Story* by Sandra Davidson | Archival images provided by the Charlotte Ballet
Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride moved to Charlotte in 1996 with one goal: to build North Carolina’s dance community. Recruited by the North Carolina Dance Theatre, today known as the Charlotte Ballet, the couple brought decades of experience to the studio.
Bonnefoux was born in France, and he joined the Paris Opera Ballet at the age of 14, where he became a celebrated dancer. He joined the New York City Ballet in 1970 and performed with them for 10 years. He pivoted to teaching after retiring as a dancer.
McBride was raised in Teaneck, NJ. She joined the New York City Ballet in 1959 and was promoted to principal at 18 in 1961, the youngest in the company’s history. For the next 30 years, she danced under the director of George Balanchine, a man the New York Times described as “one of the greatest choreographers in the history of ballet.” When she was recognized alongside Sting, Al Green, Tom Hanks and Lily Tomlin by The Kennedy Center Honors in 2014, actress Christine Baranski described McBride as the country’s “Prima American Ballerina.”
Under their leadership, the North Carolina Dance Theatre expanded added a company, built a new home and Center for Dance, and underwent a name change to become the Charlotte Ballet. This year Bonnefoux retired as president and artistic director of the Charlotte Ballet, but McBride continues her work as Associate Artistic Director and Master Teacher today.
What made you fall in love with ballet?
Patricia McBride: I started when I was 7. It just felt right for me as a child. I was very shy. It kind of gave me a confidence. It gave me great happiness and joy. I loved my teacher. She was instrumental in everything I did after. My mom and my grandma were so behind me all the time. They loved to take me to my ballet classes. It was the most wonderful feeling to be on stage. I loved the music, I loved the feel of it, and I still love it to this day as an old lady! It still inspires me. I guess I feel like I was meant to do this.
Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux: I think what I love the most in dancing was the connection with the music. I have wonderful memories of that.
How has dance shaped the way you see the world?
Patricia: Dance gave me so much. It made me a whole person. I was very young when I joined the New York City ballet. We went on extraordinary tours. I dance[d] in all the capitals of the world. We’d always get a chance to see other performances [and] to go to museums and experience culture from around the world, so it gave me such an extraordinary life. I never imagined as a 7-year-old that I would have the life that I had. You want your students to have that also because they are our future.
Jean-Pierre: Art did change our lives because of the collaboration with other artists. If you think that you can do it alone…then you are not using the wonderful talent that’s around you that can help you to grow. That’s how you continue to want to move forward…because of the people that you surround yourself with.
Patricia: I love to go to the theater and watch our beautiful dancers. It makes me so happy and gives my life meaning. Dance gives everyone so much passion and joy and happiness. We’re so lucky to being what we love to do and to pass it on.
You both had wonderful careers as dancers in major metropolitan areas. What was it like to move North Carolina to work with the ballet program here—which was then called the North Carolina Dance Theatre?
Jean-Pierre: Coming to Charlotte was exciting because we really believed in the city. There were preconceived ideas that we had to fight that made it difficult in the beginning, so showing the diversity of ballet was important to us. We wanted [to] make something that made people want to come back. I think we built a good reputation here, but we did it by being consistent…by making sure what we would bring would be sensational.
Patricia: And I think Jean-Pierre was such a visionary. He had a strong idea of what he wanted to bring to the audiences because there wasn’t a long tradition of ballet here in Charlotte like where we came from in Europe or New York or San Francisco. He had to think of how he would educate the public. He always tried to be a visionary…to bring all these different wonderful choreographers. He did not want a company of his own choreography alone.
Jean-Pierre: When you live in an ambitious city like Charlotte, you want to be ambitious too. We really wanted to be part of this community and we really wanted to serve this community. I think that’s why there started to be a larger and larger audience because they knew that we were part of Charlotte, not because we came from Paris or New York.
How has the North Carolina Arts Council supported the Charlotte Ballet?
Patricia. The North Carolina Arts Council has been remarkable. It’s made all of this possible. We’ve had a wonderful board, and people have supported our company...but the Arts Council is what’s helped us all these years.
Jean-Pierre: They have supported us from the beginning. I think one of my favorite memories of the Arts Council was that they helped us to do a program called cARTwheels. We brought the company into counties that had not seen much dance. That was exciting. There was really a need for that.
You mentioned the importance of reaching the Charlotte community earlier, and one of the ways you do that is through a need-based scholarship program called REACH. How did that begin, and why did it become a priority of the Charlotte Ballet?
Jean-Pierre: We have a second company that can go into schools and perform. I remember going to [a] program with the second company and seeing some kids in the audience who started to dance. They wanted to be part of it. Many of them were really dancers! So we started to give scholarships for school. They could not [otherwise] afford classes, and we [wanted to] give a chance to help them do what they love to do.
PM: It’s so important to start children who love it from a young age. My mom could not afford to send me to ballet when I went to George Balanchine’s school, so I think it’s so extraordinary that they can be on scholarships like I was on scholarship.
We’re having this conversation in the beautiful Center for Dance in downtown Charlotte. This building was named after the two of you at the 2009 groundbreaking. Will you talk about what this center means to you?
Jean-Pierre: This building is such a gift. So many people are behind it, and [they] gave us a chance to give the best to our dancers. I remember when it was starting to be built, one of the dancers looked at the building and said, “It makes me feel important because it means that I deserve to work in such a building.”
Patricia: There are certain people who’ve worked so hard behind the scenes to make this dream come true. We’ll always be grateful.