Esprit de Terpsicorps

Wearing only black-spandex shorts, Jon Upleger hoists Jennifer Cavanaugh aloft, where his fellow dancer spends a significant part of their performance.

Cavanaugh, clad in a flesh-colored unitard decorated with leafy-green designs, writhes in a series of acrobatic twists to ambient, leafy-green music. The pas de deux climaxes with her elfin, flab-less body balanced on Upleger’s airborne foot.

Not only do these two Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance members defy the basic laws of physics, but Upleger also manages to avoid smashing his partner into the Grey Eagle’s low ceiling during the pair’s June 13 performance there for the Summer Studio Stroll Art Auction.

That’s right — the Grey Eagle, a nightclub with a particleboard floor far better suited to beer and boots than ballet slippers. It’s not a typical venue in which to view a professional-dance act.

Then again, what Terpsicorps has taken on is not a typical challenge: North Carolina native Heather Maloy, the company’s artistic director, hopes to bring her gifted professional dancers to Asheville on a full-time basis.

“Do not try this at home, folks,” cracks audience member and WLOS-TV personality John Le as the tricky dance ends.

“I never thought I’d see that at the Grey Eagle,” he adds.

And then the auction’s bidding starts.

Trying it at home

It wasn’t the dancers who were for sale, though. Instead, it was the dedication rights to a new dance work (choreographed by Maloy) that were on the block.

Terpsicorps derives its name from “Terpsichore” (the art of dance, or the muse of dancing and choral song from Greek mythology) and “corps” (meaning group). Put those two ideas together and you get what Maloy is hoping will become this city’s first fully professional dance theater — a dream which may, in a relatively small market like this, be harder to sell than that single dance piece proved to be.

Nevertheless, Maloy — a former dancer with the North Carolina Dance Theatre (NCDT) in Charlotte — is determined to bring a professional company to Asheville, an area she believes is ready to raise the bar on dramatic arts.

“Asheville is well-rounded, with a professional opera [and] symphony, and two professional-theater companies,” the artistic director explains, referring to the Highland Repertory Theatre and the North Carolina Stage Company. “There are really great [dance] schools here that are training kids, and it’s important for the students to see what they’re aspiring to.”

Ann Dunn, director of Fletcher School of Dance and the strongest force in local ballet for at least the past decade-and-a-half, agrees that there is room in Asheville for Terpsicorps.

“The more dance, the better,” she declares. “Increased visibility for an art form I love and practice can only help all of us who love and practice [it].”

More pointedly, Dunn comments that “this wonderful cultural community can support — and more importantly, will be nourished by — whatever it decides to support.”

That ain’t professional

Dunn does object, however, to Terpsicorps calling itself Asheville’s first professional ballet company.

The dance teacher, a longtime Asheville resident, is also the artistic director of Asheville Ballet, which includes a core of six professional dancers known as AD DANCE. Members of the latter company join student dancers in Asheville Ballet’s three annual productions — a fall showcase of original works; The Nutcracker at Christmas; and a full-length spring ballet such as this year’s Giselle.

Led by ballet master Brynar Mehl — who’s worked with Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers — this sextet of dancers is billed as having trained or performed with luminaries like The New York City Ballet, The Boitsov Ballet, Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham.

AD DANCE also promotes its members as “proud to be year-round residents of Western North Carolina.”

Maloy makes a distinction between a fully professional company such as Terpsicorps — which pays all its dancers — and a semi-professional one that may include student or amateur dancers.

Semi-professional outfits, she says, “have their place.

“It’s a great learning opportunity for up-and-coming dancers,” Maloy adds. “But it’s good for the community to have something different.”

Dunn reiterates the professional status of Asheville Ballet’s six core dancers — even as she notes that many of her students have gone on to pro work in other markets. Everyone associated with AD DANCE, barring an apprentice, has had a career in the dance field, Dunn adds. And all of them “think of themselves … as professional dancers.”

But she and Maloy may be coming at their arguments from different angles.

“Professionalism, above all, is an attitude toward one’s work,” Dunn notes.

As for Terpsicorps members: They’re required to approach their work as a full-time job, donning various items of athletic wear each day, and putting in a 40-hour week, disciplining their bodies to be lithe, graceful and contemptuous of gravity.

Tricky moves

But getting such a company off the ground (so to speak) is a Herculean effort. Especially financially.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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