Cover Story: Raising the barre
by Leah M. Caudle
Christopher Mohnani and his father had a pact. He would follow in his footsteps and become a lawyer one day – and as long as he made litigation his main goal, he could practice ballet on the side.
In 2001, Mohnani’s priorities shifted. He used law school tuition money from his father to pay for a plane ticket to America from his home in the Manila, Phillippines. He soon became a company dancer for the Nashville Ballet and law school slipped far back in his mind.
“When someone asks me what do I do, I say, 'I’m a dancer,'” Mohnani said. But that will soon change when he makes good on the deal with his dad.
After spending nine seasons with the Nashville Ballet, Mohnani plans to retire and will participate in his last dance in April – leaving him only a few weeks to find a new way to define himself.
“It’s really bittersweet,” Mohnani said. “I think I’m slowly moving on and thinking of the next phase of life for me. For the longest time I thought, ‘I will forever be a dancer.’ The new challenge is finding my new identity.”
Mohnani first knew he was interested in ballet when he accompanied his sister to her dance school when he was younger. It turns out he was more interested in the dance than she was, he said.
“I’ve always been twirling around my mother’s home since I can remember,” Mohnani said.
He grew up in an upper-middle class family in Manila, the capital city of the Philippines, and began dancing professionally at 15-years-old. Years later, the dancer has a bulky résumé having performed several solo dances and appearing as a premier dancer in various productions.
He’s danced on stages in Russia, Manila and in Ohio and California. His stage appearances have earned him accolades and awards such as the Individual Artist Fellowship Award for Dance given by the Tennessee Arts Commission.
Mohnani never imagined, however, that he’d end up living in Nashville. But when Paul Vasterling, artistic director of the Nashville Ballet, asked Mohnani to join the company in 2001, the dancer said he was “pleasantly surprised” by Nashville and the midsized regional ballet company.
And Mohnani is a welcomed addition to the city’s ballet, Vasterling said.
“He is a very great performer and he’s really brought a lot to the company,” Vasterling said. “His strongest point is his charisma on stage; when he’s out there you really look at him.”
The Next Step
Mohnani’s performing days with the ballet will come to a close the weekend of April 24 when Mohnani performs Carmina Burana, scheduled for April 24, 25 and 26 at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center.
Brian Williamson, Mohnani's partner of eight years, is also a dancer with the Nashville Ballet and empathizes with his current situation.
"His achievements have surpasses any that I know of in the Nashville Ballet," Williamson said. "He met the cap of what he could do artistically and now he's letting himself grow as a person outside of dance. He's expanding his horizons."
Many male ballet dancers’ prime dancing years are between mid 20s and early 30s, Mohnani said. He decided to stop dancing professionally while he still has the energy he’s always had while performing.
“I felt like if I don’t stop now, I’m going to have a hard time doing it, forcing myself to be in it even if my body doesn’t allow me to do so,” he said.
But the decision has been difficult for Mohnani. When asked what he enjoys doing in his spare time, his answers come up with something ballet-related, most times opting to read ballet magazines and watch ballet movies.
“I’m not upset, I’m not mad, I’m just sad. It feels like part of my identity, I’m losing it,” Mohnani said. “But now I can relish in the fact that I’m bidding farewell while I’m at the top of my game. Now I can focus on the next chapter of my life.”
Mohnani has been enrolled in the Nashville School of Law since 2005. Many days, he’d spend eight hours dancing then spend four hours in class. After he retires from ballet, he’ll be able to take a full load of law courses and expects to graduate within two years, he said.
"For so long, he thought dance was the only thing he could do, but now he's realized that the options are endless," Williamson said. "He sees that his whole life wasn't about dance, and he's ready to move on."
Christine Rennie, Mohnani’s dance partner, will be sad to see her partner go. She’s been dancing with him since his arrival at the ballet and said the two are almost like best friends.
“Working with him makes you raise your game and get to his level,” Rennie said. “He’s really helped me improve as a dancer; he’s very inspiring to watch and to look up to.”
Though Mohnani’s path is still unclear, he plans to always devote time to his beloved artform whether it be as a ballet teacher or an attorney for local non-profit arts groups.
He looks forward to spending more time with Williamson and their two dogs Daphni and Mason, but said he’ll still miss and cherish the passion he chose to follow.
“No matter what I have going on in my life, when I hold on to the barre in ballet class, everything is shut out, I forget everything. That’s what made me realize that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” Mohnani said. “Arts and dance will always be in me regardless of what path I choose."