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Religious conviction powers Ballet Magnificat, nation's first Christian ballet company

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 23, 2010; E01

JACKSON, MISS. -- The performance is over, but the dancers aren't finished. Now they want to come up the aisles and pray with you.

"This is why we dance," announces Erin Beaver, one of Ballet Magnificat's tour directors, speaking into a microphone while she paces the stage at the Jackson Academy's Performing Arts Center. Beaver, an energetic woman with a powerful smile, has the upbeat, insistent delivery of a televangelist, but she's not ministering alone. As she urges the audience to come to Jesus, slender young women with perfect posture and turned-out feet file into the audience, still in their knee-length costumes. They wait in the aisles for the kind of standing ovation they cherish: audience members so moved by the dancing that they want to leave their seats and worship with the cast.

"Let me get something straight," Beaver tells the crowd of nearly 500. "There's nothing magical about praying with a sweaty dancer." The audience laughs.

"But this is real," she continues. "You're real.

"Let's go to a real God."

***

It wasn't always this easy to find God at the ballet. Back in 1986, when Kathy Thibodeaux started Ballet Magnificat, the nation's first Christian ballet company, people told her it was a big mistake.

Fellow dancers warned the former Jackson Ballet dancer that it's hard enough to keep a mainstream troupe afloat, let alone one with such a specialized focus. Her church friends told her that dance and Christian ministry don't mix -- ballet is immodest, too flashy, too sensual.

In the company's early years, the dancers would get letters telling them that what they were doing was wrong, that the Devil uses dancing to provoke licentiousness and immorality.

They would console themselves with Psalms 149 and 150, which urge the faithful to praise the Lord with dancing. This, they felt, was a scriptural commission.

Two professional touring companies, a school and a growing international reputation later, the naysayers are forgiven. After all, most of the criticism arose a quarter-century ago, Thibodeaux explains: "Nobody was dancing for Jesus back then."

Yet not even she believed the idea would take off as it has, launching Ballet Mag, as its followers call it, on tours across the country and around the world. In recent weeks, dancers have traveled to Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic; in addition to Europe, in previous years they've performed in Canada and Colombia. In 2008, one of the companies toured Israel with a Holocaust-themed ballet, "Hiding Place," about Corrie ten Boom, a devout Christian who hid Jews in her home during the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands.

"We're not dancing fairytales or portraying swans," says Thibodeaux, a tall, willowy brunette who, with her girlishly upturned nose and flawless skin, looks younger than her 53 years. (Not to mention the fact that she still dances ably alongside the 20-somethings.)

"We're doing something that's real to us," she says. "The Lord is real to us, and we're hoping we can communicate that through the dance."

Doing something that's real to us. This is Ballet Magnificat's distinction. Technique is not the point here, nor is dazzling through athleticism. Realness, or authentic, unforced emotion, is this troupe's chief currency, and it is palpable whether you buy into the message behind the dancing or not. The dancers' religious convictions -- and the way they permeate every aspect of performance -- may not be for everybody. But watching them, you don't question their personal investment.

There's no denying the emotional power of this company. As it turns out, the bright eyes and broad smiles one associates with born-again Christians are excellent stage qualities. These dancers have the kind of lit-from-within presence rarely seen outside the premier companies, and even there the radiant projection of feeling can be spotty. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Renee Robinson and the Mariinsky Theatre ballerina Diana Vishneva come to mind; is it a coincidence that these artists have also claimed their dancing has a spiritual dimension?

Ballet Magnificat's level of skill is on a par with many of the smaller regional ballet troupes; the dancers' strengths are in their high extensions and swift footwork, rather than in turns and jumps. Because they do not dance the classics -- the "Swan Lakes" and "Don Quixotes" that are boilerplate for most ballet companies -- they lack stellar classical technique.

Yet the unusual repertoire sets this company apart. It may be an exaggeration to say that Ballet Magnificat is single-handedly keeping the fading narrative tradition of ballet alive, but I don't know of any other company that exclusively performs original works, most of them full-length story ballets. And Ballet Magnificat's dancers live their ballets -- such works as "The Scarlet Cord," about underground missionaries saving souls in communist Russia, or "Deliver Us," a whirlwind mash-up of the Moses and Jesus stories. (Think "The Ten Commandments" meets the Rockettes' nativity scene.)

Of course, the fact that they are pushing their beliefs through ballet makes them a lot more charming than those evangelical preachers and fundamentalist public figures whose sermonizing can have a more divisive and judgmental sting. Ballet Magnificat's members combine the born-again's resolute earnestness with the demure vulnerability and warmth of dancers, and it's a package with considerable appeal.

"We are the hook," says Jiri Voborsky, the company's resident choreographer, who came to Jackson 15 years ago from the Czech Republic. "Some people might never step in a church but they'll come to a theater. They may not get saved here but . . . a lot of times, with the emotions expressed through the body, it goes deeper than the spoken word.

"They stumble into the theater and they get it."

***

Football, church and country music may dominate Mississippi's off-hours, but despite the odds, this curious ballet company has thrived in the shadow of Jackson's gun shows and powerlifting contests.

Still, the church crowd proved to be a daunting new frontier for ballet.

Thibodeaux and her Louisiana-born husband, Keith, started out with a handful of dancers and two vans, toting around their home stereo system, living off donations from the audience.

"We were just kinda scratching," says Keith Thibodeaux, 59, a trim, compact man with white hair and fashionable square-rimmed glasses.

They told themselves, "I don't think God wants us to be comfortable."

From the looks of it, He does now.

In addition to Ballet Magnificat's Alpha and Omega companies, each with 11 dancers, there's also a trainee program. The organization supports about 50 dancers, staff and faculty members on a $1.5 million budget. It gets no public funding; most of the money is generated through ticket sales, its summer dance program, and School of the Arts classes, taught in a 12,000-square-foot building the company owns, with four studios and a wardrobe workshop.

The school doesn't attract your typical bunhead. Ask Bria Greenwood, 14, and her sister Chandler, 12, longtime students, if they want to be dancers when they grow up, and they answer in unison, grinning: "If the Lord allows us." Whatever their future, faith helps them endure ballet's discipline and exertion. Says Chandler, "None of the pain in ballet class is like what Jesus went through on the cross for us."

The company travels in a 45-foot luxury bus outfitted with triple-decker bunk beds and cozy sofas. And a new sound system; not long ago, right outside the school, someone stole the old stereo and all the Dr Pepper, leaving gum wrappers all over the floor.

Chances are the culprit didn't know his victims are on a mission from God. Because of its frequent touring, Ballet Mag is less known in its home town, where it performs most extensively at Christmastime, than elsewhere. But when it does perform locally, as it did last month to kick off its 25th anniversary celebration, fans as well as the curious drop in.

"The Super Bowl guys and the deer hunters come and check us out, because of who we are and what we stand for," Keith Thibodeaux says. Do they stay?

"Some of them do," he says. The Russian ballet training in which Ballet Mag's dancers are steeped "is a little bit less feminine. It's more athletic. So we bring that across."

***

In many ways, Ballet Magnificat is like any other ballet company, revolving around daily technique class and rehearsals, rehearsals, rehearsals.

In many ways it's not.

Take the miracles. Like all dancers, Ballet Mag's members suffer their share of injuries and ailments. When he was 37, John Vandervelde, one of Ballet Mag's two male dancers, and a father of seven, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee during a Christmas show. His surgeon advised him to hang up his dancing shoes, but the reconstructed knee ended up "picture perfect," the dancer says.

"I felt like that was the Lord's blessing on my surgery," Vandervelde says. At an impressively fit 54, he's still dancing.

Last year, Bethany Hurstell, 20, developed a benign but painful tumor on her shin. She, too, was told her dream was over. The other dancers prayed for her. The day before her scheduled surgery, she went in for an X-ray -- and the tumor was gone. In its place was a stress fracture, which healed in a month.

Prayer also helps resolve costume matters, which require a lot of thought. The company is mindful of modesty issues. Classical tutus are a no-no. Skirts typically extend below the knee, and under them the women wear dark leggings on top of flesh-colored tights. The men wear pants. Not tights.

This company is not for the weak of spirit. Everyone starts as a two-year trainee, so the others can see what kind of a dancer and what kind of a Christian new prospects are.

"We had a Catholic once, but he didn't work out," Vandervelde says. Matters of faith got in the way, and those are not issues that can be solved with prayer or more rehearsal.

Fundamentalism poses some personnel challenges. No Catholics, no agnostics, no gays -- no wonder the company has a hard time finding male dancers, saved straight men who can dance and put up with the touring and the code of conduct. Which means they can't frequent bars or casinos. Members of the opposite sex can't be alone behind closed doors, even for a rehearsal. No swearing, no smoking. Only two men are in the Alpha company, and none are in Omega. Tough circumstances for the choreographer: Laments Voborsky, "One hundred percent of the biblical material has a guy in it somewhere."

Besides Vandervelde, there is the curly-haired dynamo Jonathan Chapman, 22, from Woodstock, Ga., who was attending nearby Belhaven University on scholarship. Until he discovered Ballet Mag.

He gave up a full ride -- to dance?

"I get that reaction," he says with a laugh. "I have that reaction. Sometimes I go into class and think, 'This is crazy.' "

But, he says, "one of my greatest fears is to be static in my witnessing."

No chance of that here. Ballet Mag is looking for motivated Christians. "It's not like a normal company where you're looking for the best dancer," Kathy Thibodeaux says. "We see it as a calling."

***

It was a rock band that gave Kathy Thibodeaux the idea of serving God through ballet.

Keith Thibodeaux had found Jesus as a drug-addled rock musician, following life as a child star. As a toddler drumming prodigy, he played Little Ricky on the "I Love Lucy" show, banging the bongos along with Desi Arnaz. In his teen years, he joined a rock band called David and the Giants and got swallowed up by the drug scene. The Lord saved him, he says, and he persuaded his bandmates to take up Christian rock.

The band proved to be a hit on the church circuit: After a set, the musicians would invite listeners to surrender themselves to Jesus. At one of these events, Kathy Thibodeaux, newly married to Keith, stepped forward.

The band's form of ministry -- the performance, the evangelistic call -- would serve as her guide when she started Ballet Magnificat, taking the name from Luke 1:46, where the pregnant Mary says, "My soul doth magnify the Lord."

Thibodeaux's decision to launch a Christian company made the papers, as she was something of a local hero. In 1982, she had won a silver medal at the second USA International Ballet Competition, held every four years in Jackson (the cycle will bring it back June 12-27). Dancers started calling her. One of them was Vandervelde, a onetime mechanical engineer from Edmonton, Alberta. He had taken his first dance class at the age of 24, left engineering soon after and danced with the Spokane Ballet in Washington state. Along the way, he says, he grew closer to God, first through Bob Dylan's evangelical album, "Slow Train Coming." But ballet forced a breakthrough.

"Ballet was the catalyst for me to kind of come out of the closet as a Christian," Vandervelde says, over a salad and a glass of wine. (He is perhaps the only one in Ballet Mag who drinks -- but then, as he points out, he's not a Southerner, and Jesus was big on wine.)

"The shock for me was, in the ballet world, everything was on the table," he says. "Whatever was going on in your life, no one had any problem sharing that. You know, the artistic mindset." In such intimate surroundings, he could no longer deny his faith and his desire to serve God. Then, as if in answer to his prayers, he learned of the miracle in Jackson.

Once at Ballet Magnificat, he also became the bus repair guy. Everyone here does more than dance and pray. They sew the costumes, work backstage, sell concessions. It's another one of the echoes of Keith Thibodeaux's life in a rock band. No divas allowed.

"It's the hard-work mentality," Keith says. "The touring mentality, being road people."

Roadies for the Lord.

***

It's Saturday, a couple of hours before showtime. Time for daily devotions.

The dancers stand in a circle on the stage, heads bowed, clasping hands. A few place Bibles at their feet, some in a neat first position, toes pointed out.

P.J. Beaver, Erin's brother and also a tour director, starts off: "We pray that we'll be focused on this evening and on nothing else until 11 p.m., Lord Jesus."

Keith Thibodeaux takes it up: "We thank you for this ballet, Lord." As the executive director, he's worried that ticket sales have been slow: "Even if there's only 10, Lord, we thank you for the 10 who come here, Lord, and for the one that will be touched by your spirit."

As it turns out, 250 souls came to that night's show -- not a great turnout. The ballet was "The Scarlet Cord," based on Voborsky's experiences with communism, and while it is his strongest work, it doesn't have the same marketability as Corrie ten Boom's story, familiar to many evangelicals, or the biblical productions. But as the audience filed out, a woman thrust an envelope into the hands of Brenda Holden, the company manager, who was working the box office. It contained a donation to cover the unsold tickets.

"Our daily bread," Holden chirps.

It's easy to see why this company inspires such passion. With the theater turned into an echo chamber of shared beliefs, the transference of energy between performers and audience is extraordinarily powerful. One might feel something like this from a few other dance companies -- Alvin Ailey and Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, say, both of which, to some extent, draw inspiration from African American religious traditions. But the greater secular ballet world could learn from the commitment of Ballet Magnificat's dancers -- and from its steady production of original material.

For the churchgoing members of the audience, however, the element of communal worship seems to be the big draw, sweeping the dancers and their public together in a collaborative celebration.

"This is one of the greatest expressions of the ministry," the Rev. Richard Cox, a pastor at Lake Harbor Baptist Church, says at intermission. He and his wife, Linda, moved to Jackson recently, but they had seen Ballet Mag in Tennessee and Florida, where they liked to bring church members along.

He glances at the aisle, where Keith and Kathy Thibodeaux are in a close huddle with a woman, the three of them standing silently almost forehead to forehead, eyes closed. "See that?" he whispers.

He leans forward. "When they were in Florida, I went down front and prayed with Keith that they would touch lives. It was beautiful."

On Sunday, after Jesus is nailed to the cross in "Deliver Us," Vandervelde takes the stage. He'd danced the role of the Pharaoh, complete with a live snake, and also played one of the Roman soldiers. Now this man in a leatherette toga and ballet slippers calls on the audience members to consider what they've seen. His eye makeup smears under the stage lights, and his tears.

"Could it be that God brought you here not to see a ballet, but to make transaction with you?" he asks those seated before him.

"If that's you, could you meet with us, and pray with us down front?"

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