Tuesday, 27 February 2018 14:48

Fluent in Movement: A conversation with the Grand Rapids Ballet’s new artistic director

Written by  Samara Napolitan
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James Sofranko, Grand Rapids Ballet’s new artistic director. James Sofranko, Grand Rapids Ballet’s new artistic director. Photo by Erik Tomasson

To James Sofranko, dance is a language within itself. “You can express ideas through dance that you can’t through other forms. It’s a beautiful thing,” he said.

A longtime soloist at the San Francisco Ballet, Sofranko topped a competitive list of applicants to become the fifth artistic director of the Grand Rapids Ballet. This July, Sofranko will officially succeed current Artistic Director Patricia Barker, who is moving to the other side of the world to lead the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

Originally from Cincinnati, he received his dance training at The Harid Conservatory in Boca Raton, Fla. and The Juilliard School in New York City. Upon graduating with a bachelor’s degree in dance, he joined San Francisco Ballet and was promoted to soloist in 2007, dancing in the role ever since.

“It’s been a really wonderful experience,” he says of his time with the San Francisco Ballet. “Dancing here, you always feel like you’re part of something new and that you’re at the forefront of the art form, as well as part of the past with this long tradition of classical dance.”

Sofranko has danced in myriad works and world premieres by choreographers like Helgi Tomasson, William Forsythe, Paul Taylor and many others. In the Bay Area, Sofranko is known for his work with Dance For A Reason (DanceFAR), a benefit for the Cancer Prevention Institute of California, and also as the founder and artistic director of SFDanceworks, a contemporary repertory company he began in 2014.

Among numerous career highlights, including dancing the role of Eddie in the national tour of Twyla Tharp and Billy Joel’s Broadway musical Movin’ Out, Sofranko notes working one-on-one with Forsythe as particularly influential to his art.

“(Forsythe) is an icon and a legend. You could see how he valued his dancers, and that he wanted to get a certain kind of connection out of each of his dancers,” Sofranko said. “He got the best out of us that way, and that really inspired me moving forward as a choreographer. He made me realize there are always new ways to explore your own artistry.”

In his new role at the Grand Rapids Ballet, Sofranko will be responsible for all artistic direction and planning, including hiring dancers and choreographers, production staff, touring and outreach efforts.

Sofranko is eager to continue the Grand Rapids Ballet’s reputation of presenting new and established works in both classical and contemporary styles. He plans to premiere innovative new works each season, along with a classical full-length in addition to The Nutcracker. His background as a Juilliard-trained dancer who performed with a classical ballet company for nearly two decades equips him with the knowledge to fulfill this vision.

“I think dancers benefit from being versatile,” Sofranko said. “When you learn to unfurl your torso in a contemporary way, you have a better understanding of how to stabilize your body in a classical way, and vice versa. You can pull from each style to hone your artistry.”

Out of his various new tasks, Sofranko is particularly excited about growing as a choreographer. He has created many original works, and is now working on his third piece for the San Francisco Ballet School Trainee program. He also plans to build upon his relationship with Penny Saunders, the Grand Rapids Ballet choreographer-in-residence who has created pieces for SFDanceworks.

“I haven’t really been able to focus on choreography until now,” Sofranko said. “I really like pieces that relate to society and comment on the world we live in. I like to think that ballet can transcend into our thought process, and we can carry some piece of it out of the theater and into the real world.”


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