Carolina Ballet at 15: constantly creating

Liza Roberts
photographs by Jimmy Williams

When Carolina Ballet artistic director Robert Weiss found a seat in Raleigh’s intimate Fletcher Opera Theater one recent afternoon, he and the rest of the audience settled in for an event that has become commonplace here: An extraordinary performance by world-class dancers, culminating in a heartfelt, whooping, standing ovation.

Since its founding in 1996, Raleigh’s nationally renowned ballet company has presented 92 new ballets – the recent Evening of Robert Weiss is just one of 45 choreographed by Weiss himself – and performed countless others. In addition to breaking new ground with creations like this spring’s bluegrass ballet Carolina Jamboree, performed with the Red Clay Ramblers, the ballet also proudly puts on traditional classics like Giselle and The Nutcracker.

But for all of its prolific success and critical acclaim, Carolina Ballet at 15 still scrambles to raise the millions it needs to thrive, and works hard to build audiences beyond a loyal core. At its heart is a corps of talented dancers who have made Raleigh their home, led by the sometimes bearish, undeniably brilliant Weiss. Together they keep creating world-class ballets, one after the other, year after year, and consider themselves privileged to do so.

“It’s very unusual for a community like Raleigh to be home to an organization like Carolina Ballet,” says Wall Street Journal drama critic and arts writer Terry Teachout, the author of a biography of legendary choreographer George Balanchine. “Theater companies are one thing – you can find first-rate ones all over America – but I can’t think of any similarly sized city where a ballet company of real creative significance has managed to take root and flourish. Carolina Ballet is not only putting on first-class performances, but premiering new ballets that are as good as anything you can see anywhere in the world.”

Lisa Jones, the ballet’s executive director, has a spreadsheet so big she keeps it rolled up like a poster to show how Carolina Ballet compares with ballet companies in other cities. To find anything like the sheer number of programs and performances Carolina Ballet puts on in a given year – about eight programs and 75 performances – she has to point to markets like New York, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia; organizations with operating budgets more than double Carolina Ballet’s $5.5 million.

Which is why Weiss gets frustrated. “I sit in the audience and I go, why aren’t there more people here?” he says. The ballet’s longtime supporters don’t need convincing. Raleigh’s Eve Smith, for one, has held season tickets for 15 years, and says the company’s versatility – its excellence in styles ranging from classical to modern – is what impresses her most. “Ricky is a genius, literally a genius. He has taken it from square one to a nationally and internationally recognized ballet company. It’s a huge achievement in only 15 years.”

Many local companies agree. Though Fortune 500-style corporate sponsorship is in short supply these days, the ballet does have major support from companies like Capitol Broadcasting Company, PNC Bank, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Rex UNC Healthcare.

Growing up in the corps

In part because of its vast repertoire, Carolina Ballet has been able to retain talented dancers who would otherwise seek larger stages. Several of its 35 dancers have been with the company since the beginning, literally growing up here; today some are principal dancers.

Margaret Severin-Hansen, 32, is one. A 15-year veteran, she arrived as an apprentice and has not missed a day of dancing since (except once, when the company flew all day to Hawaii for a performance, an aberration that clearly rankles her). “We’ve all grown so much as artists here, because we’ve had so much opportunity to dance so many roles,” she says. At ease in her dancer’s many-layered rehearsal garb, Severin-Hansen happily describes herself as “the biggest bun-head” – a term meant to mock a stereotypically intense, hyper-focused dancer. Her world is, in fact, almost entirely defined by dance and by the company. She didn’t look beyond its ranks to find love, marrying fellow Carolina Ballet principal dancer Gabor Kapin in 2008 at the home of Elizabeth Parker, Robert Weiss’s longtime assistant.

Lilyan Vigo Ellis, 34, who graces this month’s Walter’s cover, is another veteran. She will dance the role of Sugar Plum Fairy in Nutcracker for the 11th year, and still seems dazzled by her fate. The Sugar Plum Fairy is “the most magical” role, she says. “It’s what every little girl wants to do, and now I get to do it.”

Like Severin-Hansen, she has worked hard to make her dream come true. “I started here at 19 with braces,” Ellis says, “and now here I am, a mom with a family – inside and outside the ballet.”

Becoming a mother while dancing professionally has been a challenge, Ellis says. She’s married to a former dancer who understands the pressures she faces, which helps; so does the support of her colleagues. The consummate professional in full costume and makeup, Ellis patiently leaps into the air under Weiss’s watch for this issue’s cover photograph but still feels comfortable telling the group she has to leave to pick her son up from daycare.

If you spend any time at all in the ballet’s busy rehearsal studios on Atlantic Avenue, it becomes clear that Ellis, Severin-Hansen, and their fellow dancers – a talented, driven bunch from all over the world – have formed an honest, tight-knit family.

Severin-Hansen admits that dancing with her husband “has its positives and negatives.” The same voice “that asks him if he’s going to do the dishes” at home is bickering with him about foot placement at work. In rehearsal, it’s true that they share an obvious intimacy and plenty of smiles, but also don’t hesitate to differ over what’s going wrong with a particular pas de deux, and why.

Pablo Javier Perez, 33, a native of Montevideo, Uruguay, joined the company at the beginning as well, and, thanks to their mutual small stature, has been paired with Severin-Hansen as a dance partner ever since. She taught him English from scratch. The two describe each other as the best of friends while admitting to one six-month stretch in which they managed to dance – but not speak – every day. They got over it.

The bond extends beyond the senior ranks, as well. As they await rehearsal, the younger dancers sit on the floor in relaxed groups, sharing snacks like a flock of lovely birds with particularly erect posture.

One is Cecelia Iliesiu, 22, who trained at the School of American Ballet and is in her fourth season here. She is thrilled to have recently been given the chance to dance in Apollo, part of A Balanchine Celebration, and she credits Weiss with fostering the talents of the whole company. “He really, really cares about his dancers, and he’s there all of the time. He wants to make the environment as healthy as possible, and give equal opportunities, and that’s really unusual.”

Head of the family 

If the Carolina Ballet is a family, Weiss is its old-school patriarch. With a gruff demeanor that fails to disguise his affection or pride, and a penchant for a cigarette, a real Coke and the odd Three Musketeers bar, Weiss does not stand on ceremony. He’s clear about his role, and he takes it seriously: artistic director, emphasis on the art.

Known as Ricky to his dancers, Weiss, 63, cuts the dapper figure of an elegant, distracted professor. In his well-cut blazers, cardigan sweaters and beautiful shoes, he is commanding in the rehearsal studio, and feet-up comfortable in his memento-filled office. An honorary doctorate of fine arts from N.C. State University has pride of place there, among photographs and posters from ballet companies like the Kirov and the American Ballet Theater.

A dancer – eventually, a principal dancer – in George Balanchine’s own New York City Ballet for 17 years, Weiss learned to dance and to create first-hand from the most important choreographer of the last century. When he brought that experience to Raleigh at the invitation of Carolina Ballet visionary and founder Ward Purrington, Weiss didn’t scale his ambition down to the size of the market. He set out instead to create a ballet company big and dexterous enough to put on elaborate, stage-filling ballets; a company game enough to constantly create and perform new works; and one talented enough to matter.

With him came his wife, Melissa Podcasy, a principal dancer who retired this year at 52. It was, and is, a rare opportunity. “Not that many people get a chance to make their vision real,” Weiss says. “You can’t do that unless you found a company. I found all of the dancers, I decided on the repertoire, I was able to mold the company into something I think is very special.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Teachout says the fact that Weiss has succeeded in this effort is a “singular achievement” audiences might not fully appreciate. “Believe me, it’s remarkable in the highest degree for one of George Balanchine’s protégés to come to a medium-sized city, start a dance company from scratch, and spend two straight decades turning out ballets like Symposium or Tempest Fantasy or Ricky’s version of Romeo and Juliet,” he says. “We’re talking major work here, the kind you’d expect to see in New York or London. And it’s happening in Raleigh, North Carolina.”

Height of their powers

Weiss visibly brightens when he talks about his dancers and their artistry: “They’re at the height of their powers now,” he says of Severin-Hansen, Ellis, and Perez. “Seeing people grow and develop and then turn into first-rank performers is a wonderful experience to have.” But Weiss is frustrated by the ballet’s struggle to expand its audience and the effect that has on the budget. “The good news is that we have made a fantastic ballet company that is nationally recognized. It’s fantastic that the people who come are passionate about it. The bad news is that we still don’t have enough money to run the place. How do we grow this thing so it’s sustainable? That’s my conundrum.”

One way is to re-invent its biggest money-maker, The Nutcracker. As is the case for ballet companies everywhere, Nutcracker is Carolina Ballet’s biggest annual draw. More than 30,000 see the holiday extravaganza every year. “For most people, it’s the be-all and end-all” ballet to watch, Weiss says. Not for him: “Our other repertoire programs are much more interesting. My vision is that ballet is a lot more than tutus and pink tights. Not that I don’t love tutus and pink tights, but that’s not all we do.”

Last year, however, he went out on a limb to create a new Nutcracker, one designed to delight with magic tricks and effects designed by a Las Vegas special-effects magician. The result not only brought in record crowds, it also solved the problem Weiss had with the first 30 minutes of the ballet’s being “boring.” It was a tremendous success, critically and commercially. “A huge victory,” says Weiss.

So excited was Carolina Ballet about the new production that for the first time, it took Nutcracker to Durham. At the Durham Performing Arts Center, or DPAC, “we found an untapped market, and expanded our audience base,” says Jones, the executive director. It was such a hit there – nearly 3,000 people came to the three performances, and Jones says 90 percent of them were new to Carolina Ballet – that this year Carolina Ballet is bringing Giselle and Carolina Jamboree to DPAC.

The idea that there is always something new to do – ballets to create; classics to re-invent; places to go – keeps Weiss and his dancers humming. The hope that there are new audience members the Carolina Ballet can turn into ballet lovers is something Weiss says he takes very seriously. He relishes the chance to show newcomers what ballet is all about.

“Ballet is really about beauty,” he says. “Beauty in our society has become passé, but the human soul craves beauty. It entertains your highest sense of who you are. It’s spiritual, it’s poetic, it’s physical.”     

Carolina Ballet will perform Nutcracker multiple times this holiday season. For performance times and ticket information, go to