The leadership of Fort Wayne’s many arts organizations is remarkably varied. Some leaders have lived in this city all their lives; others have left their hometown, only to be lured back by its vibrant creative community. But there are some who, without any previous attachment, are drawn here and come to adopt Fort Wayne as home. Fitting firmly into that latter category is Karen Gibbons-Brown who came to northeast Indiana in August 1998 to accept the daunting dual role of executive and artistic director of Fort Wayne Ballet. Her history before coming to Fort Wayne was impressive. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, her family moved to Columbia, South Carolina when she was young, and it was there that she began her formal training under well-known teachers Ann Brodie, Naomi Calvert and Aldolphina Suarez-More. Her dance career took her around the world before she began focusing on administration, founding the Kingsport Guild of Ballet in Tennessee in 1988.
Now entering her 17th year at the helm of Fort Wayne Ballet, Gibbons-Brown has overseen tremendous change, including the move in 2011 to their home at the Auer Center for Arts & Culture. The growth extends to the personnel who teach, study and dance for the ballet as well. Named in Dean Speer’s 2010 book On Technique as one of the dance world’s 18 most respected pedagogues, it isn’t surprising that Gibbons-Brown’s first reflection on the current state of Fort Wayne Ballet is its educational component, which in the past year has grown to include a dance program offered through the University of Saint Francis.
“The education continues to evolve,” she explains. “ The number of students coming to us from the university program with Saint Francis is doubling this year, and our summer intensive program was at 56 students. When I visit locations around the country to audition potential students for our summer program, I can also recruit for the program with Saint Francis, and we have several students who are coming in from Arizona for both summer and college programs.”
There are changes afoot in the professional ranks at Fort Wayne Ballet, too, following the recent departure of principal dancer and faculty member Lucia Rogers. This year the company’s professional corps will include four men and six women, providing a much more balanced group than in years past when male dancers were often brought in on a guest basis to fill crucial roles. Those changes have allowed Gibbons-Brown to plan an exciting season in the year ahead.
“We’ll be doing Mazurkas in the fall show which is a tribute to the Polish people and one we do for our sister city in Poland. We’ll also be doing another piece from the Joffrey Ballet’s Arpino Trust, Confetti, which has already been staged by Kim Sagami from the Joffrey while she was here teaching during our summer intensive program. She had a chance to work with the dancers who will be performing it, so those pieces are already in place.”
In addition to the traditional staging of The Nutcracker in December and Don Quixote in the spring, Gibbons-Brown is also excited for additional opportunities for her company and students to perform thanks to the ArtsLab which is housed in their own building. She also touts the growth of the Ballet’s Youth Company, led by Alexis Ingram, which now stages three shows a year to soldout audiences. In fact, tickets to dress rehearsals are now available to meet the audience demand.
Gibbons-Brown also remains a respected teacher outside of the area, having recently spent a week in New York as a guest faculty member at the famed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, and clearly if she wanted to leave Fort Wayne for greener pastures, her resumé would provide her with many opportunities. In fact, rumors have swirled for almost a year that Gibbons-Brown is about to leave Fort Wayne Ballet, primarily due to the departure last fall of her husband Jim Sparrow, the former president of Arts United, who accepted a similar post in North Carolina. She is quick to quell those rumors, however.
“I plan to stay here at least a couple more years and have no plans to leave. It’s not abnormal these days for couples and families to commute, to travel to be together and have dual residency. I do have two homes now, since Jim and I have bought a house in North Carolina, and I love having a connection to that area again, since I come from that part of the country and my parents are still in South Carolina. I even find it’s beneficial to be connected to another area so I can visit another dance community and see what’s happening in that area.”
One reason she’s in no hurry to leave is that she’s anxious to continue the work she has started at Fort Wayne Ballet.
“The ballet is currently in a nice place. We’ve seen steady growth, and there’s a great deal of support from the faculty and staff, the board of directors, the families of the ballet and the community at large. We want to continue to broaden our circle, and there are a lot of things on the horizon. I want to see them come to fruition.”
Fort Wayne Ballet’s 60th anniversary season is only two years away, too, providing one more significant lure for Gibbons-Brown in her long-term planning. The fact that the ballet company has grown so significantly in recent years makes it hard for her to leave what she has helped to build.
“This is a great community. Sometimes I miss being in a bigger city, but we have so many amenities here. It’s a great place to take risks, to experiment, to implement, to grow and create in ways that you can’t always do in a larger city. In the larger companies it can be hard to get very many performing opportunities, so it’s great to see so many dancers cut their teeth on the roles we can provide. I get to watch the stars of tomorrow.”