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Ballet director turns tragedy to triumph

When Gerard Charles twisted his back the wrong way, his life turned the right way.

“It was the first point in my life when I decided I was going to dance,” said Charles, the artistic director of BalletMet. “Because they didn’t think I could do it.”

Throughout his life, Charles has found the worst breaks can also turn out to be the best, and this was no different.

The accident happened when he was in his final year at the Royal Ballet in Hammersmith, England. Ever since, he has had to overcome many obstacles to get where he is today.

Charles no longer gives much thought to his back. He is too busy making sure everything runs smoothly at BalletMet and improving the company during its 25th year.

“Basically I am responsible for everything that is seen on stage,” Charles said. “All the people that work to make the production possible work under my guidance.”

He is a busy man, handling everything from casting to budget. Even his wife, who works at BalletMet, has a hard time pinning him down.

“Our time together is really limited,” Cathy Charles said. “The best part is that when we are together we know how valuable that time is.”

His wife and his co-workers admire his hard work and passion.

“He’s a hard worker. He’s dedicated. Nothing’s done half-way,” said Cheri Mitchell, executive director at BalletMet.

“I admire how he is able to keep everything running smoothly,” said Raymond Smith, balletmaster at BalletMet. “It’s hard to be in the studio, be upstairs in the office, be in his office, having to run around and keep everything organized.”

Charles began his career as a dancer as a young child. Ever since the day he was born in Folkstone, England, his mother dreamed he would become a dancer. However, Charles had other goals in mind.

“I wanted to be an architect for the longest time, but now I design things with dancers instead of bricks,” Charles said.

At age 13 he left home to attend the Royal Ballet, which he said strongly resembled a boarding school.

“We were in this beautiful old hunting lodge, but you were locked in and the food was dreadful,” Charles said. “But it was a great opportunity.”

It was at the Royal Ballet that Charles broke his back. He was in a body cast for three months, but this did not stop him. Despite his disability, he received his certificate in Dance Notation for ballet. Once healed, Charles went back to the Royal Ballet to finish his last year.

Although the school provided him with special classes on how to move his back in a less damaging way, Charles said it was obvious he would not have the opportunity to join the company when he finished.

“It was crushing to think that I wasn’t going to get into the Royal Ballet,” Charles said.

But he continued to push forward. He auditioned for several ballet companies while he was in England.

“It was amazing to me. I discovered there was a whole world of dance outside the Royal Ballet,” Charles said.

When Charles joined Ballet International, which was managed by an American, he not only received a chance to prove himself in dancing, but he also met his future wife.

“During a rehearsal I went over and asked him if I could stand behind him at the bar, and we’ve been together ever since,” Cathy Charles said.

Joining the company seemed to be the perfect opportunity for him.

“The work I did with the company was very different than the work I had done in school. I just loved it,” Charles said.

Unfortunately there would be more obstacles to overcome.

Soon after he joined, the company went bankrupt after a robber stole millions of dollars from the company.

As a result, his wife moved back to his hometown of Chicago, and he came to visit her.

“That was 1977 and I came for six months and I’ve been here ever since,” Charles said. “It’s easier living here in America and there is a lot more freedom within the arts, and to be creative and take a risk.”

He continued to establish himself in America, dancing, choreographing and teaching with different companies.

He came to BalletMet as a dancer in 1985, danced with the company for four years and became a balletmaster.

“I realized it was actually working with the dancers and helping them improve that was the part that I enjoyed. I really wanted to do that as a career,” Charles said.

He left to work in Montreal for a few years and then he returned as assistant director at BalletMet.

“In seven years I have had many different responsibilities here,” he said.

He has worked hard to help BalletMet progress to where it is now.

“My wife and I did an awful lot of things as dancers when the company first began. We did strange things like dance in the mall when it opened and organize a scavenger hunt as a fund-raiser,” Charles said.

He still works to improve the company by promoting BalletMet and constantly improving the quality of performance.

He said it is important to him to become involved in the community and promote the ballet wherever he can.

As part of the ballet’s anniversary season this spring, it will collaborate with Ohio State department of dance faculty and students on the “Scarlet and Gray Ballet,” performed to the music of the Ohio State marching band.

“I am a strong supporter of Gerard’s overall goal to integrate the ballet into the larger community,” said Susan Hadley, dance instructor at OSU and choreographer for the “Scarlet and Gray Ballet.”

The company respects Charles’ hard work and ideas.

“When he was balletmaster for my ballet, he was loved by all of the dancers,” Hadley said. “He has a respect for his dancers not only as a teacher but as a coach.”

Lynn Holbrook, costume designer for BalletMet, said her favorite thing about Charles is his openness to ideas.

“He loves to be innovated with ideas. He sits here and we pick his brain and he picks ours. We all throw our two cents in and he listens to that,” Holbrook said.

Charles said although his job is important to him, his wife and his 9-year-old son Max are the most important things to him, which is evident from the large black and white photo of Max as a baby that decorates his office wall.

“When my son was born it changed my whole value system,” Charles said.

He said if he could accomplish anything more in his life it would be to never stop laughing.

“I want to maintain my sense of humor. I don’t want to ever lose my sense of humor,” Charles said.

His lively personality is what Cathy Charles said she would miss the most if he weren’t in her life.

“When he does go away and it’s just Max and me, we of course miss his physical presence, but it’s this spirit that he has even when he’s dead tired that I miss,” she said.

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