Enter, stage right

The unvarnished floors and bare walls look pretty much like any other indoor-renovation site, but when Christopher Mohnani looks around the Donelson studio space, he sees the future.

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After almost a decade with the Nashville Ballet, Mohnani and partner Brian Williamson have struck out to form the Dance Theatre of Tennessee & Youth Ensemble and have wasted no time getting the company up and running. In addition to its debut performance, “New Beginnings,” held July 1 at Vanderbilt’s Ingram Performance Center, the corps has also been working on shows for its upcoming season, a touring series and also a variety of community-outreach opportunities.

“This will be ballet for the people,” Mohnani said. “We want to take ballet into many different places, not just hold performances in the downtown area. We want to make it accessible for everyone.”

As artistic director, Mohnani said he is eager to put his own spin on some venerable favorites, as well as try out new works. As a longtime dancer with a distinguished resume, the new company gives him a chance to grow in a different direction.

“I still get to be creative in terms of staging shows, and I’m fortunate to have my own personal stamp on the dance community here by being a longtime principal with the Nashville Ballet,” he said. “People know who I am and the work that I do, and it’s exciting to continue to be offering hat to the community without necessarily being up on the stage and dancing it. Now I have another outlet.”

He’s also found that his sexual orientation isn’t an issue here any more than it was with the larger, more established company, which has made it easier for him and Williams to focus on building the corps and the school that’s attached to the company.

“No one has to hide to succeed here, but it’s important to always be professional,” Mohnani said. “I am here as the instructor, and that’s that; no need to put other things out there. Professionalism and skills first, that’s what we’re offering; there’s no name tag talking about something else, saying ‘look at me.’”

“I don’t hide myself by any stretch of the imagination, but that’s just not an issue,” added Williamson. “It’s who I am, but when I’m here it’s about teaching, rehearsing, dancing, talking to parents, doing the things where I am the happiest. Christopher and I as a couple outside of the ballet world made some decisions personally about what we wanted to do, which is why we’re here. I’m transitioning into being a teacher, in rehearsing people, building the next generation of dancers, so that’s much more my path now.”

For his part, Mohnani said that moving into teaching feels very organic to him as well.

“I learned from my teachers, and now to be able to pass on all my experiences and knowledge, is so much better than just quietly moving away from dance,” he said. “That’s the whole point of the art — it’s passed on. You can’t learn from a video; you learn because someone who has done it before is showing you what to do. Being able to train the next generation is really a blessing.”

The two are building an international organization, with dancers hailing from Nashville all the way through the Southwest and even the Philippines. All say they are drawn to Mohnani’s vision, and also for the chance to make their mark in a fledgling outfit.

“I was with the Montgomery Ballet, but am originally from Texas where I did some flamenco as well as other dancing,” said Mykl Rodriguez. “This company is exactly what I was looking for — there’s passion, and I’m given a lot of artistic freedom.”

While she has danced in the United States before, Marian Faustino chose to relocate from Manila in order to work with Mohnani again, and adds that “It’s a very different culture, but it’s good to work with American dancers. We are doing some new works, which is also very good for me.”

While some might see the new troupe as competition for the Nashville Ballet in particular and the local arts scene in general, but everyone involved is quick to shoot that notion down. The reality, they say, is that Middle Tennessee wants to support, and benefits from, more outlets.

“What’s so beautiful about this is that there are great facilities, so that people can have another option not only for dance class but also for shows,” said Lynda Hawkersmith, who serves on the company’s board. “There will be a refreshing twist to what comes out of here, and now people won’t have to wait several months between productions. This is just good news for people who like ballet, because they’re going to have more opportunities to see it.”

Having another place to train and/or dance will benefit the dance community itself, added Williams.

“There are dozens of very good professional dancers living in Nashville that just aren’t dancing any more,” he said. “If they haven’t been asked to be in the Nashville Ballet, then they’ve had no alternative; now we have another option for that type of training.”

A broader scope is what Mohnani says he has in mind, be it this new venture, or the city’s arts scene in general.

“We’re another avenue to enjoy the performing arts, to get enriched,” he said. ‘Now I don’t have to go to New York to experience two different professional dance companies. I have it here in Nashville. You don’t want to see this particular production? Then you can go and see another one instead. Now the community has more choice.”

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