"I was asked many times by other artistic directors, from Devon Carney to Peter Boal, 'Wait a minute, you don't live there? How is this working?'" says Michael Bearden about directing Ballet Arkansas in Little Rock. For the past four years, he has lived a double life—one part artistic director of the up-and-coming regional ballet company and the other part a tenure-track professor at University of Utah in Salt Lake City, commuting more than 1,400 miles between the two locations every six weeks. He started teaching at University of Utah before he had even completed his bachelor's degree. "I was never one to shy away from a challenge," he says.
With masterful multitasking ability, goal-oriented nature and irrefutable charisma, Bearden has proven himself invaluable. Now, following his remarkable juggling act in Utah and Arkansas, at 37, he has landed the coveted position of director of the School of Dance at University of Oklahoma.
When Bearden began studying at the University of Utah in 1998, he couldn't have predicted the twists and turns his career would take. After his freshman year, he was offered a position with Ballet West. Over his 14 years with the company, rising through the ranks to principal in 2008, he gradually worked toward his bachelor's degree.
After an ankle injury in 2008 and a new baby in 2011, he started to consider a career shift. In the spring of 2013, as he was preparing to retire from Ballet West, he got the opportunity to guest teach at Brigham Young University for three months. "I thought, 'OK, this might be a good way to see if teaching in a university is for me or not,'" he says.
As it turns out, higher education was his calling. Although he still had two years of credits left to get his BFA, Bearden made such a good impression teaching that he was offered a position as visiting assistant professor at University of Utah that fall. He finished his degree over the next two years while teaching ballet technique, partnering, men's class, introduction to choreography and production. In 2015, after completing his BFA, he was offered a full-time position with another university. Utah countered with an offer of tenure, which he accepted. "He's a man of action," says Utah's director of dance Luc Vanier. "He can look at a situation, consider what's needed and come up with a plan."
Meanwhile, Bearden had maintained a close relationship with Ballet Arkansas since 2011, working as its artistic advisor. Upon his retirement from the stage, he was asked to be the artistic director. He agreed under the condition that he could stay in Salt Lake City and prioritize his professorship. "There were two motivations. One was to help develop professional dance in my home state. The other was that I've always been passionate about arts administration," he says. "Even if I had to do it remotely, I was still going to get to do what I loved doing."
Bearden starts his new position as director of the School of Dance at University of Oklahoma this fall. Photo by Chris Cranford, courtesy of Ballet Arkansas
Bearden is originally from Arkansas, so directing Ballet Arkansas provided him the chance to express his gratitude to the community that gave him his start. While teaching classes and choreographing at Utah, Bearden flew to Little Rock every six weeks to check in with the company. He usually stayed a week, but sometimes it was just for one day. "Any fall break or spring break, I'd be going back and forth," he says. "I'd come home at night after work at University of Utah and catch up on Ballet Arkansas e-mails. It was taxing emotionally, mentally and physically, but it was worth every moment."
Bearden credits the Ballet Arkansas staff and dancers with "picking up the slack" left during his absences. However, you can just look at the company today to see the positive influence he had. "The repertoire got steadily stronger over the four years, which in turn pushed the dancers to grow as artists," he says, noting the works by George Balanchine, Gerald Arpino, Val Caniparoli and Darrell Grand Moultrie that he brought into the fold. To accommodate the more demanding repertory, the company grew from 10 dancers to 13.
Perhaps his greatest legacy at Ballet Arkansas is VISIONS: A Choreographic Competition, which he founded in 2015. Emerging choreographers compete to have a work commissioned by the company. VISIONS gives them a platform to show their work and involves the community in the selection. "It has created a lot of ownership from community members," says Bearden. "That was my mission. I wanted them to feel that it was their company." Thanks to this and Bearden's other community outreach initiatives, the company's audience numbers have steadily increased.
He starts his new position in Norman, OK, this fall. As director of the School of Dance at OU, he'll manage seven faculty members, 85 dance majors and five master's candidates. He will teach and choreograph and, because his position is tenured, will be expected to conduct research. "I do feel that out of respect for colleagues that have gone through the tenure process, it's incumbent upon me to work hard, do research, continue to learn and develop as a teacher, because that's what I would be doing if I was on a tenure line right now," he says.
Bearden's time at Utah and Ballet Arkansas more than adequately prepared him for his next chapter. "I think it kept me developing in both the professional world and higher education," he says. "I learned how they really do complement each other."