A dance company teetering on the brink of extinction may not seem like a good thing. But for Lisa Sheppard Robson, it was the window of opportunity she didn’t even know she was looking for.
When the Gwinnett Ballet Theatre spun into a nosedive in 1997, Robson stepped up to assume the role of artistic director, thrusting herself into a leadership position in order to salvage the company. As a former dancer, teaching had never been a part of Robson’s life plan. But now, 17 years later, Robson is being awarded Chautauqua School of Dance’s annual Artist Teacher Award for excellence in teaching.
“Teaching wasn’t the vision I saw for myself, so this big honor is beyond my imagination,” Robson said. “When they called me, I was literally speechless. [Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride] are pioneers in dance. It’s hard for me to believe that I’m being recognized by the likes of them.”
The Artist Teacher Award is an honor bestowed upon exceptional teachers of dance, who have dedicated their lives to supporting, fostering and shaping dance students. The award is funded by an endowment from Chautauquan Kay Logan, and was created by Logan and Bonnefoux, artistic director of Chautauqua Dance.
Robson is a teacher whose roots are grounded firmly in a lifetime of dance. She performed as a soloist for the Alabama Ballet, danced professionally with Ballet Mississippi, and toured with Rotaru International Ballet before settling into her position at Gwinnett Ballet Theatre. She spent 14 seasons there, developing and transfiguring her students before sending them on their way to various prestigious companies, programs and universities.
Despite a decorated career as a dancer, Robson said that receiving an award for teaching — as opposed to dancing — is meaningful in an entirely different way.
“Ballet can be isolating,” Robson said. “Once I bridged into teaching, I realized it was so much more fulfilling because it’s more inclusive. There’s so much more you’re sharing; I can celebrate all of my dancers’ successes and victories. This [award] is so much more rewarding than my receiving something as a dancer.”
Robson’s former experience dancing has also infiltrated and influenced her demeanor as a teacher. Precisely because Robson understands the isolation of ballet and how students tend to be their own worst critics, she said she tried to adopt a tone of encouragement and support within her studios.
“It’s so important to be their biggest fan, their biggest cheerleader,” Robson said. “I invested in them with my heart, and they invested back. We became such a close, tight family.”
Throughout her years as a teacher, Robson focused her time on passing technique, development of dance, and love of the art along to her students. Despite her role leading the class, however, she feels that she was ultimately the one learning — deriving inspiration and creativity from her students.
“I’ve found such inspiration from them,” Robson said. “They have such drive, such appreciation of the art form. I feel like they are my children, in a way. When I see a lot of myself in the dancers, it makes me feel like I was put on this earth for a specific reason. It makes me feel like I’ve had such purpose.”
Robson will be officially presented with her award during the first pause of tonight’s performance in the Amphitheater.