The Kentucky Center. Tickets range from $27 to $97 and may be purchased at The Kentucky Center by phone at (502) 584-7777 or on the web at www.kentuckycenter.org.