Advocate NOBA Evening of Stars Whelan pic.jpg

Wendy Whelan

What began in 1969 as a small civic dance company has evolved into a major presenting organization that has brought some of the world’s leading dancers to the New Orleans stage.

The New Orleans Ballet Association’s first performance of 2019 will commemorate its Golden Anniversary on Saturday night at the Mahalia Jackson Theater with celebrity guests, visiting dancers from the U.S. and Cuba, and a gala dinner celebration.

Among the honored guests will be longtime former principal dancer for the New York City Ballet, Wendy Whelan, and Desmond Richardson, co-founder of the world-renowned, New York City-based Complexions Contemporary Ballet. They will be introduced to the audience from the stage prior to the start of the performances.

Both Whelan and Richardson have performed for NOBA in the past. In 2012 they danced together for the first time on the Mahalia Jackson stage in a piece specially commissioned for them by NOBA.

The 10 guest ballet dancers, who will be performing as five couples in separate pas de deuxs, represent the San Francisco Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet and National Ballet of Cuba. Also featured will be NBC’s “World of Dance” and U.S. champion ballroom stars Denys Drozdyuk and Antonina Skobina.

Among the classical pieces to be performed are excerpts from “Swan Lake,” “Cinderella,” “Carmina Burana” and Marius Petipa’s “Paquita.” Drozdyuk and Skobina will dance to more contemporary tunes by Tina Turner, Michael Jackson and trumpeter Chris Botti.

“We are so honored to have all these wonderful dancers coming in to help us celebrate our 50th anniversary,” NOBA executive director Jenny Hamilton said. She also noted that Whelan helped with the dancer selection process along with Whelan’s former dance instructor from Louisville, Kentucky, Marie-Cecile Gibson, now residing in New Orleans.

“It’s such an overwhelming thing for a nonprofit dance organization to be able to contribute to a community for 50 years,” Hamilton said. “It is truly a testament to the extraordinary support that this organization has in New Orleans.”

Hamilton pointed proudly to NOBA’s recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005; the company staged performances at Tulane University’s Dixon Hall while the Mahalia Jackson Theater was out of commission.

The first company brought to the Dixon Hall stage was world-renowned Parsons Dance, founded and headed by David Parsons. “To watch the audience respond to it and to know that this organization was able to contribute to helping this community come back was such a joy,” Hamilton said.

She also pointed to other company accomplishments such as NOBA’s long-running partnership with the New Orleans Recreation Department that offers tuition-free dance programs to children, as well as senior dance fitness classes.

Whelan, who held the principal dancer slot with NYCB from 1991 until her retirement from the company in 2014, was one of the leading interpreters of the works of George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp, Christopher Wheeldon and many other renowned choreographers. In 2008 she was hailed by The New York Times as “America’s greatest contemporary ballerina.”

She has performed on the New Orleans stage nearly half a dozen times, including the world premiere duet with Richardson and most recently in 2014 in Daniel Ulbricht’s “Stars of American Ballet.”

Whelan was effusive in her praise for Gibson, a NOBA lifetime board member, who taught her in Louisville from age 11 through her late teens and encouraged her to audition for NYCB.

“She changed my life,” Whelan said. “She was the first one who said to me, ‘You’ve got something. You need to follow it and make it happen.’ She helped guide me toward an audition (for NYCB) and I got in and then my life changed from there. She gave me my incredible life in the arts. And so anytime she asks anything of me I am very happy to help out or participate. It’s my turn to give back as best as I can, and I’m thrilled to be able to do that with her.”

The gala dinner, held on the stage and featuring honorary chairs Gov. John Bel Edwards and first lady Donna Edwards, will immediately follow the performance.

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50th Anniversary Evening of Stars

WHEN: Saturday, Jan. 26. 6:30 p.m. performance, 8 p.m. gala.

WHERE: Mahalia Jackson Theater, 1419 Basin St. (Louis Armstrong Park), New Orleans

TICKETS: $20-$145 performance only. Gala $400-$25,000

INFO: (504) 522-0996 or Ticketmaster (800) 745-3000. nobadance.com or ticketmaster.com