There has been a mass exodus from St. Paul Ballet following the termination last month of artistic director Zoé Emilie Henrot.
The 28-year-old dancer and choreographer was quick to rebound, putting together a brand-new company and taking with her all 10 St. Paul Ballet company dancers. “As an artistic director, I’m really looking for a certain vision every single time I’m working on a project,” Henrot said by phone last week. With her own company and school, she added, “I can exercise that vision a little bit more.”
Henrot was hired as artistic director five years ago, not long after St. Paul City Ballet was restructured and rebranded as St. Paul Ballet. Her termination, according to Executive Director Lori Gleason, “is all wrapped together in the direction that we’re going.
“That was a decision that was made with the board of directors over a long period of time,” Gleason said.
Lillyan Hoyos, board secretary for St. Paul Ballet, said legal reasons prevent the organization from saying why Henrot was terminated. “We sought all the counsel that we could to make sure that we did it the right way,” she said.
As for Henrot, she said she’s not clear on the full reasons for her firing. “It’s definitely philosophical differences, artistic differences,” she said. “I can’t really comment on the why or anything like that because I don’t fully understand it myself.”
Henrot found out she was terminated in early August. After that, she said, she spent about two days looking for a different kind of career opportunity, inquiring with Twin Cities yoga businesses about management positions and reaching out to dance department directors at various colleges. “I was really trying to completely turn away from directorship, and that was probably an emotional reaction,” she said. “It was really the community that made me believe that I could create my own place.”
Henrot said she was approached by a couple of financial backers. (Those donors wish to remain anonymous for now, she said.) They helped persuade her to start a new company.
“I got this overwhelming support,” she said. “People were reaching out to me that I didn’t even know sometimes, just saying, ‘We know of you and wanted to let you know that we really appreciate your work and we want to be involved with what you are doing.’ ”
Much of that support came from St. Paul Ballet’s former dancers, all of whom joined Henrot’s newly formed Ballet Co.Laboratory. Michelle Ludwig said that Henrot’s termination was a total surprise, but that the group swiftly banded together. “We’ve been as a unit for so long,” she said. “We just stuck together as we have been throughout the years.”
Ballet Co.Laboratory board members include former St. Paul Ballet board member Jim DeLeo, Denis Henrot — Zoé Emilie Henrot’s dad — and Sara Wilson, whose daughter took classes at St. Paul Ballet for many years. The company is housed temporarily at Gethsemane Episcopal Church in downtown Minneapolis, with plans to stage an informal show in October.
The title? “On Our Terms.”
“For us, it’s a healing concert, to come together and perform together for the first time,” Zoé Emilie Henrot said.
A new ‘movement center’
Meanwhile, Gleason said, St. Paul Ballet is looking for an interim artistic director. “But we’re really going to take some time and put some thought into a long-term hire,” she said, “someone that really fits our mission and vision.”
The company plans to set up a search committee consisting of board and community members, Hoyos said. “Part of the requirements of that search is that the artistic director understands what the mission is and is willing to create a diverse and dynamic company,” she said.
That includes “diversity that we want to see in the art form,” Hoyos added.
St. Paul Ballet’s goal of making classical ballet more accessible and diverse is a key part of its partnership with Element Gym. The two entities have worked together closely ever since St. Paul Ballet moved next door to Element in 2014.
Their most recent collaboration was a project called “The Art of Boxing, the Sport of Ballet,” culminating last spring with a performance at the Ordway Center in downtown St. Paul featuring boxers and dancers.
“Our partnership with Element boxing is opening up the doors to a different group in the community that wasn’t familiar with ballet or the possibility they could be part of ballet,” Hoyos said.
St. Paul Ballet and Element Gym are working in partnership with the Artspace Immersion Program, an 18-month program helping arts and cultural nonprofits create and maintain affordable space for their programming.
“Our vision is to create a movement center,” Gleason said, “so we create a huge amount of access to dance.”
The new building will be home to the ballet company and the boxing gym, but there will be other fitness and movement companies as well, including martial arts groups.
St. Paul Ballet and Element Gym have built a shared lobby. Element Gym owner Dalton Outlaw said it’s a space where dance and boxing families can commingle. “It’s a community building space,” he said.
Outlaw, who serves on St. Paul Ballet’s board of directors, said he very much supports the current vision for St. Paul Ballet as a place that is all about accessibility.
“We are really trying to reflect the city, and make it look more like the city it represents,” he said. “We know St. Paul is a very diverse community, and St. Paul Ballet is starting to look like that.”
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis critic and arts journalist.