Dancer goes from Belleville School of Ballet to “Great Performances” on PBS

It was one small step for a 3-year-old Swansea girl, one giant leap toward a professional dance career that would take her around the world.

“I started dancing at 3 at the Belleville School of Ballet,” said Lesley Garrison, now a dancer with the prestigious Mark Morris Dance Group based in Brooklyn. “I started with tap and jazz and a few years later started ballet. I don’t remember my first time on stage, but I’m sure I loved it. I was a pretty fearless kid and, of course, I liked attention.”

Lesley, 30, will be featured with the group on PBS “Great Performances” at 8 p.m. Friday on WSIU-TV, Channel 8, and 1:30 p.m. Sunday on KETC-TV, Channel 9. The performance of “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato” was filmed at Teatro Real in Madrid.

“‘L’Allegro’ is a dance for everyone. You’ll enjoy it even if you don’t know anything about dance,” Lesley said. “It’s regarded as one of Mark Morris’ masterpieces, and it’s one of the most fulfilling dances I’ve ever performed. It moves beautifully between melancholy and pure joy.”

Lesley hopes everyone, especially the folks back home, watches.

“I’ll be wearing a brownish chiffon dress in the first act,” said the blond dancer. “In the second act, I wear bright pink.”

You will also see Lesley living her dream.

“I wanted to be a dancer as far back as I can remember,” she said. “Every little girl wants to be a dancer. I actually get to be one. I pinch myself all of the time when I think about how I am supporting myself and traveling the world with the Mark Morris Dance Group. ... I always knew deep down that I would find a way to live as a working dancer.”

First steps

Lesley credits Mom and Dad, Tammy and Jim Garrison, for taking her to countless hours of lessons and performances over the years.

Tammy works in X-ray at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and teaches clinical X-ray studies at Southwestern Illinois College. Jim is an attorney.

“My family was supportive beyond measure,” Lesley said. “I can’t imagine being where I am now without their unending encouragement. My mother would drive me to and from COCA, which is a 30- to 40-minute drive from Swansea, six days a week, until I got my license. My parents were very committed to giving me the tools to have a fair shot at being a dancer.”

Mom didn’t mind the trips one bit.

“As far as helping Les reach her dreams, it was easy,” Tammy said. “She never complained and always looked forward to heading out to class or rehearsal. She always told me dancing wasn’t work it was fun. So you see, it was easy to take her places that made her happy.”

Family members have seen her perform in Kansas City, Berkeley, Calif., Florida, New Orleans and several times at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Her brother, Rob, 34, a history teacher and head coach of girls lacrosse at O’Fallon Township High School, traveled to Madrid to see her perform.

“She’s just so talented, and we couldn’t be any more proud of her,” Jim said.

Lesley left the Belleville School of Ballet at age 9 to study with COCA.

“It was there that I received priceless training and inspiration from Lee Nolting and Karen Davenport,” she said, “and really discovered how much I loved dancing. ... I really got serious about dancing at COCA and had so much fun. It was never a problem for me to miss a birthday party or a school dance on Friday night because I had rehearsal. I loved it.

“Lee Nolting was my favorite teacher. She was everything a wonderful teacher should be. Fun, inspiring, hard driving, and (she) expected the most of us all. She very much influenced my love of dancing and performing.”

Lee, the artistic director of dance and jazz dance coordinator at COCA, said Lesley was the only child that “made company” at age 10. Lee knew then that she has what it takes to be a professional dancer.

“She always knew all her parts, she’s a hard worker and a beautiful dancer,” Lee said. “I saw her perform with her company at the University of Illinois — it was so exciting.”

A new path

Lesley attended Belleville East for three years and participated in cheerleading and tennis. In the summer before her senior year, she attended art camp at Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan and Jacob’s Pillow Dance Center in Massachusetts.

“(Interlochen) asked me to stay for my senior year,” she said. “It was scary because I had all these close friends in high school and I left them all. It was difficult to adjust and make friends ... But that’s OK, I was there to learn.”

Leaving her hometown for Interlochen made Lesley realize “I was on a more serious path.” After Interlochen, she studied at the Rotterdamse Dansacademie in The Netherlands and earned a bachelor of fine arts from Purchase College at State University of New York, where she received the Modern Dance Faculty Award.

Lesley performed with several other dance companies before performing with MMDG in 2007. She became a company member in 2011.

Founded in New York City in 1980 by artistic director and choreographer Mark Morris, the Dance Group has been called “the preeminent modern dance organization of our time” (Yo-Yo Ma), its members receiving “highest praise for their technical aplomb, their musicality, and their sheer human authenticity” (Bloomberg News).

The Dance Group provides educational opportunities in dance and music to people of all ages and abilities while on tour internationally and at home in Brooklyn.

“I have been with the Mark Morris Dance Group for four years now,” Lesley said. “It’s incredible. I really enjoy being around such smart, creative and amazing dancers who care about what they do.”

Nancy Umanoff, executive director of MMDG, said the company feels the same about Lesley.

“Lesley danced in many projects and taught at our school before joining the dance group full-time,” Nancy said. “She’s a wonderful addition to the company, both on and offstage. She is not only a beautiful dancer, but a gifted and generous teacher. To all endeavors, she brings her talent, passion, intelligence and grace.”

Busy days

Between dancing and teaching, Lesley is a busy girl.

When the company is in Brooklyn, she rehearses from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

“I do Pilates and yoga along with my dance training,” she said. “We take a ballet class for a warmup every day.”

The dancers are on tour about six months a year.

“Traveling is a passion, and I have the best job in the world for it,” Lesley said. “We almost always have time for exploring.”

Some of her favorite places they’ve toured: Israel, Australia, Taiwan, Spain and Cambodia.

In October, the company did a six-month U.S. State Department tour. As dance ambassadors, they exchanged with regional, traditional dance groups in East Timor; taught at an orphanage and worked with classical and contemporary dance groups in Cambodia; went to schools in Taiwan; and performed in China.

“It was overwhelming and so inspiring to be on the other side of the world making connections with people through dance,” Lesley said. “Almost everyone, everywhere enjoys moving around to music.”

Back in Brooklyn, Lesley has had a soft spot in her heart for the Dance for Parkinson’s Disease program for the past four years.

“I was in one of the Dance for Parkinson’s classes at the MMDC and was so moved by how a dance class could help lift the spirits of a community dealing with such a devastating disease,” she said. “Many of the people who take this class are deeply impacted by the community that the class creates and the way their bodies feel after moving. It’s an extremely special thing.”

Lesley gets back to Swansea once a year.

“We perform in Champaign-Urbana about once a year, so I get to see my family then, too,” she said.

What does she miss about home?

“I miss the Midwest all the time. I seem to find or attract Midwesterners wherever I go. I miss having lots of space. I miss driving.”