A former principal dancer with the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle and the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam, Casey fell in love with travel during his years on the road as a ballet dancer. Following his retirement from the stage in 2016, he embarked on a new project that combines his love for ballet with his love for learning about the world. Here he describes the inspiration behind Ballet Rising.
By Casey Herd
When I retired from the ballet stage in 2016, I found myself at a major turning point. Until then, most of my life had been dedicated to my work as a dancer, but during those years I had also nurtured other interests. Chief among these interests was travel. Years of traveling around the world for dance had given me the opportunity to see places and experience other cultures that fascinated me, and I wanted to learn more. Even though I had retired as a performer, I knew I wasn’t finished traveling.
At the same time, I wanted to maintain a foothold in the ballet world. Although I enjoy teaching and choreographing, I knew that these weren’t the right career paths for me. Even though I eventually want to direct a company, right now I want to be out in the world, exploring life beyond the stages where I have already performed. As I was exploring a post-ballet career, I felt like it was important for me to step outside my comfort zone to learn what life outside the theater could teach me.
In the months after I retired, I began to brainstorm ways to incorporate my love of travel with my desire to stay connected to the ballet world. In the meantime, I started hearing inspiring stories of ballet initiatives in places where you might not expect ballet to have taken root.
I learned about ballet schools in India, Cambodia, Brazil, Iran, and elsewhere, and that got me thinking: why not travel to these ballet communities and discover their stories? It was then that Ballet Rising was born.
As I began organizing Ballet Rising, I realized that there is a major demand for individuals with my skillset among small ballet communities in many places. I found that ballet teachers and students in the places I started visiting didn’t need me to tell them what ballet is. What I could do for them was help them get plugged into the global ballet network where I was already well connected. My friend and former colleague at the Dutch National Ballet, Chris Weisler, now an accomplished photographer/filmmaker, suggested we record their stories on film and on other media on our website. We hoped to bring attention to their work, sharing it with colleagues, companies, and potential patrons back home. More than anything, these ballet communities need recognition for the great work they are already doing, and that is something I could help bring them.
I also discovered that I could identify with many of the individuals I met on my travels. I grew up in Salt Lake City, the third of four children, in the 1980s. My mom was a single mom, and we relied on government assistance to make ends meet. In many ways I was more disconnected then than the communities I visit are now. Print magazines were the only source of information I had about dance, and my family couldn’t afford to travel to cities like New York, Paris, or London where ballet culture was much bigger than it is in Salt Lake City. Sometimes I felt so far away from art and culture that I felt as though I might as well have been on Mars. Luckily, Ballet West, Salt Lake City’s local company, provided a good standard, and I feel so fortunate to have grown up in a safe and supportive city that was home to a good ballet company, with talented dancers and ample funding. In many respects, the individuals I visit on my travels have access to much more information than I did as a kid: casting, programming, news, and any piece of ballet knowledge they can Google. The difficulty is not so much information but getting their name out there. That’s where I hope that Ballet Rising can provide support.
My goal for Ballet Rising is to build a global ballet community that is inclusive, that incorporates the efforts of everyone.
I want to show communities that are hard to reach that the current leaders of the ballet world care about their work, and I want to break down old-fashioned perceptions of ballet as exclusive or elitist. I want to help build a culture of artists who speak from a perspective of unity and mutual respect about the importance of art and freedom of expression. As I travel the world, I become more and more aware of forces that try to divide us, and I believe that it is crucial for artists to join together to push back, to emphasize the unifying value of dance. Ballet Rising is a way that I can help amplify the voices of people who want to be heard and to support the work of people who, like me, want to be a part of something bigger than themselves.