After Juggling Positions at University of Utah and Ballet Arkansas, Michael Bearden Lands in Norman, Oklahoma

Bearden teaching company class at Ballet Arkansas. Photo by Chris Cranford, courtesy of Ballet Arkansas

"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."

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.