Meet Grand Rapids Ballet’s New Artistic Director

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Inspired at the age of five to learn to dance after seeing Michael Jackson on television, James Sofranko had no idea he was about to begin training for a future career as a professional ballet dancer– or that he would eventually end up in Grand Rapids.

Sofranko had encouraging parents who quickly signed him up for dance classes at a local dance studio in their hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, which required its students to learn tap, jazz and ballet.

“Ballet wasn’t what I was excited about at first, but you had to take all three classes. So that was my introduction to dance,” Sofranko said.

Following his budding passion for the arts, Sofranko’s parents enrolled him in a school for the creative and performing arts in Cincinnati as well, where he was exposed to “higher quality dance training” as well as “to musical theater.”

“I got interested in the arts in general and performing,” Sofranko said of those years.

His first production with a professional ballet company took place in those initial years as well. “I was in the Cincinnati Ballet’s performances of the “Nutcracker,” as a party kid in the party scene in the first act. That was my first exposure to a real professional organization and real classical ballet performances.”

Sofranko began spending his summers dancing, attending several programs around the country including at Michigan’s Interlochen Center for the Arts.

“I realized I really loved dance and if I wanted to do more I’d have to train more seriously. The students at these schools were a lot better than I was,” he said.

So at 14, Sofranko left home to attend The Harid Conservatory in Boca Raton, Florida, a boarding school for dancers.

The school focuses on classic ballet, something Sofranko said was imperative to his success as a dancer. “It was an intense period of my life and in my evolution as a dancer,” he said.

After graduating from The Harid Conservatory in 1997, Sofranko went on to earn a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts degree from The Julliard School in New York, where he studied both classical and modern techniques.

Sofranko said that blending of classical and modern techniques has been particularly important to his success at the San Francisco Ballet, where he’s called home for the past two decades.

“A lot of what ballet companies do today is kind of a blending of modern and classical ballet. At San Francisco Ballet, in my dance career, I’ve been able to draw on that to shine and use it to my advantage,” he explained.

Sofranko said this blending of techniques is just the tip of the iceberg, too.

“I’m seeing a lot of blending of contemporary aesthetic into a classical company,” he said. “So, utilizing classical techniques in a way that maybe hasn’t been seen before. You are using highly trained dancers who can dance on point and execute all these steps and technique, but in a way that is fresh and perhaps never seen before.”

He said there is a lot of creativity taking place with partnering as well.

“It’s not always the traditional man behind the women. Sometimes the woman is being the partner. Sometimes there’s same sex partnering. All that is avant-garde right now,” he explained.

Sofranko is excited to see the envelope being pushed in ballet, and he said he hopes to bring that energy to the Grand Rapids Ballet when he officially joins in July.

He noted Patricia Barker, who has served as artistic director for Grand Rapids Ballet for the past seven years and whom he is replacing, has already been focusing more on contemporary works, particularly bringing in choreographers and dancers from Hubbard Street Dance in Chicago.

“I’d like to reinvigorate a bit of the focus on classical ballet technique and bring in pieces not always traditional in nature but utilize the classical technique,” Sofranko said of his plans for Grand Rapids Ballet.

Sofranko doesn’t officially take over the role of artistic director until July, but he said he’s already started planning the 2018-2019 season.

He will wrap up his nearly two-decade career with the San Francisco Ballet in May and plans to relocate to Grand Rapids with his wife and their two young sons by summer.

“It’s a big year for us. It’s bittersweet to end your performing career, and San Francisco Ballet has been my home the whole time, but I’m really excited about this next step. It’s a perfect transition for me.”

*Photos by Erik Tomasson

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