2015 MID-CAREER PRIZE IN THEATRE & DANCE
Felise Bagley immediately fell in love with ballet when she discovered the frayed pointe shoes and costume that her mother, Vicki, had worn when she studied with a Russian woman in Queens.
“Even as a child, I just always knew that I wanted to be a dancer,” she says.
The native New Yorker’s parents loved the arts. Her father, Ben, is a sculptor and fully supported Felise and her brother Robert in whatever they wanted to pursue, starting with piano. The well-rounded teen competed in gymnastics and diving throughout her junior high school and high school years and found time to take Saturday drawing lessons at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
After a year of college, however, she knew she wasn’t on the right path. “I needed something a lot more intense,” she recalls.
She began her dance training with Willa Damien, former soloist with Bejart Ballet of the 20th Century. Then, at 19, everything started coming together, once she was accepted as a merit scholarship recipient to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center in New York. Felise thrived on being surrounded by professional dancers. “Everything just opened up, and I had a wider perspective on the dance world,” she says.
In addition to taking music appreciation and dance history classes, Felise grew from the opportunities that included a chance to perform in Europe and work with choreographers in the Ailey company who tested their new dances on the students. At the time, the studios were located at Lincoln Center, so she had access to all of the dance performances there, including the American Ballet Theatre.
Her first professional jobs were with two New York companies: the Joyce Trisler Dance Company, where she toured throughout Europe and the US, and then the Elisa Monte Dance Company.
Next, Felise danced with PhilaDanCo (Philadelphia Dance Company), but after two years, she decided to hone her classical ballet skills. She returned to New York to join the training program at the Joffrey Ballet. There, at 25, she had the opportunity to perform as a company member with the Joffrey Ballet Chicago and Joffrey II in New York. She also performed as a guest artist with the Festival Ballet of Rhode Island and was a featured dancer in the book The Joffrey Ballet School’s Ballet Fit.
In 1998, “a feeling in her bones” told her it was time to move on, so she attended a day-long audition on the Upper West Side for a company she didn’t know much about, other than she liked their repertoire, which was “more Joffrey than NYC Ballet.” She got the job and was thrilled to move to Akron to join the Ohio Ballet.
One of her fellow principal dancers, David Shimotakahara,(Cleveland Arts Prize, 2000) retired and went on to found and become Executive Artistic Director of GroundWorks Dance Theatre. He invited her to join the company in 2001, when he needed an extra woman for one of his performances, and he knew Felise worked well with the other former Ohio Ballet dancers. “It was a perfect fit, so I just kind of stayed,” she says with a laugh. “It’s been an amazing 14 years.”
“Felise has had a great journey in the range of dances she’s made her own and embodied,” observes David. “She has an unbelievable discipline and work ethic that have allowed her to dance at the top of her form for much longer than most dancers and is a model for the others in the company.”
Because of Groundworks’ long relationship with its core audience, she feels a deep responsibility to grow and continue to create something interesting, different and challenging for them, as well. She also relies on the great sophistication and support for dance and the arts characteristic of Cleveland audiences that she has experienced since moving here. Of course, the support of her husband Brian Skrant, whom she married in 2002, is also key to her sustained success.
“Dancing can be very hard,” she says. “So having someone to pick you up when you need it once in a while is extremely important.”
Thanks to the innovative choreography of “Shimo” or through the choreographers he brings in, Felise relishes the ongoing creative challenges and opportunities. “I always feel brand new after one of our performances,” she concludes. “Why would I stop?”