Casey Herd was born in Salt Lake City, Utah where his love for and training in ballet began. After graduating from The Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington D.C., he began his professional career with American Ballet Theatre in New York City. Following that, Casey joined Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle where he quickly rose through the ranks to become principal dancer. In 2011, Dance Europe named Casey nineteenth in their top 100 international dancers who made outstanding achievements. Casey has gone on to receive prestigious awards and dance with ballet companies and galas the world over.
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After retiring from the Dutch National Ballet in 2016, Casey began a career as an international guest artist and teacher. In 2019, he was inspired to create Ballet Rising, a new initiative stemming from his life-long passion for art, photography, history, sociology, and travel. Ballet Rising is a story-telling project focused on people around the world whose passion for classical ballet is redefining their culture and elevating ballet as a global art form. With more and more ballet stars emerging from non-traditional ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds than ever before, Casey wanted to highlight the global passion that exists for ballet. Ballet Rising’s films visit places where the drive to build ballet communities has originated within the local communities themselves. Positive relationships are built with local arts organizations so that the global ballet community grows in harmony with local customs.
Face the Current had the pleasure of learning more about Ballet Rising from Casey himself, delving into the universality of classical ballet as an art form, the evolution of ballet, and the ways in which the project is connecting global ballet communities.
Sasha Frate: How did you discover your passion for ballet?
Casey Herd: My first real experience with ballet was getting rejected at my first audition for the Nutcracker. I was ten years old, and out of more than thirty boys, I was one of a handful that didn’t make it. I don’t remember what drove me to want to audition, but it sounded fun! After being rejected though, I felt pretty bad. My mom recommended that I start taking ballet lessons so I could try again the following year. So, I started classes and then stuck with them not only because I really enjoyed dancing, but because I also found a group of kids with whom I felt comfortable and with whom I identified. I was an extremely introverted kid, but ballet got me to open up and socialize with others.
Utah isn’t the first place most people think of when it comes to ballet, but Ballet West (the local company) was—and still is—pretty impressive for a small desert city. I always loved Utah, but for a small boy growing up there in the eighties and nineties who wanted to be in “the big city,” it felt as far away as Mars from major art-centers like London, Paris, New York, etc. We didn’t have much money growing up, so traveling far from Utah wasn’t an option until I started getting scholarships to schools on the East Coast. When I was able to visit places that I had dreamed about my whole life, ballet became everything to me.
SF: How did your personal experience with ballet influence the inception of Ballet Rising?
CH: I felt disconnected from the arts world as a kid and because of that experience; I’ve always wanted to help others who feel similarly disconnected from the mainstream arts world. I got an idea for how I could do it after I retired from dancing full-time in 2016. At the time, I wanted to travel the world looking for some kind of new motivation and project. I never wanted to entirely leave the ballet world, but I wanted to take a step back for a while and learn more about other things. During my travels, I realized that I could use my connections and experience to help connect people in the ballet world to each other. Ballet Rising really started after I realized how many people around the world were trying to build ballet communities, and how eager they were to have me visit and lend my support.
SF: Why did you choose this approach for showcasing ballet: “A journey to explore the emergence of classical ballet in the most unlikely places”?
CH: I have several reasons for wanting to focus on ballet in unlikely places. First of all, I love traveling and learning about other cultures, and Ballet Rising lets me do that. However, I also have a deep desire to support others in their efforts to create new artistic initiatives and to help grow the art form. Ballet Rising is also a personal creative outlet that keeps me active in my personal life and plugged in to the ballet and dance community. It keeps me in the ballet world but in a place where I really feel I can have maximum impact.
However, I kept running into the problem of funding. I wanted to travel to emerging ballet communities, but they often have very little money to support my visit. As I started looking for ways of raising funds, my good friend Chris Weisler suggested we make films about the people I visit because they have really fascinating stories. It was at that point we decided to call the project Ballet Rising and turn it into a documentary film series dedicated to the rising global popularity of ballet. Chris is a former dancer and now an accomplished photographer, and he shares my passion for travel and making images. We decided to turn Ballet Rising into a film series because there are so many really unique and fascinating people out there doing interesting things in the ballet community.
We’re trying something new in the dance community—creating short dance films sponsored by companies looking to build their brand through dance and dance stories. We want to work with companies that want to become a part of the community instead of just blasting paid advertisements at people. Ballet Rising’s model is a way for companies to engage with their customers in a more meaningful way while also supporting artists, students, and teachers to build a global community for the twenty-first century. For me, I’m happy to be the person who can make these connections.
Since Chris and I founded Ballet Rising, Lindsay Alissa King has come on board. She’s been writing fantastic articles centered on overarching ideas about Ballet Rising, while also conducting interviews with people we hope to film in the future. This has allowed us to broaden our scope to turn Ballet Rising into a multi-media platform that includes film, photography, and journalism. We hope this will help us engage with people in an extended variety of ways.
I want to go where I can be most useful. I think someone like me, who loves learning about others but also has extensive experience and skills as a ballet dancer, can have a big impact in places far from traditional ballet-centric cities. We often hear about emerging ballet talents from unusual places in ballet, but we only get cursory information at best. However, I think we’re at the start of a trend—there’s a major rise in the worldwide popularity of ballet and an ongoing diversification of the ballet world. I think there is a big story here. Ballet is expanding and changing to suit the twenty-first century.
SF: Alonzo King said, “The purpose of art is higher than art. What we are really interested in are masterpieces of humanity.” How does ballet create masterpieces of humanity?
Ballet is contributing masterpieces of humanity to the art world that are refined movements placed in a sequence that paint a picture of an idea or a story in a way that suits the interpretation like no other. Ballet is crafted and honed over years and years, and the canvas is our bodies. The work and experimentation we do as dancers is showcased with that unique ability and is set to music or sound to give the viewer/participant a different way of experiencing our common reality. The masterpieces of dance are interactive and experienced both visually and physically.
It’s not uncommon for choreographers to talk about their ballet in terms similar to painting a picture. They talk about rendering shapes and figures and filling in the details with color, contrasts of changing lights, or moods from moment to moment. It’s usually much more interactive as it requires a lot of cooperation between many disciplines such as dancers, choreographers, set designers, costume designers, composers, musicians, and an audience. The final artistic piece takes place over a period of time rather than a permanent and physical section of space. Masterpieces of ballet are like all great works of visual art—they speak about stories, feelings, or ideas we have in ways that move us.
SF: With all the many different types/styles of dance, how do you see ballet differentiated?
CH: Of all of the international styles of dance, ballet is probably the oldest with many other styles of dance also incorporating ballet steps into their repertoire. But a big part of my own attraction to ballet was the lifestyle and the feelings I got from performing. I loved being in the theatre with everyone, sharing a passion for a classical art form with such a rich history. There is something intoxicating in the anticipation of a big show—you feel an energy in the theatre. When the lights go on and the music starts, your head goes clear; your focus is complete. Everything else fades away and you are really living in the moment.
However, I’m not sure I would say this is so different from other forms of dance. I believe dance is dance and it doesn’t matter what style you like. I don’t believe there is any particular style that is better than the next—all dance forms require a tremendous amount of discipline. You always have to be driven to rise to the top in all forms of dance, and you can experience that performance intoxication as you forget everything else for a few minutes. I was attracted to ballet and other people find themselves more interested in other forms of dance, but we can learn from each other and incorporate the insights from another style into our own work. I know that there are ballet elitists out there, but for me—and the vast majority of ballet dancers—dance is dance. Whichever way you like to, just do it!
SF: What has been some of the most surprising revelations since you began this project?
CH: The biggest surprise to me has been just how widespread ballet really is. I knew there were people out there doing amazing work in places far from ballet-centric cities, but I have found people building ballet communities in every country I have looked at! It’s so amazing to me that so many people from starkly different backgrounds all fell in love with the same style of dance that I did. It just proves that dance is universal; it doesn’t matter where you come from!
SF: You’ve mentioned that there is a movement to make ballet a truly global art form. What has stood in the way of this until now?
CH: For most people around the world, it can be very difficult to engage with ballet. Without schools and companies in local regions, there was really no way for people to become exposed to or learn about ballet. Some companies have toured to places outside of the traditional centers of Western arts, but those kinds of engagements have never been sustained efforts with outreach and education as a part of the tour. However, social media has changed things. Ballet has become more global because everyone in the world can watch ballet online and study ballet on their own through platforms like YouTube.
There’s another problem, too: ballet has been described as white, upper class, European, and too sophisticated. Some of these perceptions are rooted in historical realities that are only now starting to change. Many people view ballet as something they can’t or shouldn’t do, but what we’ve discovered through Ballet Rising is that this perception is starting to change both in ballet-centric places and elsewhere. Ballet in Europe and North America is becoming more diverse at the same time that the dance form is expanding in new locations around the globe. We are starting to see ballet shed its stigma as an elitist dance form intended only for white people. People already in the ballet community are finally becoming more conscious of racial, sexual, and ethnic stereotypes. It’s hard to say whether diversification is causing these stereotypes and perceptions to change, or whether perception change is driving diversification, but I hope that’s a question we can think about as Ballet Rising unfolds. This is as much a journey of discovery for us as it will be for everybody watching our films and reading our articles.
SF: How do you see the movement evolving today? How has the art form transformed?
Ballet, like all art forms, has always been evolving. Change itself isn’t really new, but I would say that ballet today is expanding. More and more people are coming from a wider variety of countries, races, ethnicities, and ideologies to participate in ballet. While it still retains its roots and traditions, we are finding new sub-styles of ballet and experimenting with more sciences, art forms, and other styles of dance.
Ballet added a new style in the twentieth century when George Balanchine came to the United States and founded the School of American Ballet that operated with a hint of Broadway style. We will continue see other people adapting ballet in their own way to create a style that suits their needs, even as ballet retains its traditions.
SF: What do you believe (or see) is the most influential factor(s) for people choosing to dance ballet in places one might not expect?
CH: I think the look, style, and feeling of movement in ballet just resonates with some people. Ballet is also famous for particular movements and lines that are recognizable and beautiful to people in many places. I also believe that it’s human nature to want to feel graceful and elegant. Besides that, the sense of community draws people to ballet. Ballet gives people a shared space to meet others with whom they can identify and share the same passion and dedication.
I hope that people hold on to their local history and culture, but I’ve noticed that ballet “in unlikely places” sometimes attracts people who want to do something a little different, and maybe that’s because they want to be a part of larger or more global communities. I hope that Ballet Rising can celebrate and preserve local cultural dances while also supporting aspiring ballet dancers.
SF: Who are some of the pioneers of this emerging world of ballet? What are they doing that is influencing the art and community?
CH: We’ve found pioneers of ballet all over the place. It really didn’t take long to compile a large list of people in a multitude of countries. A few who stand out to me are Ritika Chandra from India, Esther Oladipupo from Nigeria, Dirk Badenhorst from South Africa, Thereza Aguilar from Brazil, Yos Clark from Ivory Coast, and Stephen Bimson in Cambodia. There are so many others and we hope to reach as many as we can. Everyone we talk to has very unique stories, but they share the same drive to build communities and spread the love of dance and creativity in their countries.
SF: How does Ballet Rising show this art form changing lives around the world? In what ways do you see the impact?
CH: You will see it in our films and can read all about it in our articles. We will also be producing podcasts and other types of media on our website to keep up with the progress of the individuals we meet and the initiatives we follow.
In some ways we’ve been able to have an impact on the communities with which we’re in touch. For years Ritika Chandra in New Dehli has been trying to get sponsorship for her projects and to spread the word to community leaders about the benefit of what she is doing in India. However, people rarely took her seriously until she could show them that she had international support. The Ballet Rising team was able to give her a bit more legitimacy in their eyes, and I hope that we can help many others this way.
We are also hoping to spotlight local ballet initiatives in order to help build up local ballet and dance communities. We want to create regional networks and, ultimately, we also want to build a truly global community where people from every corner of the planet feel that they are accepted in the ballet world. We want them to have a voice and a community where we can all communicate and be a force for good around the world. It’s our hope that artists can speak about important issues that affect us all.
We also have a lot of other more direct ways we could help in the future, but for now we want to concentrate on getting to know these people and sharing their stories.