In the studio at Ballet Magnificat!, Kathy Thibodeaux, at first glance, is virtually indistinguishable from dancers who are decades her junior, her moves as confident and graceful as ever.
Look a little harder. Her long black sleeves and warm-ups stand out amid the tights-and-leotards crew. The regal bearing marks her as the Snow Queen, a rare villainous role for her. Her watchful eye and occasional correction from the sidelines — those are more tells. Then, she’ll fold into a jackknife stretch on the floor and become, again, like any other dancer in the room.
The two-hour rehearsal for “The Return of the Snow Queen” builds to a climactic close – the music stops and the exertion of dozens of dancers combines in a collective whew. How’s Thibodeaux feeling? “I’m a little tired,” she says, then laughs. “It’s fun, though.”
In “Return of the Snow Queen” Dec. 15-16 at Thalia Mara Hall, Thibodeaux, 62, will mark her 50th year dancing on that Jackson stage.
A friend of Mary Denton, Thibodeaux’s sister, was cleaning out some boxes and came across an old 1968 program. It was the evening the Jackson Ballet Guild presented the world premiere of a ballet of Eudora Welty’s “The Shoe Bird” at Jackson Municipal Auditorium, as the then-brand new building was known. In the cast list from that April 20, 1968, show, Kathy Denton played a Wren.
“How old was I? I must have been 12,” she says. “I can’t believe it! And, here it is 50 years, and by the grace of God, I’m still here.”
And, still dancing. “Can you believe it? It amazes all of us,” trainee director Cassandra Voborsky marvels.
Thibodeaux, co-founder and artistic director of Ballet Magnificat!, glided past several milestones in 2016, as the Christian ballet company marked its 30th year and she and husband/company co-founder, Keith, celebrated 40 years of marriage. In 2017, she stepped back from dancing and touring, into semi-retirement.
Now 2018, she embraces another milestone on the stage that launched her career. It’s the same stage where she danced under the tutelage of Thalia Mara, for whom the auditorium is now named. It’s the same stage where she won the senior women’s silver medal in 1982 in the II USA International Ballet Competition (IBC). It’s the same stage where, at least once yearly, her Ballet Magnificat! reaches a hometown crowd with a message that speaks straight to her faith. And, it’s the same stage where, this past June, she carried the torch to John Meehan, jury chairman, for the lighting of the USA IBC XI flame to signal the competition’s start.
“The Return of the Snow Queen” takes inspiration of the Hans Christian Andersen classic for a story ballet of a young girl’s brave journey to rescue her beloved friend from the Snow Queen’s evil spell. In the story, faith in God is a powerful weapon against worldly temptations. Creative costuming, wigs, makeup and sets make it a big, showy production. Its cast of 75 company dancers and trainees swells up to about 150 with the School of Arts students in the show.
“I didn’t quite know if I was going to do it or not, because I am 62,” Thibodeaux says of the title role, “but we thought we’d give it a try.” The role is one of her favorites. With a career playing heroines and angels, she embraces the challenge of the darker character.
Voborsky didn’t give her any breaks, she teases. “I said, ‘Jiri, I’m 62! I’m supposed to be toning it down … but it’s been good.”
“She can do it,” Voborsky says with a confident grin. He, too, dances in the production and “We’re both huffing and puffing” by the end, he chuckles. All the dancers are. If Thibodeaux has more stage time and dancing this time around, “That’s more the Lord’s fault, I would say,” he hedges with a laugh. It serves the story, and that’s the aim.
The ministry has always been the mission. The decades since the company’s founding in 1986 have seen Ballet Magnificat! grow from a fledgling company that many doubted at first, into a trailblazer for Christian dance that reaches audiences worldwide. It has two professional companies (Alpha and Omega) of 15 dancers each, two trainee levels with about 20 dancers each and a School of the Arts. The Ballet Magnificat! Brasil trainee program in Curitiba, Brazil, is renovating and about to move into a three-story building of its own and hopes to start a ballet school early next year.
Husband Keith speculates that, in the “normal ballet world,” she’d have probably been dancing longer than most, but not this long. “Just the passion of dancing for something that you really believe in, in a faith context,” he says, provides the drive to tough it out.
“I think that Kathy’s faith has propelled her, in her dance, for all these years.”
Performances for Ballet Magnficat!’s “The Return of the Snow Queen” are 2 p.m. Dec. 15 and 16 at Thalia Mara Hall. For tickets, visit balletmagnificat.com or call 601-977-1001.