Former Dance Theater of Harlem ballerina Nikki Hefko will be passing a torch when her work is featured as one of three choreographers for Marigny Ballet Theater’s Christmas Concerto, taking place Dec. 10-13 at Marigny Opera House.
The Mobile native and Loyola University graduate returned last year to New Orleans to share her passion for dance with a new generation as the new director of New Orleans School of Ballet.
“Dance was just always the thing that I did,” says Nikki, who followed her older sister into the studio as a child in Mobile. “She was the best dancer, and always my role model.”
Dance wasn’t on her academic horizon at Loyola, until she discovered she could minor in the discipline. She thought, why not. “I never thought of dance as a career, but Gayle Parmalee was still at Loyola then, and I got to dance a lot of classical parts.”
She also danced with New Orleans Ballet Ensemble, an offshoot of New Orleans Ballet Association, and, while she pursued a master’s degree in secondary education, with Harvey Hysell and his Ballet Hysell. And she also met her husband, musician Ted Hefko, a graduate of UNO.
“In New Orleans, there was dance, but nothing full-time. I was juggling teaching high school with ballet class five times a week, and it occurred to me more and more that there had to be a way to live doing what I wanted to do.”
The turning point came in 2001 and a local performance by Dance Theatre of Harlem.
“I went to their show and thought, this is where I need to be. The way the dancers moved just spoke to me.”
She auditioned with the company and was accepted into its summer program. She and Ted moved to New York. “We were still young enough,” she says with a laugh. “We were broke but having fun.”
In New York, Nikki worked her way from Dance Theatre of Harlem’s second company into its main one, touring the United States and Europe with the 45-member troupe. When, in 2004, the company went on hiatus, she freelanced, dancing for companies as varied as the Metropolitan Opera, Brooklyn Ballet the Joffrey and Madison Ballet.
She also started teaching for Dance Theatre of Harlem, and found her second calling. “I was always the one Mr. Mitchell (Arthur, the company’s legendary founder) picked to teach. So I not only got to dance with Mr. Mitchell, but learned how to be a teacher from him. He’d have pedagogy meetings, telling us how to break it down. It was fascinating for me, and brought me full circle. Dance transformed me, and now I was helping others find that.”
Not that Nikki contemplated running a dance school herself. But she and Ted both started to get the itch to return South. With her freelance duties and teaching jobs, “I was always on the subway to Williamsburg, and finally we decided we just had to do it. We missed New Orleans.”
Nikki arrived in August 2014 – and almost immediately discovered she was pregnant. “I really didn’t get into the dance arena at all at first,” she says. “Then when Paul Taylor came to the Marigny Opera House, I met Dave Holbert, and started teaching company classes for him.”
Son Taras was born in the spring, and when he was about 2 months old, another opportunity came Nikki’s way: A friend asked if she wanted to take over the New Orleans School of Ballet. She did.
These days, Nikki is juggling a 6-month old, a business, choreography for Marigny Opera Ballet, and catching, when she can, husband Ted’s band Ted Hefko and the Thousandaires. And her vision of the future is no longer about herself in the center spotlight, but her students.
“There are lots of good dance studios in New Orleans,” she says, “so I have a vision of what I can offer that’s different. I want to offer high-level classes for adults and teens, workshops to supplement what’s being done by other studios, and open dance to others.”
To that end, she has started a toddler class for moms/caregivers and toddlers, and instituted a policy of respect in her classes.
“My students have to clap and thank the teacher and accompanist after each lesson. I feel like a counselor. I’m not teaching just steps, but about being an artist. About making the world a safe and beautiful place. So much is about the process, and not the product. Dance is not just about the body, but also the mind.”
Her choreography career started with a Charles Mingus piano improvisation piece called Myself When I Am Real “that I got obsessed with.” She created a duet to it, which premiered at Harlem Stage in 2012.
She and her two fellow choreographers for the Marigny Opera Ballet Christmas Concerto, Maritza Mercado-Narcisse and Donna Crump – all African-American women – will share duties for the full-length work by the company of eight dancers, set to the music of Arcangelo Corelli and George Frederic Handel.
It’s appropriate for a dancer for whom, she says, ballet “really is like a religious experience. This is where I feel everything. Where I always can go when I get back to zero. I try to help my students get there, too. Dance is our safe place.”