Ivy Leaf - Spring 2011
By Marissa Carney
A serious ballet class is structured. Controlled. Disciplined and technical. Joshua Barr was none of these. Which is exactly why he ended up in Deborah Anthony's ballet class at Allegheny Ballet Company when he was ten.
Barr was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder when he was little. As a result, he was put into special education classes at school. His parents wondered if sports or other activities could help teach him to focus. First, he tried soccer. "The only thing I knew was this," states Barr, demonstrating a cowering position with his hands over his face. "One day I literally scored a goal for the wrong team. I kicked it in the wrong goal. So, yeah, I wasn't very interested in sports."
Barr's father wasn't going to give up on him, though, and decided to enroll him in dance classes. To Allegheny Ballet they went and Barr registered for tap, jazz, and ballet classes held every Saturday. Ballet was first and twice as long as the other classes. "Naturally, I was the kid raising his hand and saying, 'Are we almost done yet'? I couldn't wait for other things, but I ended up loving ballet."
Those ballet classes seemed to help Barr learn control. "What was really necessary was to find more ways for me to learn how to focus. Just going to school was not enough. I'm more of a visual person." Ballet certainly teaches focus, with all its technical terms and hours upon hours spent at the barre, learning positions and finding center. It all must have worked, as Barr was put into a regular class setting in junior high, with just one teacher's assistant to help. By the time he got to senior high, he didn't have any help at all.
But that's not the real story. The real story is how an awkward, rambunctious child started dancing at age 10 and wound up being a soloist for Ballet Pensacola.
It wasn't until Barr was a junior in high school that he started exploring summer dance programs through professional companies. He saw many of his studio's other dancers attending the programs and thought that by going himself, he would be able to prove his worth as a dancer. "I never really had somebody tell me, 'You're ready, and you need to go do this or that.' I explored that on my own. I felt that people didn't think I was ready yet. You have to be really focused whenever you go to those summer programs because they can lead to really good things."
In the summer of 2005, Barr went to the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle to study. It was during that time that he realized the passion he had for the art and decided that he truly wanted to be a dancer. The following summer, he went to Ballet Austin in Texas for three weeks to train. Barr opted not to apply for college, instead hoping to get into a year-round professional trainee program. And here began the uphill battle to achieve his dreams.
At Ballet Austin, Barr was told he wasn't ready for the trainee program. He already was signed up for a five-week summer program back at Pacific Northwest Ballet, but when he shared his goal of getting into a trainee program there, "the director there was telling me, 'maybe you want to look into something else; is there anything else you're interested in?' He just couldn't believe that I was trying to be a ballet dancer." Barr finished out the challenging program, then came home to Altoona, and struggled with the idea of quitting. "It's so hard when you really want something. I finally knew that I really wanted this and to hear I wasn't ready was kind of degrading. I didn't prepare myself for that. I had so much faith in myself and trust that they would see how well I could do in their trainee program."
Barr ended up working at McDonald's while he applied to Penn State Altoona, which he chose because it was close and he liked the campus. "So in January of 2007, I started college, and I was actually a biology major. For some reason, I thought I would possibly go into dental hygiene or something."
But the fervor for dance still burned in his heart and, at the encouragement of friends, Barr auditioned for Allied Motion, a now defunct modern dance company on campus. He was accepted, which actually surprised him. "I hadn't had much modern experience. I was really just a ballet dancer. Luckily KT Huckabee gave me the opportunity to work with the company, because she had plenty of reason to say no. She had a lot of faith in me."
Huckabee, assistant professor of integrative arts and dance, remembers watching Barr at the audition. "I saw a very well-trained ballet dancer, but someone who didn't have much exposure to modern dance. The use of the body and gravity differ widely between these two dance forms. He struck me as someone who would work hard — which he did — and was truly interested in dance."
Barr began adding some dance classes to his schedule and learned more about the art form than ever before. Rather than looking at dance as a bunch of shapes and an end result, classes taught him about the in-between: timing, levels, the origins and purpose behind movement, and even the meaning of stillness. "I felt like I finally knew what dancing really was and understood the breadth of dancing and what brings actual dance to life," recalls Barr. Yet he still felt that dance was something he would only be able to enjoy on the side, the rejections from Ballet Austin and North Pacific Ballet fresh in his mind.
Through many conversations with Huckabee, Barr came to realize there are many different ways to make a life through dance; it didn't have to be ballet or nothing. "He was very encouraged and excited about this prospect," says Huckabee. "He had been living with dance through only one perspective—ballet. Broadening this perspective was liberating for him."
As a result, Barr changed his major from biology to integrative arts and started looking into more summer dance programs to attend. "I'd been down this road before and, sure, I was nervous. I thought 'I don't know if I'm ready.' But I started looking back into ballet programs because that was still my passion." He wound up back at Ballet Austin for a six-week summer program. At the end of that program, it seemed that all of his hard work, determination and heart would pay off. He was offered a position in the trainee company.
Barr, who took a leave of absence from Penn State Altoona, began his time in the apprentice company in spring 2010. He studied there for an entire semester, never guessing where it would lead.
Often, artistic directors from other companies were brought in to hold closed-auditions for the dancers. Barr and his classmates would perform some pieces they had been working on, and sometimes the directors would teach repertoire from their own companies. One such director was Richard Steinert from Ballet Pensacola. A few weeks later, Barr received an e-mail from Steinert stating he was interested in seeing more of him. And so, off to Florida he went. He took two company classes and, at the end of his time there, Barr was asked to join to company. "Right then and there I said I would love to. Rarely were people even hiring dancers and I couldn't believe somebody was choosing me," states Barr. "It was really, really refreshing to know that somebody had a lot of faith in me and was willing to work with me. It was just a great feeling, and right away I felt such a connection with him. What a great opportunity."
Barr began with Ballet Pensacola in fall 2010 as a soloist and company member. He performed in two fall productions, The Counterpaned Fairy and The Nutcracker, both choreographed by Steinert. "It's an incredible feeling to know that you get paid to do what you love. That's what all of us aspire to do," states Barr. He works Tuesday through Saturday, typically starting with a technique class in the morning that allows him to warm up and prepare for the day's rehearsals, which may run anywhere from three to five hours.
Living on his own and being a professional dancer, Barr says he has learned a lot about himself and the world of dance. "I feel that as humans we are always learning. Ballet is something that you spend your whole career trying to perfect. Every director, teacher, or mentor offers different advice or corrections that they feel will help you to improve. As a ballet dancer, you also spend a lot of time adapting to different techniques or styles. When dancing professionally, you take a lot more responsibility for your dancing and growth as an artist. Many of my strengths and weaknesses have been made clearer to me through this."
Barr says he is anxious to finish up his undergraduate degree and apply to graduate school for dance within the next few years. Eventually, he says he can see himself teaching dance at the collegiate level or even teaching in the school of a professional company. "Josh is very talented, has an incredible work ethic, and love for dance," says Huckabee. "What I feel best about is the fact that he no longer feels that dance is out of his reach. There are many, many paths in the dance world. Each dancer needs to find their own, and I feel he has made great strides in this."
"A dancer lives year to year, never knowing exactly what is going to come next for them," muses Barr. "Opportunities come and opportunities go. Right now, I feel that it is best to live in the moment."