A fresh, new face in the city, dancer, teacher and arts entrepreneur, Leanna Mullen chatted with Arts Cleveland last week to learn more about our arts community. As a super dedicated artist and teacher, she is already taking on some incredible work by championing inclusivity through dance. Leanna is thrilled to be getting started as North Pointe Ballet’s newest dancer, saying, “I’m so excited to be a part of North Pointe’s mission to bring ballet where there might otherwise be physical, economic or cultural barriers.” It’s a philosophy that mirrors her own, in which she sees ballet as an art for everyone. She wants her classes “to be a place where every student feels welcome, no matter the student’s ability level or previous ballet experience.” In addition to working with North Pointe, Leanna is also teaching classes three nights a week at the Baldwin Wallace Community Arts School, channeling her passions for both ballet and community outreach. “I think specifically in my teaching, I strive for my classes to be an encouraging environment, breaking stigma around ballet being a cold or impossibly strict art form.”
Arts Cleveland [AC]: Can you briefly describe your work and who you are as an artist?
Leanna Mullen [LM]: My art is ballet-focused. Being a part of North Pointe Ballet, I’m excited for an outlet to combine my heart for ballet and my desire for all that I do to be aiming to reach and impact others.
AC: How were you introduced to your craft?
LM: I grew up dancing from a very young age. My mother grew up dancing and was one of my ballet teachers as I trained. I began training in ballet specifically when I was eleven, and at that point the art really felt like it belonged to me, and it was something that I had a responsibility to cultivate.
AC: Who are your long-standing influences?
LM: I tend to think of people when I think of influences. A professor of mine when I was a dance major at the University of Iowa, Kristin Marrs, profoundly impacted me in how she emphasized ballet being for everyone of every background and every body type. Every professor I had stressed that ballet is more than pretty lines and tutus--it is learning how to efficiently and effectively use your body to communicate to your audience.
Another influence would be the organization and work of The Joffrey Ballet. My studio owners where I grew up are former members of The Joffrey. The way that company seeks to maintain the integrity of classical ballet while also continuing to create work that is outside the classical box but still holds the strength and grace of ballet, is a balance I highly value.
AC: I really respond to this comment: “…ballet is more than pretty lines and tutus – it is learning how to efficiently and effectively use your body to communicate to your audience.” Do you feel you have been able to develop your own artistic language through dance? What types of themes have you been able to communicate conceptually to your audiences?
LM: I think it's important for me as a dancer to portray ballet as a human thing. It's sweet that through its lines, ballet is able to manifest this idea of a body achieving lengths beyond what is normal or expected for one’s ability. But I continue to stress that as cosmic as ballet can seem, it also is attainable and accessible to anyone who wants to be a part of the ballet world, either as a partaker, spectator, or supporter. I think no matter the concept of a work I'm a part of, the overall ability to simply portray an emotion through movement is what I hope for an audience to leave a performance with. It’s my hope that they feel connected to the art somehow, just by watching it, and can have a deeper appreciation for the art as a whole. A lot of classical ballet involves storytelling, so I guess you can take it that route as well.
AC: Do you ever collaborate with artists of other disciplines?
LM: As far as other disciplines, I've not had a ton of opportunities for this, but I'd love to have more! I've been able to dance to live music before, and that's always a really rewarding experience. Poetry is another art form I deeply enjoy, and I've created a work with a poem spoken as part of the accompanying music that I loved putting together.
AC: What does artistic success look like to you?
LM: Artistic success to me is both personal satisfaction, a filling of my heart thanks to this expressive outlet in a way that I’m gifted, and communal. If I can leave a class, rehearsal, or performance and know I gave that session my all personally and for the good of the whole group of artists, that to me is success. This allows for beautiful and steady growth, artistically, physically, and beyond.
AC: What is your process for generating new ideas?
LM: Once again, being that my heart and training are ballet-heavy, I always start there. If I’m choreographing for my ballet students, I want the work to center around elements that both highlight their abilities and challenge them to grow as dancers. If I have an idea in mind of the kind of emotion or quality I want to convey, I will let that commandeer the movement. Typically, I will then try to carry certain movements or phrases throughout a work, manipulating that movement to once again maintain a consistent quality.
AC: How do you feel your work affects your audience? How do you want your work to affect your audience?
LM: I love the idea that your art is what you make it to be. For example, in a modern dance-based college program, I was one who still preferred ballet (though was grateful for the diverse training!) and didn’t question my heart for it. I instead found a place (North Pointe Ballet) where my passion was shared and my art was able to thrive. I have awesome community behind me who have encouraged my endeavors, and I hope that specifically for younger artists, this story of holding on to what’s in your heart pays off, and if you really want to and believe you can, you will always be able to find a way to live out your passion.