As Arkansas’s only professional ballet company, Ballet Arkansas has enjoyed much success in bringing professional dance to the region. While classical ballet serves as the core of the curriculum of the professional company, other forms such as contemporary, modern, and jazz are explored as well.
Ballet Arkansas began with the work of Little Rock (Pulaski County) native Donald Cater Cranford, who moved back to Little Rock from Dallas, Texas, in the mid-1960s. In 1957, he and his wife Lorraine Albert Cranford had founded the Cranford House of Ballet, which developed dancers for the Dallas Civic Ballet. The Dallas Civic Ballet was anchored by an annual performance of the Christmas standard ballet, The Nutcracker. D. Cater Cranford founded the Little Rock Civic Ballet in 1966, following the same model that had succeeded in Dallas; Lorraine Cranford joined him in Little Rock several years later. When the Arkansas Arts Center (now the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts) began conducting ballet classes and performances in the 1970s, it invited the Little Rock Civic Ballet to participate; the two efforts eventually merged. D. Cater Cranford died in 1977; Lorraine Cranford founded Ballet Arkansas in 1978. Cranford remained active in the company under various boards and directors until her death in 2004.
Legal problems have troubled Ballet Arkansas at various points in its history. As part of the American bicentennial celebration in 1976, the company (still called the Little Rock Civic Ballet) performed an interpretation of the Legend of Petit Jean. The company was subsequently sued by author Marguerite Turner, who claimed that the performance used elements of her telling of the Petit Jean story without her permission and without acknowledgement of her writing. Turner sought $300,000; she won her case in March 1980 but was awarded only $1,250. In 2000, the company was again in the courts following the decision of the board of directors not to renew the contracts of artistic director Kirt Hathaway and of his wife, principal dancer and academy director Linda Hathaway. During the eight years the Hathaways were employed by Ballet Arkansas, the academy grew from seventy students to 230 students, and a nine-member professional company was begun. The board, citing financial constraints, sought a new director that year, and the professional company was disbanded. Some of the dancers and their families went on that year to found Arkansas Festival Ballet, with the support of Lorraine Cranford. In the interim, parent Marilyn Sutton sued for disclosure of the company’s financial information, citing Freedom of Information laws, since the company received government grants. Her suit was denied in court on the grounds that Ballet Arkansas was not itself part of any government agency. Linda Hathaway also sued the company for $75,000 but was likewise unsuccessful.
Ballet Arkansas has provided many exceptional dance experiences for audiences as well as dancers. Examples include Cynthia Gregory (New York City Ballet) performing with Ballet Arkansas in 1980, and Mikhail Baryshnikov (New York City Ballet) performing in Little Rock in 1983. The company received the “Stream Award” for artistic excellence from the Southwestern Regional Ballet Association in 1992.
Ballet Arkansas continues to produce The Nutcracker each holiday season at Robinson Center Music Hall, which has become a holiday tradition in Arkansas. For several years beginning in 2007, Ballet Arkansas hosted an event called “Arts in Concert” featuring original dance works by the Ballet Arkansas Professional Dance Company and Junior Company, performances by local musicians, and a display of local art work.
In 2009, Ballet Arkansas hired a new artistic director, Arleen Sugano, and six professional dancers for the 2009–2010 season, re-establishing the professional company that had been disbanded in 2000; Sugano left the company in 2011. Following the debut of the Professional Dance Company at the 2009 “Arts in Concert,” Ballet Arkansas received extensive positive feedback from the Little Rock community and was featured on the cover of both Arkansas Life and Arkansas Times. In January 2010, Ballet Arkansas hosted Kiesha Lalama-White from Point Park University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for a master class open to the public and to choreograph an original piece for the company. Searcy (White County) native Michael Bearden, who had trained with Ballet Arkansas before embarking on a career as a dancer, choreographer, and educator, joined the company as an artistic consultant in 2013 and then as artistic director. During his tenure, the company expanded to thirteen dancers. In 2015, the company presented renowned choreographer George Balanchine’s Who Cares?, marking the first time an Arkansas dance company performed an officially sanctioned Balanchine work.
In 2016, Ballet Arkansas moved into a new office and studio space on Main Street in downtown Little Rock as part of the Creative Corridor. Bearden resigned in 2017, and he was succeeded as artistic director by Michael Fothergill, who was formerly a principal dancer and choreographer for Alabama Ballet. His wife, Catherine Carratt Fothergill, became associate artistic director.
For additional information:
Ballet Arkansas. https://www.balletarkansas.org/ (accessed February 2, 2021).
Eifling, Sam. “En Pointe: Ballet Arkansas Goes Pro.” Arkansas Times, December 10, 2009, pp. 10–11.
Harrison, Eric E. “Ballet Hopes ‘Inspired’ Nutcracker Helps Regrowth.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, December 5, 2008, p. 13W.
Staff of the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas
Last Updated: 02/02/2021