I sat down over chai and coffee with Ben Kubie, former principal dancer with North Carolina Dance Theatre (now Charlotte Ballet). The relaxed atmosphere of Nova’s Bakery perfectly matched Ben’s demeanor – warm, inviting, and unassuming – qualities you may not expect from a retired professional ballet dancer. But as I learned from my colleague over our chat, “retired” sometimes means anything but “done”.
Ben first danced with NCDT from 1992-1993, the days of Artistic Director Salvatore Aiello. I mentioned that I have vivid memories of seeing the company during that time, particularly Sal’s “Le Sacre du Printemps” (Right of Spring), when Kati Hanlon Mayo knocked my socks (and all her clothes) off in the lead role. Apparently Ben danced in Le Sacre as well, and I immediately felt bad that I did not remember him. In his humble way he agreed that it would be difficult to recall much from that performance over 20 years ago except Kati’s riveting portrayal of the sacrificial virgin. But the bulk of his career with NCDT was from 1997-2004 under the artistic direction of Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, who will step down from the role next year. At that time NCDT was pretty much the only dance company in Charlotte, aside from the more cutting edge Moving Poets, and Ben enjoyed riding the reign of the premiere ballet company in not just the Queen City, but all of North Carolina for the better part of a decade.
He “retired” from NCDT in 2004, the same year he decided to finally complete his undergraduate degree, a retroactive step common among professional ballet dancers. Pamela Sofras, then chair of the Department of Dance (and Theatre) at UNC Charlotte, welcomed him into the program, under the stipulation that he dance in the inaugural performance in the new, state of the art theater in a production called On Your Toes. “She roped me in,” Ben joked, remembering the fun and absurdity of performing alongside college freshmen half his age.
After graduating, Ben went into professional fundraising and non-profit management for a roster of Charlotte based organizations: his alma mater NCDT, Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, the Arts and Science Council, social service agency UMAR, and most recently Central Piedmont Community College, where he was the director of development. Even in a corporate setting, Ben gravitated towards the arts and felt drawn to helping grassroots organizations find funds and resources for artistic endeavors. Also a single dad at the time, he needed to provide for his son, but couldn’t seem to shake the artsy fartsy world.
He wasn’t done dancing either, as it turned out. Jacque White, director and owner of Open Door Studios, asked Ben to perform a duet with her in the Charlotte Dance Festival in 2014. Based on personal experience with a parent’s struggle with dementia, Jacque needed a mature male dancer, an even rarer find than the bouncy ballet boys sought out by many choreographers. I can testify that the product of this collaboration was truly breathtaking. The tenderness, honesty, and abandon with which Ben and Jacque danced her piece was simply stunning. (I may have ugly cried.)
Jacque began inviting Ben to guest teach at her studio, which offers classes for both youth and adult dancers. He had been “teaching dance in margins” for several years at Gay Porter’s Charlotte School of Ballet and around town, and had become a favorite among young and young-at-heart dancers. “I just enjoy the people that dance puts you around,” Ben explained. “There’s no competing, no agenda. We are all there for one purpose, for dance.” Ben is now a regular instructor at Open Door Studios and continues to guest teach throughout Charlotte.
He may be out of the non-profit fundraising game (for now), but Ben is still passionate about supporting grassroots arts groups. Ideally, he’d like to see more collaboration and greater access to alternative spaces. As a former colleague of Amy Bagwell at CPCC, he has the utmost admiration for what she and Amy Herman are doing with Goodyear Arts. Ben likes to see people “embrace creative thinking around development and buildings”. He’s inspired by what NODA was in the late 90’s and the access it gave artists to space, geographically and creatively.
On the other end of the spectrum, “Charlotte Ballet is banging on all cylinders”, and Ben is super impressed by their biggest annual fundraising platform, “Dancing with the Stars”. Just what it sounds like, big business people in Charlotte are paired with dancers from the company. They train together for weeks and the community can vote (donate) online for their favorite team. The campaign culminates in a production at the Belk Theater, where food, drinks, hooting, hollering, and more donating abound. “It’s a real who’s who of Charlotte,” Ben confirms.
Recognizing the disconnect between a lavish event like Dancing with the Stars and small artist groups, he’d love to see Charlotte Ballet “take the lead and make partnerships happen with grassroots arts companies”. Many artists feel alienated from the Arts and Science Council and need an intermediary to provide programs that seek funding and resources. “They need to create a link, then get out of way,” he advises. Ben introduced me to the term “carrying it from the bottom”, meaning fostering an idea from the ground up, ensuring its success, or at least fruition (as opposed to carrying it by the handle, where it might easily fall). But he’s optimistic. “It’s great to see small cultural dance companies and modern experimental work. Charlotte is getting there.”
He regrets that this city (as in its administration and population) are too afraid. Of what? BAD ART. People need to “be open to appreciating something they may or may not understand. If you don’t like something that’s fine. Don’t get hung up just because you don’t like it or think its crap. Instead, admire that someone did it. Not everything has to be fed to you.” Thinking of his son, Joshua, he encourages Charlotte to “teach kids to appreciate something they may not like. “I want my son to have a sense of value for something he may not necessarily care for.” Joshua, like most 12 year old boys (and most Charlotteans), is by no stretch of the imagination an avid dance fan, despite living part time with Ben and his wife Traci Gilchrest, also a retired principal dancer from NCDT and currently the company’s repetiteur.
He’s got lots of ideas, inspired by his hometown of St. Louis, where there are many large, free cultural institutions. “This county could provide a semi-enclosed, multipurpose space, like in a park. Use county services to fix up some lights and sound. Be a little more experimental” and allow for “more diversity”. As we reached the bottom of our chai and coffee, Ben’s final wish for Charlotte was to “appreciate live performance. You are seeing something live, it is actually happening in front of you and around you. It may suck, but that does not mean it lacks value. Most of what we watch is so edited, like reality TV. Live performance is unedited and that makes it special.”
Learn to appreciate sucky art and be a little more experimental. Bold statements for a retired principal ballet dancer, right? But Ben Kubie is a forward thinking box breaker, not just another man in tights. Maybe Charlotte should take note, get out there, and see some “sucky” art. Who knows? You make like it.
SEE THE SHOW: UNCC Faculty Concert (preview)