There’s possibly no greater cultural tradition for the holidays than seeing The Nutcracker with a talented ballet company.

Luckily, the Grand Rapids Ballet is Michigan’s only professional ballet company and offers great performance for locals and visitors, alike.

This year, the Grand Rapids Ballet also has a new artistic director, James Sofranko, that’s sure to build on the company’s success with more high-caliber performances.

GR Ballet's new Artistic Director, James Sofranko, has performed at some of the most sought after opera venues in the industry.

Photo Credit: Isaac Aoki


Sofranko brings his robust experience to Grand Rapids Ballet

Sofranko brings his San Francisco Ballet, The Juilliard School, and The HARID Conservatory experience, in addition to the experience he has from owning a modern dance company, SFDanceworks, to the Grand Rapids Ballet.

Sofranko admits that making the trek from California to Michigan was quite the leap, “or perhaps we should say ‘grand jeté,’” he laughs.

But Sofranko says he kept hearing praise from other choreographers about Grand Rapids Ballet, and about the cultural strengths throughout the city.

“It’s not just another Midwestern town; it’s got this identity that attaches to art,” he says. “People are really proud to live in Grand Rapids…and all of its cultural offerings, and the ballet is an important part of that.”

People are really proud to live in Grand Rapids…and all of its cultural offerings, and the ballet is an important part of that.

A passion for traditional and modern techniques 

Now that he’s made the move to the Midwest, Sofranko is working long hours with the dancers as they prepare for a season that ranges from quintessential classics like The Nutcracker and Alice in Wonderland to new compositions from rising star choreographer Penny Saunders, and even new works by Sofranko, himself.

“These dancers are people who have chosen this as a career path, and it’s not just a fleeting thing. They’ve studied, most of them, from a very young age, honing their craft. And it culminates in an onstage performance,” says Sofranko. “I’d travel hours to see the shows we’re going to be putting on this season,” he says. “These are really world-class artists. I don’t think you can get these type of programs without going to New York. Not even Chicago [can provide the experiences we have right here].”

Sofranko says he hopes to create for the Grand Rapids Ballet dancers what he was able to get at Julliard: a balanced experience in both traditional and modern technique.

I’d travel hours to see the shows we’re going to be putting on this season. These are really world-class artists. I don’t think you can get these type of programs without going to New York.

The role audience members play in performance

“I learned how to infuse the two worlds together, and I think that’s where a lot of the magic happens: where you see the craft, all the years of technique and practice put in, and then [the dancers] rise past it.” When he’s able to push forward, push the dancers, and encourage choreographers to go outside the norm, “That’s where the true art lies,” says Sofranko.

The art, he says, isn’t complete without an audience responding to the dancers on stage.

“To be present in the audience is a really special feeling, to see the commitment that these dancers are putting forth for you, right in this moment. It’s special to witness that artistry,” he says. “You can’t sit at home and watch ballet on Netflix. Nothing beats the live experience.”

As Sofranko continues to work with the Grand Rapids Ballet, he looks forward to the magic of watching the studio’s ballet reach its culmination.

Grand Rapid Ballet's production of the Nutcracker is a beloved holiday tradition.

Photo Credit: Grand Rapids Ballet


Join the Grand Rapids Ballet in their 2018-19 Season:

The Nutcracker

Movemedia: Handmade

Extremely Close

  • Dates: April 12-14, 2019


  • Locations: Peter Martin Wege Theatre

Alice in Wonderland

  • Dates: May 3-5 & 10-11, 2019

  • Locations: 
Peter Martin Wege Theatre

Visit the Grand Rapids Ballet’s website for more information, or to purchase tickets. If you’re looking to take a stab at ballet, make sure to purchase a Culture Pass GR to receive a free ballet class, along with other cultural experiences. But don’t wait, you must take your free ballet class within six months of purchasing your Culture Pass GR!

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