“I’m a firm believer in there being more than one path in the ballet world,” says Carly Wheaton. “And from what I’ve learned, there definitely is.” Carly, OBT’s newest soloist, learned early to tune into her instincts— and follow them. Captivated by a performance of The Nutcracker at age 7, Carly dove into ballet, first taking classes at the Stapleton Ballet School near her hometown in California, and later at Marin Ballet. Encouraged by her teachers to intensify her training, Carly joined the San Francisco Ballet School as a full time student at 13. But after a couple of years, things just didn’t feel right. “I had a pivotal moment in my mid-teens,” she recalls. “It was such an important time to keep training, but I needed more balance. In order to keep loving ballet, I had to step away. I needed a break.” She returned home, resumed classes at Marin Ballet, and graduated from high school. “I had no idea what was going to happen at that point,” she says. “My teacher at Marin Ballet, Cynthia Lucas, really encouraged me by saying, ‘If you want this— a dance career— you can do it.’”

So Carly auditioned for ballet companies, applied to colleges, and found herself facing another choice. She decided to jump into the professional world, deferring college (she’d been accepted into Indiana University’s prestigious dance program.) “I just had this feeling that my aspirations beyond the ballet world could wait,” she says. “I felt I needed to pursue this right now.”

Carly spent three seasons with Washington Ballet and seven with BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio. It can be hard to move past the label of “young and inexperienced” in a profession rich with seniority, and Carly yearned to evolve, thriving on eclectic and diverse repertoire. The urge to push through boundaries, along with the pull of her west coast roots, attracted her to OBT. An invitation to audition last spring confirmed her hunch that it would be a good fit. “Every company has its own energy,” Carly says, remembering her audition class. “And OBT’s is so positive. It was immediately evident that everyone works really hard and encourages each other. The performance I saw of Dracula was incredible. I just sat there in the audience, hoping I could dance here.”

Happily, an email from Peter Franc arrived shortly, offering her the job. And now, as she settles into her new life, company, and home? “It feels great! All my senses are heightened right now, being pushed to learn new rep, in this place that is so open and encouraging. It’s an exciting time in the ballet world, and I feel that this is what creates amazing art: an environment that allows artists to take more risks and open up.”

***

Asia Bui knew early on that she was a creator as well as a dancer. Originally from Tampa, she spent two years in Houston Ballet before joining Sarasota Ballet. There, she grew to see herself as more than merely an interpreter of other choreographers’ work. Asia created her first piece for a female-led choreographic workshop in 2021, inspired by the sunrises and sunsets of Sarasota’s beaches, and imagines someday making more dances. For now, she’s embracing the transition to OBT’s style and repertoire. While fully immersed in her performing career, Asia also sees how it fits into the world at large. She plans to finish her undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Sociology within months. “As dancers, it’s hard to imagine a career we’d be as passionate about as ballet, but I was drawn to these areas when I realized how relatable they are to the ballet world. I’d love to merge them with my current career by enabling underrepresented groups to have more access to ballet and education,” she says.

***

“Dance has always been a part of my life,” says Nicholas Sakai. That may be typical to hear from a professional dancer, but what’s notable is Nicholas’ resistance to getting stuck in a comfort zone of familiarity. Trained at the Houston Ballet Academy, Nicholas danced with Dayton Ballet before looking to the Pacific Northwest for his next move. “I kept expanding my searches, looking for new environments and dancers to work with,” he recalls. Through the strong web of dancer connections in this profession, he landed at Eugene Ballet, but already had his eyes on OBT. Watching the company perform was momentous for him. “It was so good, so inspiring. I couldn’t help but think, ‘Can I do that? Can I perform at that quality?’” Validation came when Nicholas auditioned for OBT and days later, received a contract. “I was overjoyed. I’d been so nervous during the audition— but hopeful— so it was a huge surprise!” Now, he’s just soaking it all up, he says. “I’m living in the moment, digging into what we’re doing each day. It’s about finding fulfillment, making myself the best dancer I can be, and seeing how far I can go in the world with that.”

***

 

“It’s almost uncanny how I ended up here,” Gavin Hounslow says of arriving at OBT. “Destiny, friends, connections… I feel I’m just along for the ride and am so happy to have landed here.” Gavin had to be persuaded to even try ballet. Growing up in Oklahoma, he’d fallen in love with hip hop, only reluctantly giving into his teacher’s urging to learn any other style of dance. But after seeing some professional dancers’ turns, jumps and partnering maneuvers at a summer intensive one year, his fascination flipped. At 14, he was a latecomer to ballet yet progressed fast, moving to the Houston Ballet Academy only two years later. But the intensity and speed of Gavin’s immersion in ballet brought up feelings that were like a flashing warning sign. He decided to take a break. “I’d gotten so deep into ballet, so fast, that suddenly I felt like I needed to step back and see if it was really what I wanted to pursue,” Gavin recalls. “I’d never really thought, ‘I want to be a ballet dancer.’ The break he took was a real one: 10 months on his family’s farm, driving tractors, herding cattle, and shoveling manure. By the end, he’d figured it out. “I realized what made me love dance: the friends, the community, all the amazing people you meet in this world. I had new perspective and realized I really did miss ballet.”

***

 There really is no single formula for a ballet career, nor a mold into which a ballet dancer must fit. The new OBT members vividly demonstrate that carving one’s own way in the ballet world is what an artistic life is all about.

~Gavin Larsen
Former OBT principal dancer Gavin Larsen is the author of Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life (University Press of Florida)

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