22 May 2020
By Rachel Hellwig
Flocks of swans, waltzing flowers, bourréeing phantoms and leaping princes are all regular sights in rehearsals at Alabama Ballet’s downtown Birmingham studios. Throughout its season, the company produces classical story ballets as well as works by major names like Twyla Tharp, Agnes de Mille and Jiří Kylián. “We’re classically based,” says artistic director Tracey Alvey, who trained at The Royal Ballet School and was a principal with London City Ballet.
But during Alabama Ballet’s annual Ovation showcase, the programming skews more toward the contemporary, as Alvey aims to “give the dancers something to extend their abilities. They need to be versatile, able to jump into any style and excel.” This May, the double-bill features pieces by two female choreographers: the lyrical Donnette Cannonie and German dancemaker Anna Vita.
Springing from three local organizations, Alabama Ballet traces its roots to the early 1980s, and was originally directed by noted Bulgarian dancer Sonia Arova and her husband, Thor Sutowski. Former American Ballet Theatre principal Wes Chapman served as artistic director next, from 1996 until Alvey’s arrival in 2007. Under Chapman’s leadership, the company began to present George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. In 1998, Alabama Ballet added a school, which became RAD certified under Alvey.
Alabama Ballet performs four main-stage productions per season plus an in-studio show. Story ballets are a staple, so audiences can expect full-lengths—such as Romeo & Juliet, La Sylphide and The Sleeping Beauty—alongside mixed-repertoire programs ranging from classical to contemporary. In recent years, these have included Act II of La Bayadère, Études by Harald Lander, Tharp’s In the Upper Room, de Mille’s Rodeo and Kylián’s Sechs Tänze. Associate artistic director and resident choreographer Roger VanFleteren also produces original work, like Bonnie and Clyde and Alice in Wonderland.
“I love the variety of the repertoire,” says Ariana Czernobil, who’s now in her ninth season. “It’s so different from year to year.” A graduate of University of North Carolina School of the Arts’ high school program, she became acquainted with Alabama Ballet as a teen because her sister was a company member. “Since we’re unranked, there are also opportunities for new dancers to perform solo roles,” says Czernobil. “An apprentice might be cast in the corps and also in a variation. We cheer everyone on.”
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