Dexter Bishop packs a highlights reel of leaps and turns into just under a minute of stage time. It’s the Land of Sweets in Mississippi Metropolitan Ballet’s annual production of The Nutcracker, with Tchaikovsky’s music in the Russian divertissement reaching a fevered pitch for the folk dance. Bravado underscores Bishop’s toe touches, pirouettes, barrel jumps, heel clicks and more. It takes your breath away to watch. Imagine what it takes to perform. Any comparison? “Maybe the 100-yard dash,” Bishop said, though his dimpled grin says the dance is tougher and not so straightforward. “It’s only 52 to 56 seconds, but you’re jumping and turning. … It’s high energy the whole time,” he said. “When it’s over, you know you’ve done it. It takes a while before I get my breath back, settle down and cool off.” Bishop, 30, now of St. Louis, returns yearly to lend those stellar turns to his dance alma mater’s production of the holiday favorite. The Clinton native is now in his 7th year of a homecoming that pulls him back to his roots and home stage. Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker is one of his favorite pieces of music. Plus, “it’s just a loyalty thing,” he said. This is where he grew up, and it’s important to circle back and give back to the people and programs that helped him grow as an artist. Same thing goes for Clinton High School’s Attache Show Choir, which also nurtured his performance education. “He was one of my very first students, actually, and he was our only boy for a very long time. That made him even more special,” said Jennifer Beasley, artistic director for the Madison-based Mississippi Metropolitan Ballet. She recognized his natural talent from the start. “I knew he was going to go somewhere,” she said. “He loved it and had a drive. “He’s meant a lot to us. He never forgot where he came from, never forgot his training. Any time I’ve asked him to come back, he has. … Our audiences love him.” Now, Bishop’s strong turns and jumps make him a shoe-in for guest artist status on the home front. “All the bravura-type pieces, he’s really good at,” Beasley said. “That makes him so perfect for the Russian divertissement. He also can be a prince. … The really strong roles are where he shines.” Bishop’s older sister, Chessy, was the first to start dance lessons. “I saw her dancing and thought it’d be fun to do,” Bishop said, recalling his start at about age 5 or 6. His sister now runs her own dance studio in Louisiana, he said. Bishop graduated from Oklahoma City University with a dance performance major and has been a principal dancer with Missouri Ballet Theatre for the past seven years. Missouri Ballet Theatre founder and artistic director Adam Sage called Bishop “the backbone” of the company. A quiet and thoughtful dancer, he also has a dry sense of humor, with a wit that’s a welcome surprise, Sage said. “And, of course, with those dimples and his infectious smile he is always a hit on stage with the audience and off stage with the ladies.” His annual trek to the home stage with MMB comes as no surprise. Bishop, he said, “is always the one to give back. That’s just the kind of man he is.” As a black male dancer, Bishop is a double rarity in the ballet word, particularly at the regional level where white girls and women are the predominant demographic. Yes, there were times Bishop felt like he didn’t fit in. “When you look around and everyone looks different from you, it’s natural to feel like one of these things isn’t like the others,” he said. The trick, he said, is to not let it bother him. Don’t dwell on it. Just go in, do his job and don’t worry about the rest. Let the work speak for itself. In 2015, Misty Copeland’s promotion to principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre, the first African-American woman so named in its history, represented a pioneering move. Her achievement and growing fame put a spotlight on the under-representation of African Americans at top ballet companies. “There’s definitely a change happening, definitely more visible diversity in the ballet world,” Bishop said. “Of course, obviously, there could be more.” He believes Copeland’s achievement and exposure will help change the climate, attracting more diverse audiences and dancers. Does he have a role in that? “Probably, I guess,” he said. “I don’t really pay much attention to that sort of thing. I just like to do what I’ve got to do. … But, obviously, yeah, it’s noticeable. And I would imagine I have a small part in that, but just a small one.” Beasley sees it through her students’ eyes. “I think all the younger generations of African-American students look up to him and use him as a source of inspiration, when you look at where he came from, all he’s done and what an amazing dancer he is,” she said. Like the Russian divertissement, perhaps. A small role, but a potent one.
Performances of Mississippi Metropolitan Ballet’s The Nutcracker will be today at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. at the Jackson Academy Performing Arts Center, 4908 Ridgewood Road. The Sunday show is sold out. Tickets are $20-$22 at the door (discounts for senior citizens). For information, visit www.msmetroballet.com.