New Ballet Tucson director wants to inspire audiences with 'art that transcends words'
Some nights, theatre doors open for loyal patrons and newcomers alike. Families with their children, close friends, people in love, performing arts lovers — all file in to watch as fairy-like humans glide, leap and turn across the stage. But the performance ends eventually, the dancers receive bouquets and applause and sink into their bows and curtsies. Tulle skirts, tiaras and pointe shoes are all tucked away neatly until the next show of the season. The fairies exit through the back doors and head back to their daily lives full of hours of training, class, physical therapy and discipline.
It isn't always glitz and glamor. There's pain and sacrifice that comes with it too, and Ballet Tucson's new artistic director Margaret Mullin has lived through the ups and downs of ballet.
The first time the Tucson native experienced the whimsy of ballet was at the age of four when her mother took her to watch Ballet Arizona's production of "Coppélia." The French ballet tells the story of how Franz, a young man from the village, becomes obsessed with a dancing doll named Coppélia, who does nothing but sit by the window and read. Franz, now enamored with the doll, shoves his true love Swanhilda to the side. From there, chaos ensues for the characters.
"I was an instantly addicted child," Mullin said, reminiscing about the time she first saw the ballet. "I was hooked immediately and continue to be hooked for my entire life."
Ballet is an expensive passion. The cost of lessons, costumes and dance shoes all adds up. And Mullin's mom was a single parent who couldn't afford it.
"For me, it was not an easy process," Mullin said. "We didn't have a lot of money, and I ended up being a work scholarship kid to pay for my ballet class. From the age of 12 until I graduated high school, I would clean the ballet studio I danced at in order to pay."
Although it was challenging for Mullin, she said it defined her passion for dance.
"If you're willing to wipe down toilets for something you love, you really must love it," Mullin said. "And the love was constant to me."
One of the studios Mullin danced at was Ballet Tucson. She remained in Tucson until a full scholarship took her to Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle for the summer. She was 13. After that first summer course, she earned full scholarships to continue dancing there until her senior year.
"They must have taken a liking to me," Mullin said. "They set up a meeting for me and told me I wasn't leaving."
At age 18 Mullin was promoted to the pro division — the highest level of ballet instruction at the school. The following year she joined the professional company. Over the next 12 year years she performed in the diverse repertoires showcased by the Pacific Northwest Ballet.
She danced in ballets from George Balanchine's "Emeralds" to Alexei Ratmansky's "Don Quixote" to roles in Justin Peck's "Debonair" and Eva Stone's "FOIL." Her favorite, however, was William Forsythe's "The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude".
Mullin's career led her to do freelance work as choreographer for the PNB, as well as choreographing and being a guest at Ballet Tucson. She is also working on a documentary film — which isn't ready for the public just yet, she said. The film "No Dominion: The Ian Horvath Story," will celebrate the life of late dance champion and AIDS awareness advocate Ian Horvath.
During her dancing years, she was known for executing moves that applied harsh impact on her body. She underwent hip surgery once.
"I was cast as the powerhouse dancer a lot," Mullin said.
And she said, that in time, she understood she had to retire. Mullin retired from the PNB in 2020, when the coronavirus hit. Yet, in a time of uncertainty, all roads seemed to lead back to Tucson. Mullin joined Ballet Tucson as media director and became associate artistic director in 2021.
On June 21 Mullin was appointed to be Ballet Tucson's new artistic director. During a time where big and small dance companies were feeling the strain of the pandemic, her purpose became clear.
"I've maintained a connection with Ballet Tucson over the years," Mullin said. "I didn't want to see Ballet Tucson disappear."
One of Mullin's goals as artistic director is to make ballet accessible for more people who feel the same calling she did when she was a child. She said she knows the kind of quality work Ballet Tucson can produce and she is looking forward to making excellent work happen.
Two of the events Mullin has in the works this year — which she is very excited about — are the Fall Showcase and their production of the beloved holiday-classic, "The Nutcracker." Ballet lovers in Tucson can expect to experience ballet's artistry through the company's work on both events. Plus, Justin Peck's "In Creases" will be featured in the Fall Showcase. Steven Spielberg fans have already gotten a sample of Peck's work with the 2021 version of "West Side Story."
"We want to see our dancers shine and have Tucson experience inspiring art that transcends words," Mullin said.
Bianca Morales is TucsonSentinel.com’s Cultural Expression and Community Values reporter, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.