Video by: Bria Granville & Words by Hayley Ross
When Jordan Leeper’s dance instructor at the Chautauqua Regional Youth Ballet told him that he would be coming to Chautauqua Institution to take a ballet class in 2006, he didn’t understand why.
“I actually had no idea what was happening at Chautauqua Institution in the summertime,” he said.
What Leeper didn’t know was that the class, taught by Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, would be the start of his long career with the Charlotte Ballet and at Chautauqua.
After six seasons with the Charlotte Ballet and eight summers at Chautauqua, Leeper took his final bow with the company Tuesday in the Amphitheater. The 24-year-old will head to Atlanta in August to dance with the Atlanta Ballet.
Leeper took his first dance class on a whim. A friend from the football team asked Leeper to take a ballet class with him at a local afterschool program at his middle school in Jamestown because he heard ballet helped football players. Leeper was a competitive figure skater at the time.
“He didn’t want to be the only boy in the class, and he figured if anybody would do it, I would be the one to say ‘yes,’ ” Leeper said.
The football player quit, but Leeper continued his training at the Chautauqua Regional Youth Ballet in Jamestown. He spent his first summer at Chautauqua as a Chautauqua Festival dancer in 2007. Leeper was the first recipient of a Chautauqua Dance Circle scholarship, which provided him with financial assistance to train at Chautauqua Institution’s School of Dance. The CDC has continued to grow and now provides scholarships to dozens of dance students.
Leeper said that Chautauqua was where his stage presence as a dancer and artist first began to grow.
“Performing is what sets a student apart from an artist,” he said. “You get to put yourself in the movement.”
In 2008, he was accepted to the San Francisco Ballet summer program. He continued on scholarship for a year in the San Francisco Ballet’s year-round training program. It was there that he discovered that he could turn his love for dance into a career.
“I was the only boy training in Jamestown, so I never really had any other males to look up to. I just thought that ballet was something fun that I just happened to be pretty good at,” he said. “It wasn’t until I went to San Francisco and took a class with 15 other guys who were just as good as me — if not better — that it clicked.”
Leeper has returned to Chautauqua as a member of the Charlotte Ballet every year since joining the company in 2009.
Working with the leadership at the Charlotte Ballet, such as Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, is one of the highlights of Leeper’s time in the company.
“Jordan is a real treasure,” McBride said, “He can do anything technically.”
Leeper said he struggled transitioning from student to professional because he had to find the motivation on his own instead of being pushed to get better by a teacher. But he also loves the freedom he gets as an artist as part of the company.
“When you are a student, it’s so structured,” he said. “When you become a professional, you get to show who you are as a dancer and put your own personality into the steps.”
Coming from Jamestown, Leeper has been able to see his family every summer when he comes to Chautauqua.
“My parents are in the audience for every performance, and they have been to Charlotte a couple of times,” he said, “Them getting to come to my shows and see my world and the lifestyle I was becoming a part of brought us together.”
Leeper comes from an athletic family of football and basketball players and track and field runners, so initially it was a shock when Leeper chose ballet. However, he said his family has always been supportive.
“They have bent over backwards and scraped every little bit of money and little bit of everything so that I can fulfill my dream of being a dancer,” he said.
Leeper is excited for what his future in Atlanta holds.
“I’m basically starting over. New choreographers, new leadership, new dancers, new people to inspire me, and new people for me to learn from,” he said. “Knowing how much I’ve grown at Charlotte Ballet, I’m excited to see how much more I can grow in Atlanta Ballet.”
Leeper said it is the people he has met in Charlotte and Chautauqua that he will miss most.
“In a sense, I kind of grew up in Charlotte with these people, so I have a lot of extremely close friends who know almost every detail of my life,” he said. “I’m going to miss them.”
McBride said she is proud to have known Leeper as a young dancer and watched him grow.
“It’s bittersweet, but we are very happy because we feel like we helped developed his talent,” she said.
As Leeper moves on and pursues new adventures, he said he will always remember the opportunities he was given in Chautauqua and the people who have believed in him since the beginning of his journey as a dancer.
“Chautauqua will always have a big chunk of my heart,” he said.