Jenny Hamilton and I sit on a bench inside Tulane University’s McWilliams Hall where the familiar sound of a ballet class emanates through the wall: A gentle loop of piano music; the “one and two and three …” from the instructor. For the executive director of the New Orleans Ballet Association, the dancers who participate in NOBA’s tuition-free dance classes, whom she mentors and accompanies on trips to perform in places such as New York City, feel like her own. Her face lights up as she talks about how the students in the room next to us will be rehearsing with the resident choreographer of Dance Theatre of Harlem, and some students will have the chance to perform with the acclaimed dance company when it comes to town at the end of the month. (The company’s performance at Mahalia Jackson Theater is Nov. 21. The rest of the season features Cuba’s Malpaso Dance Company, Chicago’s Hubbard Street Dance and Argentina’s Che Malambo.) NOBA’s students have incredible access to the country’s finest ballet institutions right in their own home, and have opportunities to travel to dance programs all around the country on scholarships. That these students have access to quality training in the arts is something Hamilton feels strongly about, since she lacked that in her rural South Carolina upbringing.
Q: You grew up in a rural area. What was your first exposure to the arts? My mom was a huge lover (of the arts) so my first exposure was watching PBS, being around it. There weren’t as many performances to go see, of course, but that exposure was her very deep love of the arts – classical music, dance and everything. When there was some kind of opportunity, something on public television or something playing nearby, she made sure we saw it. Of course she made sure that we were in music classes from a very young age. It’s a really small town. The entire county was about 10,000 people. But there was a fabulous band instructor (at school) at the time, so I was onstage by the time I was 4 years old.
Q: Did you dance yourself? I did, but the dance training in town was not at the level we provide here. I always had a very deep love of dance and studied some dance, but never had the opportunity to become the dancer I would have wanted to because the training wasn’t available.
Q: I imagine that informs the work you do with NOBA. It completely informs the work because I know what it’s like to be a child who wants the opportunity. There are so many talented children out there, and the difference isn’t talent, it’s opportunity and availability. That’s the reason I like what we do, because with these partnership programs we’re able to take really high quality instruction to community centers and to schools in three neighborhoods in three different parishes. It’s completely open and accessible to any child who wants to dance.
At one of the rehearsals, they’re rehearsing a work called “Return” by Robert Garland, resident choreographer of Dance Theatre of Harlem. He has come in and set this work and worked with the kids since this summer. And 14 of these students will be performing with Dance Theater of Harlem onstage with the company and in their community performances in November. Our Chevron Master artist in residence, Donald Williams, is in there teaching right now; he was one of the original cast members of “Return” when it was created for the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s 30th anniversary. It’s been this full circle, really beautiful thing. The students have always had access to all the main stage companies that come … it really is unparalleled access to the world’s leading artists. Some (students) have travelled three times to New York to perform. They’ve had work created on them (by leading choreographers), which is highly unusual. This is a natural occurrence for these students, but not for students nationwide.
Q: How did you end up in New Orleans? I came here for graduate school. I got my masters degrees and ended up staying. (New Orleans) was very different than what I had come from, but once I came here I just fell in love with the people, obviously, the incredible culture, the opportunities that are here. And it didn’t hurt that I also met a native New Orleanian and ended up marrying him – Jesuit, LSU grad, the whole thing.
Q: What is it about dance that you really love? For me dance embodies everything that is the arts. It’s also such a natural movement. Like Twyla Tharp says, if you run or you walk, you’re moving, you’re dancing. Especially in New Orleans, everyone loves to move. The movement here is very natural. Every dance company that comes in talks about the vibrancy of our audience, and how they want to perform to an audience like ours every single place they go.
Occupation: Executive Director, New Orleans Ballet Association Age: 47 Born/raised: South Carolina; moved to New Orleans for graduate school 25 years ago Education: Double major (summa cum laude) in business and music from Converse College in South Carolina; MA in arts administration and MBA from UNO Family: Ewell Smith, husband Favorite movie: The Shawshank Redemption Favorite TV show: “Frasier” Favorite hobby: Playing the piano Favorite restaurant: Too many amazing restaurants in New Orleans to name just one Favorite food: Red beans and rice Favorite book: Lila by Marilynn Robinson Favorite vacation spot: My favorite all-time vacation is Israel; my favorite return vacation spot is anywhere on a sunny, beautiful beach.
I’m a classically trained singer who sang with the New Orleans Opera Chorus when I first came to New Orleans.