From Swan Lake to Stonehenge: Ann Dunn shares her wisdom

Ann Dunn, a UNC Asheville humanities lecturer with a background in ballet, points dancers in the right direction through choreography.

Dunn, who spent the majority of her childhood in Raleigh, said she leapt into the world of ballet at a young age.

“I was born dancing,” Dunn said. “I never stopped moving. So, my parents and I knew I was a dancer from the start.”

Dunn said she had to decide between her passions for violin, dancing and academics.

“I chose dancing and academics,” she said.

Dunn serves as the CEO and artistic director of The Asheville Ballet Company, the oldest non-profit ballet company in North Carolina. She also facilitates the Asheville Academy of Ballet and Contemporary Dance.

The company started in the Leader building in downtown Asheville during the mid-80s. “We lived upstairs and did pottery there, and held classes downstairs,” Dunn said.

Dunn’s dance career took off when she attended The School of American Ballet in New York City and danced in principal roles; however, her focus was divided, she said.

“I flunked out. I fell in love and the art scene was vibrant at this time. Artists like Bob Dylan were playing in the cafes and usually for free,” Dunn said. “All of the big French films started coming over, so my heart wasn’t in school at the time.”

Instead, Dunn got married and moved away from New York City, to Indiana. Later, she returned to her love of dance. She studied with prestigious schools and directors across the country.

“There was a time that I was traveling around to teach dance in public schools, to pay the bills, and I always took my kids with me,” Dunn said.

Dunn studied ballet and opened a dance theater in Indiana, where she also began writing poetry. Additionally, she founded the Indiana State Dance Alliance, a network for dance companies statewide.

Her desire to move to Asheville resulted from passing through town as a child on her way to visit family, Dunn said.

“This was before the major highways came to exist,” Dunn said. “Biltmore Avenue was full of mansions and dogwoods. It was beautiful.”

Dunn later received her interdisciplinary master’s degree from UNCA. She is currently choreographing a ballet performance.

“The combination of music, movement and words is what it’s all about,” Dunn said.

She previously created a production based on her book of poetry “Olde Women” in which the dancers of Asheville Ballet Company matched movements to the words she read over a microphone.

“I create the choreography in silence and some prominent musicians in Asheville watch the moves and compose music to match them,” Dunn said. “Many people think it works the other way around, but that is not always the case.”

Dunn said she witnessed ballet transform over time.

“Ballet was swans,” she said. “Influences of modern dance and World War II has changed this into a wider variety.”

Only a few big expressions are conveyed through classical ballet such as sadness and love, she said.

“But there are so many more,” she said. “That is why I love theatrical and dramatic ballet.”

Dunn primarily creates these types of performances, which she tours with the dancers of Asheville Ballet about three times a year.

“Art is not a competition. The heart of it lies in the use of technique to convey emotion,” Dunn said. “You can judge it for technique, sure, but it is all in the ability to express emotion.”

Lauren Tooley, 17, grew up in the Asheville area and has danced for eight years.

“I dance for multiple reasons. I get to express myself in a place where I feel accepted and not judged,” Tooley said. “It also challenges me to push myself and has taught me so many valuable lessons like hard work, self-motivation, and discipline.”

She dances five days a week at the Ballet Conservatory of Asheville and has many friends that trained with Dunn.

“I think dance is an athletic art. Dancers use their bodies to create stories and try to make audiences feel emotions,” Tooley said. “I think classical ballet is very valuable because of the tradition it carries.”

She plans to attend college next year as a dance major and hopes to be a professional dancer before transferring to the administrative side of dance, she said.

“Dance is hard because there is a lot of competition between dancers, and often those dancers are your friends,” Tooley said. “You have to learn to accept that part of the art form and focus only on yourself and not others.”

Jaimon Caceres, an interior designer from Burnsville, North Carolina, danced professionally with the Asheville Ballet Company.

“I think ballet should definitely get more recognition. There are people that truly appreciate it and I hope that it begins to grow,” Caceres said.

Caceres worked with Dunn for about three years and performed in many of her ballets including The Nutcracker and Carmen.

“She is amazing and I love her so much,” Caceres said.

Now retired from dancing, Caceres said his ballet career helped him develop the creativity he now uses in interior design.

“Ann was my coach and she took me under her wing,” Caceres said. “I attribute all of my success to her.”

Dunn offers advice to students who have a wide variety of passions.

“Do the things that you love,” Dunn said, “and do them well.”

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