Ballet is the Olympics of dance, says Tim O’Keefe, who in July took over as Texas Ballet Theater’s artistic director. He should know. He started as a Broadway dancer, but his ballet career both onstage and behind the curtain has spanned 40 years, all under legendary choreographer Ben Stevenson. With Stevenson stepping down, this season is O’Keefe’s first as the boss. It kicks off this month with a sentimental nod: Dracula, which Stevenson created in 1997, with O’Keefe in the title role.
When did you get into ballet? I actually started out in tap and jazz and did musical theater. And that was in 1975, when I was 15. So I started late. Then, after a couple of years, my teacher said, “Well, if you’re serious, you need to start taking ballet.”
Why is ballet “serious” for dancers? Because it’s the basis of everything. It’s the technique behind dancing.
What was the first ballet you ever saw? It was Giselle, and it was the National Ballet of Cuba. And Alicia Alonso was dancing. Somebody next to me in the audience leaned over and said, “You know she’s blind, don’t you?” I was like, What? That was much later in her career. It was amazing. I was stunned. The audience just went crazy afterward. It was like a rock concert.
You auditioned for Houston Ballet after performing in West Side Story on Broadway. Why transition? I was 20 going on 21. I was like, “Wow, I can always come back to musical theater. But if I want to do this, if I want to be in a ballet company, I’ve got to do it now.”
Is it odd to remember to act while dancing? Whatever you do—I don’t care if you’re a modern dancer, if you’re a tap dancer, if you’re a ballet dancer, if you’re a musical theater artist, if you’re an opera singer—acting is No. 1. We are all actors, and then we have our technique.
Your predecessor, Ben Stevenson, is also big on acting in ballet. How do you feel taking on his job? He’s like working with a film director. It’s amazing. It’s really cool. And it brings what you’re doing to life. Succeeding him is an honor. It’s certainly daunting. You know, there’s nobody like Ben.
Stevenson created the Dracula role for you. What was that like? It was great. When somebody choreographs for you, and you’ve worked with them for so long, they know how to make you look really good. They choreograph to your strengths.
Why did you pick it as this season’s opener? It’s just a great crowd pleaser. Of course, I think it’s great to work on a piece that was created for you. That’s when you feel like, as a performer and then you’ve gone to the rehearsal assistant or coach or whatever, you’re able to really give back.
Tell me about your planning process for the rest of this season’s repertoire. You try to bookend it. We do a story ballet in the beginning. The Nutcracker is always The Nutcracker, which is fine. It’s there. But then at the end of the season is another story ballet, and you try to balance something with Dracula.
Do you ever tire of The Nutcracker? No! Because I came from musical theater and you did [the show] eight times a week, I like doing the same thing over and over. I like being comfortable on the stage. I like the stage time. I like growing as an artist. So much of the time in the ballet world, it’s like the iceberg. The audience comes and sees the little tip. And they don’t understand how much rehearsal time, how much work, how much effort went into the little tip that they see. And then you have eight performances, and it’s over! And then you’re on to the next thing. it was hard to get used to that in the beginning. I was like, ‘wait a minute, I want to do that again!’
One of the season’s shows, Brilliants, has been called “the perfect introduction to ballet.” Can you elaborate? In one evening, you will experience what the art form of dance has evolved into, which is classical pas de deux that are very demanding, neoclassic work in Rubies, and then you’re going to see how dance has evolved in Without Borders and how the art form is being pushed and expanded.
Is it weird that TBT splits time between Dallas and Fort Worth? No. Thank God we’ve got that because it gives us more performances.
You moved to North Texas in 2002. Why? I was at the end of my career. I was gonna dance one more year, but [Stevenson] said, ‘would you consider going up and help run the company in Fort Worth,’ which was then Fort Worth-Dallas Ballet. And I said, ‘let me think about it.’ And I did, and I said ‘sure.’
Dancers have to retire so young. What’s that like? It’s very interesting, because when I was young in the company, there would be people that retire that were principals who had nothing. That was their life. There was no career transition for dancers.
Has that changed? I think the younger dancers look at their careers in very different ways than the dancers that I was dancing with. It’s just, “is there life after dance?” And that question has been answered, Yes, there is.
Dream ballet for TBT to put on? There’s an Ashton ballet called La Fille mal gardée. It is just hysterical. It is so charming. It’s a classic. But people don’t really know the name.
Last word on the season? It’s going to be a really diverse, interesting, enjoyable season. And please come.
This story originally appeared in the September issue of D Magazine with the headline, “Dance Dance Revolution.” Write to [email protected].