Creating art for the community

Ballet director has vision for New Haven

James Atkinson

Amanda May

James Atkinson has a vision for New Haven. He wants a night out at the ballet to be the thing to do. And not just for parents attending recitals. He’s seen it in other cities and is back as a native son trying to make it happen here.

Classical Contemporary Ballet Theatre (CCBT) began when Atkinson was dancing with the Colombia City Ballet in South Carolina. His dance career had already taken him around the world and was going well, but he started to crave “more of an adventure.”

Since first toying with the idea as far back as 2003, CCBT has become a full-fledged dance company based jointly out of New Haven and New York.

“It’s always been in my blood, even at ECA,” he explained of his entrepreneurial attitude. “I always wanted to create.”

Photo by Jake Pett.

CCBT dancer Khiara Bridges. Photo by Jake Pett.

As executive and artistic director of CCBT, Atkinson is looking to create a new mold in the dance world. He takes classically trained dancers and pushes them to their limits – and out of familiar terrain – all in pointe shoes.

As the company’s name suggests, CCBT mixes modern and classical styles of dance for innovative public performances and educational programs. Atkinson’s music choices range from typical, classical, violin-heavy pieces to modern and eclectic sounds, including songs by Me’Shell Ndegéocello. Using contemporary music is just one of the ways Atkinson tries to make ballet attractive to an ever-broader audience. He basically wants to make everyone a fan of ballet.

“I want everyone to love ballet like I love it!” he explained.

To do this, he figures you must start an awareness and appreciation for the art from a young age. While Atkinson does not run a dance school, he does incorporate young dancers in every production (so far Metamorphosis and The Nutcracker). His professional dancers adapt and flow with changes in the program as they work with individual groups of students (of varying skill levels) in each town they perform.

Ultimately, Atkinson is fostering a new generation of dancers and audience members. He figures, even if they don’t dance their whole lives, they will remember the art form and cherish performances.

“The art form (of ballet) is dwindling. I want to show it to everyone. Share it,” he said. “I want to show everyone that their stories can be told with ballet.”

Photo by Juliana Thomas

Photo by Juliana Thomas

For the programmatic mix of CCBT performances (using both abstraction and storytelling), Atkinson has assembled a mini UN of sorts, in his words “showing a canvas of color,” with dancers from New York, Asia, India, South America, Canada, and beyond. In doing this, Atkinson is relating to audiences – by encouraging them to identify with the company – and to young dancers – by incorporating them into his productions.

“I want to show, using real-life examples, that ballet could transform their lives,” he said. “Because ballet can change and transform your life – look at me!”

Aside from being ethnically diverse, the company has dancers that are from all walks of life. A handful work professionally (for CCBT and other dance companies in New York), while one is an attorney, one owns a restaurant, another is a belly dancer, and another still works in corporate America.

While for this reason scheduling can be tricky, it gets done, with rehearsals taking place three to four days a week for two to three months leading up to a performance.

“When you have really good dancers, they can learn steps immediately, and retain information because they’re professionals,” Atkinson said, obviously proud of his dancers.

“We have some interesting collaborations taking place in the spring with local choreographers and students. There are some wonderful dance personalities here,” he said. “We want to collaborate with as many local artists as possible, and get involved in more community development with the art organizations and public schools here.”

Long term, look for CCBT programming in the winter, spring, and fall of every year. With each performance, the company inches toward its ultimate goal: to create adult entertainment dedicated to culture and the community, all while providing a social service.

Summing up CCBT’s progress to date, Atkinson offered, “One step at a time, but we’re in a good place.”

For more information about CCBT visit ccbtballettheatre.org.

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