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I Create Birmingham: Wes Chapman

“Ballet gave me the means to become a citizen of the world. I appreciated how special that was and how infrequent it was to have that opportunity.

The nationally recognized Alabama School of Fine Arts is a highly competitive institution that provides career training, college preparation, and technical education to students in music, visual arts, theatre arts, creative writing, math and science, and dance. With a roster of successful alumni, it’s no surprise that the faculty possesses formidable resumes of their own, and ASFA graduate and Dance Chair Wes Chapman’s illustrious ballet career is the pièce de resistance of the school’s esteemed dance program. This week, Wes shared his excitement for ASFA’s fall repertory, the highlights of living as a professional dancer, and how Alabama football influences his teaching.

Wes, you have built your life around ballet. How did you get started?

I am from Union Springs, a small town not far from Montgomery. In the 1970s, Bullock County received federal funding for arts instruction. There was an influx of voice, dance, and visual arts teachers who came to run the new programs in our community. My grandmother was the principal at the elementary school; she was a great administrator and a progressive thinker for her time. Since there was no hotel in our town, she hosted the visiting instructors at her home. She had been a tap dance teacher herself and encouraged me to try dance. I took to it naturally and was encouraged to pursue ballet when I was a bit older.

At nine years old, my grandmother and mother took me to Huntingdon College in Montgomery to a ballet class. In the early seventies, there weren’t a lot of boys enrolling in dance, but I recognized immediately that it was my calling. It’s funny that I don’t remember much about my childhood prior to the point I discovered ballet, but once I began,I was automatically on a rocket path that set the trajectory for my entire career.

And what a career! You were a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre and the Bavarian National Ballet, tapped by Mikhail Baryshnikov to reprise his role in his version of The Nutcracker, featured on the cover of Dance Magazine, appointed Alabama Arts Ambassador, and continue to advise various ABT and international dance programs. What stands out to you when you think back on all of those accomplishments?

The cover of Dance and getting to step into Baryshnikov’s role and wear his jacket were all proud moments for sure! However, the travel that accompanied my years with the ABT was the most amazing experience. I performed on the Paris Opera stage, the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, in Rio, Tokyo, London, Copenhagen, and Munich. Ballet gave me the means to become a citizen of the world. I appreciated how special that was and how infrequent it was to have that opportunity.

You haven’t slowed down a bit. You’re still traveling to oversee national and international productions, in addition to serving as the chair of ASFA’s Dance department. It seems that the strenuous schedule of a professional ballet dancer has stuck with you. How do you like to spend your downtime?

Absolutely! In addition to the administrative work that comes with running a department, we rehearse every day – sometimes into the evening. The world of dance can be intimidating to some, but I always say that dancers are workers. Dancers understand the value of preparation and process – that you can’t get from point A to point B without doing the work. I don’t have a lot of free time, but when I do, I like to follow Alabama football and attend games when I can. I often use Coach Saban as a reference and football as a teaching tool with my students because the practice and process are similar – moving up the ladder of success rung by rung through perseverance.

You are clearly dedicated to your students and the school’s program. What are you currently working on?

We’ve been hard at work preparing for our Fall Repertory this weekend! The performances include a mix of styles from modern contemporary to classical and will feature choreography, revivals, and performances by our incredible students, as well as special guest and ASFA alumni Kat Files. “Tell it by Heart,” a significant piece by acclaimed choreographer and teacher Margi Cole that was originally created for she and I, tells a bittersweet story about personal relationships growing apart. Our current artist-in-residence Germaul Barnes has choreographed a restaging of “Sweet Tea,”and our final act is an updated performance of “Jardin Animé” from “Le Corsaire.” I’m so proud of our team. It takes a lot of dedication to make it into this program and then continue to push forward to achieve excellence, and our students, faculty, and alumni are like family. 

For performance and ticket information, click here.

Interview by Tonia Trotter
Photo courtesy of Wes Chapman