Get to Know Grand Rapids Ballet Artistic Director James Sofranko and
2018-19 Season Plans
By Adrienne Warber
Grand Rapids Ballet is known for performing some of the most artistic and thought-provoking dance productions in the Midwest. Dancers and choreographers come from all over the nation and world to bring high dance art to the West Michigan community. The Grand Rapids-based company has gained international critical acclaim for their performances. Now Grand Rapids Ballet enters a their 2018-19 Season with a new artistic director, James Sofranko. Get to know James Sofranko and his exciting plans for the 2018-19 Season, which opens Oct. 19 with “Wild Sweet Love.”
James Sofranko’s Dance Journey
James Sofranko’s dance journey began at the age of five when he saw Michael Jackson dance on TV and then asked his parents for dance classes. His parents enrolled him in ballet, tap and jazz classes at a local dance studio in their hometown of Cincinnati, OH. Over the years, his love of dance and his great talent for it grew. He took many styles of dance, ranging from tap, jazz and contemporary to ballet, including classes in musical theatre. Sofranko studied ballet at The Harid Conservatory in Boca Raton, Florida. He then received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance from The Juilliard School in New York, NY. San Francisco Ballet offered Sofranko a dance position right after graduation from Juilliard. He danced as a soloist and worked as a choreographer at San Francisco Ballet for 18 years.
Both dance and choreography have always been important to Sofranko. During his 18 years at San Francisco Ballet, Sofranko was known as a gifted dancer and a brilliant choreographer, dancing and creating award-winning pieces for San Francisco Ballet and other companies. He danced in many works by today’s leading choreographers. He also choreographed a number of original works. In 2014, he founded the contemporary dance repertory company, SFDanceworks in San Francisco, which has featured many original works and sold out performances. Sofranko is currently involved in the artistic leadership and development of SFDanceworks.
Strong classical ballet and contemporary dance techniques are a part of Sofranko’s background. Now Sofranko joins Grand Rapids Ballet as artistic director in their 2018-19 Season. His artistic leadership will bring works on stage that blend both classical ballet and contemporary work and continue to grow Grand Rapids Ballet as a leading voice in the field of dance.
Many things inspire Sofranko about dance. “Dance inspires me in so many ways. It’s this form of expression that doesn’t use words, which is our most common way of communicating. Body language is also something that everyone understands. We can all relate to dance. When something speaks to you through movement, it hits you on a deeper level, in an almost unexpected way. When you go to see a live performance and you see these beautiful people who have trained for years honing their craft and training their bodies to perform in this moment in time where this magical thing in the theater happens and you are struck by what they are saying to you without saying anything. That’s what’s beautiful about dance as an art form to me. It can even sometimes speak deeper to you than words can,” says Sofranko.
He also draws inspiration for dance from real life heroes. He comments on inspiring people, “Anyone who has a passion for what they do, who wants to better the world is inspiring to me. I was struck by the life of Stephen Hawking, who died recently. His life is very inspiring to me. He had almost no faculties in his body at all but he made the most of what he did have, which was his brain. That is inspiring to me. We as dancers have full use of our bodies and how are we going to use that to our potential? That inspires me to train these dancers as best I can and to give them as much as I can for them to live to their full potential and connect to as many people as possible. Putting great art into the world is really important.”
Plans for Grand Rapids Ballet
As artistic director, Sofranko will both lead and work alongside dancers to bring dance art to life. He will bring his special blend of dance art to Grand Rapids Ballet this Season by choreographing original works for the 2018-19 Season shows, “Wild Sweet Love” and “Extremely Close.” He also believes in making sure artists have a chance to grow their art. He will offer opportunities for dancers interested in choreography to develop works. Some of the dancers will present pieces in “Movemedia Handmade.”
Sofranko will also have different choreographers come work with the dancers throughout the year. He talks about the importance of dancers learning from a variety of choreographers, “This gives the dancers an influx of ideas and styles of movement. It helps you to learn about yourself and different ways to move and get ideas from people with different backgrounds in dance. The more a dancer learns from these experiences, the more well-rounded the dancer.”
He has many ideas to help Grand Rapids Ballet continue to grow and already has a draft of a five-year plan. Sofranko’s future plans for Grand Rapids Ballet include eventually performing two shows each Season at DeVos Performance Hall and to set more shows to live music from Grand Rapids Symphony and other musicians.
Blending Ballet and Contemporary Dance Rooted in Classical Technique
Grand Rapids Ballet is already known their diverse repertoire and for performing strong classical ballet and contemporary works. Sofranko plans for Grand Rapids Ballet to continue to present both ballet and contemporary pieces, with an emphasis on classical ballet technique in both traditional ballet and contemporary numbers.
Sofranko comes from a dance background featuring extensive classical ballet training from The Harid Conservatory and top contemporary dance technique training from The Juilliard School. This background has prepared him for the demands of today’s dance audience that enjoys both classical ballet and contemporary works.
He talks about how classical ballet and contemporary dance work well together, “Modern dance techniques teach you about ways to move your body and not just a single method. Ballet technique has a structure to it. You learn about release more in some of those modern dance techniques and you learn about curving the spine a little more than you would in classical ballet. You can still use some of those techniques and feelings in classical ballet too. The world has become more of a hybrid these days. Classical ballet companies are doing more contemporary choreography.”
Sofranko discusses the importance of studying both classical ballet and contemporary dance techniques for dancers and choreographers, “At Juilliard, I was known as the ballet boy because of I came from The Harid Conservatory, which is a classical program. When I went to San Francisco Ballet, I was the modern boy because I had a lot of modern training from Juilliard. But we did so many varieties and styles of choreography at San Francisco Ballet under the umbrella of a ballet company. We didn’t just do ballet. You kind of blend the two. That’s where choreographers these days find the most interesting movement where you’re utilizing ballet technique but you’re able to curve your spine and curve under an arm or do some rolls on the floor. You don’t really see rolls on the floor in “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty.” But these days choreographers are really excited about bridging the gap between the two worlds. When Martha Graham was starting, there was more of a gap between the two. Ballet dancers didn’t want to take modern classes and modern dancers thumbed their nose at ballet a bit. We have now evolved to this appreciation of everything in dance. That is what Juilliard taught me. Every class that I had informed me that studying one type of dance is not enough. You have to study everything.”
Grand Rapids Ballet’s reputation for presenting excellent classical ballet and contemporary works was one of the things that drew Sofranko to the company. He feels it is important for a ballet company to be able to present both strong classical ballet productions and cutting-edge modern pieces. He also feels it is important for all modern and ballet pieces to remain true to their classical ballet roots. “Modern and ballet techniques can be blended, but I don’t want to lose sight of where we’ve come from. I want to keep the classical ballet tradition alive. I want to present classic ballets like “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty” as well as the works of modern choreographers like Trey McIntyre,” says Sofranko.
This blending of classical ballet and contemporary technique is apparent in “Wild Sweet Love,” the first show of the 2018-19 Season.
‘Wild Sweet Love’ Brings Something for Every Dance Fan
The 2018-19 Season begins with a show featuring five works that bring out some of the best expressions of classical ballet and contemporary dance as well as showcases Grand Rapids Ballet’s strong cast of dancers. Romance is a theme in “Wild Sweet Love,” with some pieces exploring romantic relationships and others celebrating the love of dance and theater. “Allegro Brillante” is considered one of George Balanchine’s most joyful and artistic classical ballet work, paired with Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 3.” Trey McIntyre’s “Wild Sweet Love,” is a contemporary dance masterpiece that explores romance set to music by Queen, Roberta Flack, Felix Mendelssohn and The Patridge Family. “Ghost Light” by Grand Rapids Ballet choreographer-in-residence Penny Saunders explores artistic movement, the use of light on stage and theatre legends. The program will also include the emotional pas de deux from Marius Petipa’s “Le Corsaire” and an original piece by artistic director James Sofranko. Sofranko arranged these pieces for this program to pay homage to classical ballet through Balanchine, showcase the artistic work of Saunders, highlight the groundbreaking contemporary work of Trey McIntyre and to contribute his own original choreography.
Sofranko talks about the work he is choreographing for the “Wild Sweet Love” program, “It is a classically-based work for two couples. They will each have a pas de deux. Both couples will dance together. The music is a Dvorak violin sonata. There is a story for each couple. One is a little bit feistier and the other is more romantic. It shows different ways we can love each other.”
He comments on the selection of Balanchine’s “Allegro Brillante” for the show, “Balanchine’s “Allegro Brillante” is very demanding technically and balletically. There are four couples in the corps and the principals, that is five couples. Women are on pointe. It is fast and requires a lot of stamina. It is a joyful piece about the love of dancing. In Balanchine, both the corps and principals are dancing almost the whole time. This is a great opportunity for the dancers. Balanchine is so sharp and fast. Dancers working on it can’t help but get better.”
Sofranko shares his hopes for audience reaction to the show, “Ballet can be lots of different things. It is not just one styles and one idea. You can have a ballet company dance to pop music, for instance, and the audience can leave the theater singing the tunes too. It’s not just a piece of art from the past. It’s something that can be very current. Pieces from the past like “Allegro Brillante,” a neoclassical ballet, are still really exciting today but pay homage to the tradition we come from. Audiences should appreciate the variety of pieces and should find something they like in the show.”
Grand Rapids Ballet’s 2018-19 Season Shows
Grand Rapids Ballet has an exciting lineup of shows planned for the 2018-19 Season that bring the works of some of today’s leading choreographers to West Michigan. The Season opens with “Wild Sweet Love,” a repertory work of classical ballet and contemporary dance on Oct. 19-21. The Junior Company’s “Spooktacular” celebrates Halloween on Oct. 26-28. Grand Rapids’ critically acclaimed “The Nutcracker,” developed especially for Grand Rapids Ballet by the creative team of world-renowned artist Chris Van Allsburg, award-winning set designer Eugene Lee and visionary choreographer Val Caniparoli comes in time for Christmas on Dec. 14-23. The company’s popular contemporary dance series, “Movemedia Handmade,” presents some thought-provoking new works by some of the field’s most noteworthy choreographers created for Grand Rapids Ballet on Feb. 8-10. Junior Company brings the classic fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” to life on stage on March 15-24. Grand Rapids Ballet’s “Extremely Close,” will present works by Hubbard Street choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo, choreographer Val Caniparoli of San Francisco Ballet and a new piece artistic director James Sofranko, on April 12-14. The Season will close with a performance of choreographer Brian Enos’ popular “Alice in Wonderland” on May 3-11, which features the art of Luis Grane. Follow Grand Rapids Ballet on Facebook for details on upcoming shows. Order tickets online at Ticketmaster or call the Grand Rapids Ballet Box Office at 616-454-4771, ext. 10 for current ticket information.