Brandon Ragland looks forward to expanding horizons for dancers, audiences.
By Meredith Moss
Oct 22, 2023
It’s 10 a.m. on a Wednesday morning and 18 dancers are leaping, jumping and twirling in the Dayton Ballet studio. All are focused on their new artistic director, Brandon Ragland, and his instructions. This is the way the members of the ballet company begin every weekday morning.
“Reach, reach, good!” Ragland says as he guides them, sometimes all together, sometimes in smaller groups. “Keep the chest up!”
The hour-and-a-half class serves as a warm-up for the rest of the day when the dancers will be busy rehearsing for “Dracula: Bloodlines.” The kickoff to the ballet season will take place Oct. 27-29 at the Victoria Theatre. “The class gets them centered and gets their minds in tune with their bodies,” Ragland explains.
This is a busy day. Adam Hougland from Bristol, England, is in town, meeting and observing the Dayton dancers. He’ll soon be casting and staging a piece for the spring repertory concert titled “New Beginnings.” The program, slated April 12-14, 2024, at the Victoria Theatre, will give folks in the Miami Valley their first opportunity to see an entire repertory program planned by the ballet’s new director.
Hougland says he’s known Ragland “forever.” The two worked together at the Louisville Ballet where Ragland was a principal dancer and Hougland a choreographer. “He’s a good person and a really good friend,” Hougland says. “I love the way he works with this Dayton company. He is positive and supportive. He doesn’t rule by fear, which is old school — my way or the highway. He creates good energy.”
Ragland, who is 38, was chosen out of more than 100 applicants and has an impressive resume. After studying at the Alabama School of Fine Arts and graduating from Butler University in Dance-Arts Administration in 2007, Ragland worked for the Alabama Ballet and then headed for Louisville where he became a principal dancer with the Louisville Ballet and resident choreographer for the Louisville Ballet Youth Ensemble. Most recently, he created a one-act ballet for the Louisville Ballet School and also served as the pre-professional program manager for the school.
In 2017, he performed with the Black Iris Project at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and is the recipient of many awards, including The Lift a Life Foundation Emerging Leader in the Arts Award, the M. A. Hadley Prize for Visual Arts, and Louisville Magazine’s Best Artist Award.
Not an easy path
Ragland, who grew up in Birmingham, describes himself as very curious and intrigued by a variety of things. “I was for the most part a rule-follower, an Eagle Scout, active in sports and activities at school and church. “
Though he’d had no formal training as a child, Ragland also enjoyed movement and dance. “My parents weren’t trained in the arts but they enjoyed listening to music. My mom played the piano when she was younger, and my dad sang in the church.”
At age 14, an incident at church dramatically changed his life. He followed some music he heard coming from a room and discovered a teacher and dancers, then began mimicking their moves. “It was my first realization that there was structure to what they were doing,” Ragland recalls. “The teacher was speaking a foreign language I didn’t understand.”
When the teacher asked if he had come to audition for the dance ministry, Brandon said yes. “It was the movement that attracted me; it looked so appealing,” he recalls. “At first, I was attracted to the grace, they made it look so easy. And I thought, I can jump and do this. Later I realized how complicated and challenging it was and the amount of discipline and movement it required.”
His parents weren’t so sure. “My mom came looking for me and caught me in this audition class and thought I was being disruptive,” he remembers. “The teacher thanked her for sending her son to the audition, and my mom told her I wasn’t supposed to be there. I asked if I could continue.”
At first his mother was hesitant, partly because Brandon was already so busy. “Little by little, my parents gave in when they realized I was aggressively trying to be part of the dance ministry,” he remembers.
And now? “My parents are my biggest fans. I’ve been a professional dancer for 16 years, and they have attended 90 percent of my performances and are 100 percent supportive of me.”
Dancer, choreographer, teacher, artistic director
Ragland enjoys every aspect of his art from being on stage as a dancer and choreographing new pieces to teaching young people. Now he’ll be leading the country’s second-oldest dance company as artistic director.
“I enjoyed the performance aspect, being on stage is very fulfilling,” he says. “I’ve gotten to work with amazing choreographers over the years, gotten to travel to places I would never have seen, experiencing different cultures. Dancing has afforded me those opportunities.”
He also loves teaching and passing on information to the next generation of artists. “As an artistic director now I can now train and coach and mentor professional dancers from one end of the spectrum to the other. I get to be part of the journey of those who are having their first professional experience. I also get to mentor dancers who have been working for a longer time and help push them and help facilitate their goals.”
The role of the artistic director, he explains, is to be the forward-facing presence of the company, to program different repertoire, to push the dancers and the audience members, educating them and exposing them to different types of ballet. “It’s also important to maintain standards of excellence and high quality in terms of how the dancers present their work and to cultivate relationships with patrons and sponsors.”
One of his goals is to collaborate with other arts organizations like the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company and Ohio Dance. He also dreams of creating a new story ballet that would include the opera company and original commissioned music for the orchestra.
Ragland hit the ground running when he arrived in Dayton Aug. 1. He choreographed the ballet portion of the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance’s season opener and is working on movement for the Dayton Opera’s “Sweeney Todd,” which will be presented Nov. 4-5. He’s also heavily involved with the Dayton Ballet School, is presenting a new work at the Dayton Ballet’s aforementioned repertory concert and will create a new version of “The Nutcracker” next year.
Ragland says one of the primary reasons he was interested in coming to Dayton is the unique structure of our performing arts organizations. “I love the fact that all three art forms are under one roof — the Dayton Ballet, the Dayton Opera and the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra. They’re all about collaboration and bringing the arts to everyone. That will strengthen the arts community, keep it strong and will help us find ways to bring in new audience members.”