Welcome Back, Daigle

After 20 years dancing with Louisville Ballet, Helen Daigle settles into her new position as ballet mistress.

By Brent Owen

Photos courtesy of Louisville Ballet

This past April, after a final run in “Giselle,” ballerina Helen Daigle, a 20-year veteran with the Louisville Ballet, hung up her pointe shoes and said goodbye to professional dancing for good. Two months later, the company announced they would continue their working relationship with Daigle, hiring her on as the company’s newest ballet mistress.

Daigle hopes to bring the love and enthusiasm she felt as a little girl to her position as ballet mistress. If you aren’t familiar, the role would best be compared to that of a coach in other sports, helping to guide and condition the dancers to perform at their physical peak. According to the Royal Opera House’s definition: “It’s the ballet mistress’s job to make sure the corps de ballet is schooled to perfection.” And after a lifetime of experience, it’s a position Daigle doesn’t take lightly.

“I want to create a positive environment that is both challenging and nurturing,” Daigle said of what she hopes to bring to her new role in the company. “In a way that will build them up as artists, but also as people, and as humans. I don’t want to be so myopic about the level of perfection that we aspire toward that it tears them down. I want to build dancers up, I’m not here to break them.”

Daigle, a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has danced all her life but didn’t start formal training until she was 7. “My mom will tell you I started dancing as soon as soon as I learned to walk,” said Daigle. “I never really walked anywhere, I danced everywhere I went – skipping, twirling and leaping.”

And though it was a lifelong passion, Daigle’s talent was undeniable from an early age. “I knew as a teenager that I wanted this to be my career,” she continued. “As much as I enjoyed school and learning, it was never really my thing. I just wanted to dance.” Later, she dropped out of high school with the blessing of her mother, who was a high school teacher herself, to better focus on a budding dance career.

Never going so far as attending a conservatory, Daigle trained all over the country at places like Dancer’s Workshop in her hometown of Baton Rouge, Decatur School of Ballet in Georgia, the Joffrey Ballet School in Chicago and The School of American Ballet in New York City.

Before long, she was performing with the Baton Rouge Ballet Theatre and dancing professionally with Ballet Hispanico in New York and the Miami City Ballet.

It was a chance encounter with Louisville Ballet’s Helen Starr that brought the cajun ballerina to the bluegrass. Daigle signed up for a class Starr was leading in Baton Rouge, and by the end of the session, Starr asked her, “Dear, do you have a job?”

Daigle responded: “No, but I need one.”

Daigle soon packed her bags, and in August of 1998 joined Louisville Ballet. “I thought, ‘I’ll be here a couple of years,’” recalled Daigle of the move. “I figured I’d springboard somewhere else. Twenty years later, I’m moving into the artistic side of things.” And though she may not dance anymore, Daigle still gets to be on-stage in less physically demanding roles with upcoming productions of “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Nutcracker.”

Over the years, Daigle fell in love with Louisville and its ballet company for setting themselves apart from other regional companies. “As small as we are,” she said, “we’re still willing to take artistic risks. To not play it safe in this environment is truly unique. A lot of companies want to play it safe, they’re just trying to survive. We’re very much surviving, keeping the lights on and the doors open, but not doing it safely.”

You can hear a certain electricity in Daigle’s voice when she talks about the thriving status of Louisville ballet. That’s the thing about being in conversation with Daigle: it’s impossible not to notice how she speaks of ballet with love and reverence after all of these years. She still emotes with a sense of wonder when she recalls favorite personal performances,  “Lark Ascending” choreographed by Bruce Marks and “Cold Virtues” by Adam Hoagland.

Though she isn’t dancing herself anymore, she is passionate about choreographers she’d still like to collaborate with, such as Jirí Kylián or Rega Echad Shel Netzach. And it’s obvious that the same little girl who skipped, twirled and leapt everywhere she went is still very much alive inside.

Since adding a new ballet mistress with Daigle, the company is looking to the future, and she already has an idea of what she would like to see. “I want to bring a new perspective to the collaboration and maybe some new classes,” Daigle explained, but mostly she’s content with things as they are. “I want to see the company continue in the vein as we have been, clinging to our classical roots and maintaining them. Also, pushing the envelope, doing things that might not be successful, taking that risk. Doing things that not everyone is going to love.”

Today, with two decades of reflection, Daigle insists that one of the main reasons she settled in Louisville is that we had what she calls “The Big Four” – Louisville Ballet, the Louisville Orchestra, Kentucky Opera and Actors Theatre of Louisville.

“Louisville is amazing when it comes to supporting their arts,” she said. However, looking toward the future, one must consider the fact that ballets, orchestras and operas continue to struggle in attracting new, younger audiences to fill their seats. And Daigle has some thoughts on what they’re missing by staying home.

“You’re missing the pure escapism of it,” she said, “(and) the opportunity to come into the theater and let us transport you somewhere that is not constricted by the bounds of society or reality. We can transport you anywhere on any given night. And then you can walk back out into the real world with a new perspective on things. If you walk out of the ballet and feel something a little bit differently and it lets you interact with the world differently, that’s always a positive thing.” VT