Joseph Morrissey grew up with every opportunity to pursue his passion for dance. As a teenager, he enrolled at an elite private conservatory that trains the best young dancers in the country. He studied classical ballet at Indiana University and earned a master’s degree in arts administration from New York University.
Now, at age 30, he finds himself in Portland, immersed in a thriving community of young dancers, choreographers, teachers and students and, increasingly, a sophisticated and discerning audience that expects and demands more from the dance companies that perform here.
Together, they are redefining dance education and professional opportunities in Maine, and giving aspiring dance students incentive to stay here instead of taking their talents out of state.
Morrissey arrived in Portland in the fall to direct Portland Ballet’s CORPS program, which trains high school-age dancers who hope to pursue dance in college or at the conservatory level.
“I’m helping them to go from a student to a dancer and finally to an artist,” he said.
There’s a lot happening in dance in Maine.
Bates College in Lewiston recently added a dance major. Southern Maine Community College in South Portland began offering a modern dance class in the fall, filling all 15 slots. This semester, all 15 slots are taken again.
Colby and Bowdoin colleges have bolstered their dance programs to meet demand. At the same time, presenting-arts organizations such as Portland Ovations are bringing in renowned dance companies such as the Joffrey Ballet, which will perform at Portland’s Merrill Auditorium in March.
While in town, dancers from Joffrey will conduct master classes for local students.
“It’s an exciting time to be here,” said Carol Dilley, director of the dance program at Bates. “Our community of dancers is growing and is beginning to thrive.”
Laure Faure, longtime director of the Bates Dance Festival in Lewiston, suspects the interest in dance stems from the popularity of dance shows on TV. Programs such as “Dancing with the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance” have been on TV for several years, and made it socially acceptable for men and women of all ages to think about dancing, Faure said.
With more interest come better and more diverse educational opportunities, she said.
Southern Maine had long provided solid educational and training opportunities to aspiring dancers. What’s different now is the depth of offerings at all levels.
“Portland now has enough population density that students have the opportunity to study a range of styles,” Faure said. “It’s not just ballet, tap and lyrical. And the quality of training, in Portland particularly, is quite good. Students are getting good training and are encouraged to go on to Boston or New York for further studies if they choose.”
Or they can stay in Maine.
The college dance programs in Maine have never been better, infused with full-time tenure track professors who have raised standards and expectations. Bates and Colby offer dance majors, and Bowdoin is considering a departmental major.
The Bates Dance Festival, held every summer for the past three decades, is widely considered one of the country’s best landing spots for serious dancers. Indeed, many of the teachers in Maine colleges came to the state for the first time because of the Bates festival.
The training also is excellent for younger students.
Portland Ballet began its CORPS program in 1994, and the Maine State Ballet, under the direction of New York City Ballet and George Balanchine protege Linda MacArthur Miele, has provided classical training since 1986.
Morrissey, director of the CORPS program, grew up on Boston’s South Shore, and knew from a young age that he wanted to make his life in dance. He excelled locally, and enrolled at Harid Conservatory in Florida, one of the top training programs in the country.
His career as a dancer and choreographer has taken him around the globe. He began dancing with the Boston Ballet at 18, and over the next decade worked with dance companies across the United States and overseas.
Before coming to Portland, he received his degree in performing arts administration from New York University. He chose Portland because he wanted the challenge of working with high school students who have professional aspirations.
Students arrive at 1:30 each weekday afternoon and work with Morrissey for three hours. They receive academic credit in health, physical education and the arts.
After going through the CORPS program, dancers are better prepared to study at the college or conservatory level, said Portland Ballet’s founder and artistic director, Eugenia O’Brien.
This winter, four ballet companies and conservatories scheduled auditions at Portland Ballet, including the Cincinnati Ballet. In February, the Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre of Cambridge, Mass., and the Joffrey Ballet will hold auditions.
“I know what these kids are going through,” said Morrissey, who left home when he was 14 to study in Florida. “I know what it’s like to leave school and explain that I’m going to dance for the next three hours. This is an opportunity for me to take what I’ve learned and bring it to the table to help these kids realize that big things are possible.”
Among them is 17-year-old Emily Avery of Stratham, N.H. She commutes almost 2½ hours daily — round trip — to train at Portland Ballet. A high school senior, she is one of 11 students in the program this year from Portland and surrounding communities.
By far, she travels the farthest. She leaves her high school at noon, drives an hour and 10 minutes to Portland, trains for three hours and then drives back.
“It’s really excellent training that I am getting here,” she said. “It’s a very small class and I have a really great teacher.”
Avery considered traveling to Boston or enrolling in a private school that specializes in dance. She chose Portland Ballet because she believed she could get the instruction she wanted without the expense or inconvenience of relocating.
The students who dance in the CORPS program get the level of training that an athlete in a high school program receives. The daily routine is vigorous and demanding, and Morrissey operates with results in mind. He does not compromise his standards because he is working in a smaller city.
“I’m running this program as if we are in New York,” he said.
He works on technique, stamina and poise, and teaches his students a variety of repertory while serving as an example of someone who has danced professionally.
“He tells us about his experience and what we might expect when we graduate high school,” said Avery, who intends to study dance in college and is weighing her scholarship opportunities. “He’s had great experiences and his classes are fun. It’s very intense for all of the students, but we all get a lot out of it.”
Delaney McDonough, a senior dance major at Colby, enrolled at the liberal arts college in Waterville planning to study history or anthropology.
She danced as a hobby when she was growing up in New Jersey, but gave it up when she arrived at college. That changed in her sophomore year, when Colby hired Annie Kloppenberg as an assistant professor of dance.
“I just took one class with her and was immediately sucked into the whole world,” McDonough said. “Annie completely revolutionized the program and restarted the whole thing. I have dropped everything else and am only a dance major now.”
When she graduates, McDonough hopes to teach and work as a choreographer. She has spent one summer at the Bates Dance Festival, and intends to enroll again this summer.
Colby has eight declared dance majors this year. Bates has a dozen.
“We have this amazing, supportive environment in Maine right now,” said Madeline Kurtz, a junior dance major at Colby who comes from Connecticut. “There is so much going on in Maine right now, it’s really pretty amazing. Just considering Colby, Bates and Bowdoin, we are three tiny schools that happen to have these really strong departments that most people on our campuses don’t even know about.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: