It's often shocking for Jacksonians to learn that the International Ballet Competition is held right here in our humble city. Every four years, in the spirit of a sort of Olympics for dancers, the world’s most talented ballerinas gather in Jackson to commune, compete and, of course, dance. With the opening ceremony fast approaching, PORTICO sat down with Mona Nicholas, the competition’s executive director, to get an insider’s look at the IBC
Give me a brief history of the IBC in your own words. Specifically, how did it end up in Jackson?
The first IBC was in Varna, Bulgaria, in 1964. Moscow and Tokyo followed suit with their own international ballet competitions. In 1978, Thalia Mara (who had moved to Jackson in 1975 at the invitation of the Jackson Ballet Guild to organize and direct the state’s first professional ballet company) proposed to arts patrons, community leaders and local and state officials that Jackson host the first IBC in the western hemisphere. People thought she was crazy, but she wouldn’t let go of the idea. She thought that hosting the International Ballet Competition would expose many more Mississippians to ballet at the highest level. She knew that we love competition down here because she had seen the enthusiasm of Mississippians during college football season. She continued to push forward, gaining the support of key officials and forward-thinking community leaders, and she pulled in her contacts in the dance world, including Robert Joffrey, the founder of the Joffrey Ballet. Jackson ultimately won the privilege of hosting the competition and did such a good job with the first one in 1979 that in 1982, the USA IBC gained the same sanction by the International Theatre Institute, International Dance Committee and UNESCO that Varna, Moscow and Tokyo had.
How did you get involved with the IBC? What led you to this point?
I’ve always loved ballet. I studied dance in my youth, training with Debra Franco in Vicksburg, and I taught classes for her in Rolling Fork when I was in college. I graduated from Millsaps with a degree in business and went to work in the health care field, where I remained for most of my career. Through the years, I attended the USA IBC and volunteered, working on many important events. I was president of the Friends of the USA IBC and worked on expanding membership. In 2013, as Sue Lobrano approached retirement after 35 years with the USA IBC, I submitted my resume and was hired by the board of directors to come on board as deputy director for the 2014 competition. With Sue’s retirement following the 2014 event, I assumed the position of executive director.
What is your favorite thing about being USA IBC director? What is the hardest thing?
My favorite thing is bringing dance of the highest caliber to Jackson for two full weeks and creating an entire festival around ballet. The USA IBC put Jackson on the map in the elite dance world. The competition is highly respected internationally by dancers, artistic directors and dance dignitaries. We have so much to be proud of in being the official international ballet competition in the United States, designated by a joint resolution of Congress.
The hardest thing about being director is broadening and expanding resources and audiences. There are many arts organizations competing for sponsorship dollars, grants and state support. While the needs have grown, in some cases the resources have shrunk. The USA IBC is a two-week event, and the dancers are actually here for two and a half weeks. It takes a lot of organization, strong sponsor support and many volunteers to make the event as excellent as the dance itself. The USA IBC has gained and maintained the reputation of being the best organized, most enjoyable and also the fairest of competitions. That keeps dancers coming back to Jackson, and we want the event to continue to be fresh and relevant to their needs in pursuing a professional dance career.
On a similar note, what is your favorite part of the competition itself?
My favorite part of the competition is seeing the dancers on stage and the audiences who are so appreciative of the dancers’ tremendous talent. Jackson audiences are generous with applause and bravos, and their enthusiasm motivates the dancers.
What does the future of the IBC look like to you?
It looks very bright indeed. We have the dance world’s respect for the quality of the competition. We have involved a new generation of volunteers and sponsors in getting ready for this competition, along with those who have always stood ready to help the USA IBC. Ballet is strong in America, as evidenced by the number of outstanding junior competitors we have.
What is one thing you wish everyone knew about the IBC or ballet in general?
I wish everyone knew that this event contributes an estimated $12.1 million to the local and state economy. I wish they knew how young dancers in Korea, China, Russia and Brazil speak about competing here—how much they love Jackson’s people who roll out the red carpet and show them true Southern hospitality. I wish they could appreciate the difficult training and superior conditioning of the dancers as athletes and artists, and I know they will if they attend just one performance.
The USA IBC is a full two-week event with seventeen performances to choose from. There are lectures, films, an art exhibit by the official artist Kit Fields and many opportunities to experience a part of the USA IBC. It all beings with the opening ceremony Sunday, June 10, at 7:30 p.m. in Thalia Mara Hall. The USA IBC will welcome their 105 competitors from nineteen nations and present a performance by dancers of the renowned Joffrey Ballet, under the artistic direction of Ashley Wheater. Tickets for the opening and every performance are available at usaibc.tix.com, by calling the box office at 601-973-9249 and visiting the box office from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. each week day or prior to all performances. The complete schedule is posted at usaibc.com/attend.