A Golden Thread

An interview with Ms. Chris Cooper for English 401: Reported Creative Nonfiction

(Part of a longer project on ballet)

            “I would drop that idea if I were you,” recommends Chris Cooper, the former public relations and marketing director of the Charlotte Ballet. The idea she refers to is my vision of a pure, perfect, and pink ballet. A ballet that is traditional, classic, and clean, like a French antique preserved through centuries and presented to us now as living, resilient art. For me, an unschooled but eager admirer, ballet connotes swans and a grand orchestra, velvet seats and opera glasses, an abundance of tulle and a big red curtain.

            But this kind of ballet, Ms. Cooper explains over the phone, is only one of several ballet forms; two others are modern and contemporary. She elaborates, “I don’t think there are any pure classical ballet companies anymore.” Almost all ballet companies now have expanded their repertoires beyond the traditional, typical dances choreographed by Petipa—The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker—to incorporate edgier, inventive pieces.

            Ms. Cooper, a marketing specialist, wastes no time in selling me on one of these modern performances. She suggests I come to a performance of Innovative Works, a contemporary compilation at the Charlotte Ballet, which she has attended for years. She enjoys the work their dancers and choreographers do—it is powerful, funky, and strong. I will love the piece set to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” she assures me. Cooper continues to explain: even when modern choreographers put on a commonly known, classical ballet like The Sleeping Beauty, they usually add their own “twists” to the dances. The finished result, she says, is more a product of the new designer and the cultural moment than old, antiquated style.

            Cooper is matter-of-fact, realistic, forward-thinking. She has her finger on ballet’s pulse. She bursts my pretty pink bubble. Though we talk on the phone, I imagine she wears dark skirt suits and always has neat hair and painted nails. Her voice is quick, eager, enthusiastic, and in command. If anyone knows where ballet is going, it is she, with her many years of experience attending, packaging, and promoting successful performances. And for classical ballet enthusiasts like me, she paints a grim, futuristic picture. Indeed, she nearly writes its eulogy.

            I had actually called Ms. Cooper for a portal into ballet past, but she almost makes me wonder if such a thing even exists anymore. She helpfully begins listing people I could connect with to get a sense of ballet present, but there was one name, one old dance I recognized.

            “Katie Hanlin danced in Serenade…” Ms. Cooper continued.

            Serenade was one of legendary George Balanchine’s most beloved creations, and I happened to have watched it online just hours earlier.

            “Oh, Serenade!” I exclaim. “Did she portray the Waltz Girl?”

            Serenade involves an entire corps of ballerinas but features three principal dancers: the Russian Girl, the Dark Angel, and, the coveted Waltz Girl.

            “You know it?” Ms. Cooper almost squeals. Her manner instantly changes, from coolly professional to positively gushing. It is as if my words have turned the key to unlock a treasure trove of history and a former dancer’s love. I realize that behind the flash and blur of contemporary lies the steady, still strong tradition of classical ballet, like a golden thread inside a string of beads.