When All Signs Point to 'No,' Terpsicorps Founder Heather Maloy Bulls Ahead with a Determined 'Yes'
Like a lot of excited, ambitious entrepreneurs, Heather Maloy put her head down and bulled forward with her plan: She wanted to create a fulltime professional ballet company in Asheville.
“With it being a summer tourist community and being very alive in the summer, it seemed like a great starting point,” she said. “But I wasn’t really thinking fully how to get past that summer point to a year-round point.”
So the three-year plan Maloy drafted 15 years ago is still sitting in a drawer. Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance is still a summer program, Maloy still draws a handful of elite young artists to dance for her and, every year since moving to Asheville to start her company, Maloy scrambles for money, wondering whether the upcoming season will be her last.
Terpsicorps is rehearsing a new piece Maloy choreographed as an honest homage to Zelda Fitzgerald, set to the swing and swagger of the roaring ‘20s. Performances are June 21-23 at the Diana Wortham Theatre in Asheville.
“We just are not a town that seems able to support large performing arts organizations,” she said. “The symphony is doing way better all of the sudden, it seems, but it’s always been a challenge and there have been so many years where I have been like swallowing it, counting on the fact I have never not paid my dancers. I have not paid myself, but I have never not paid my dancers.”
Maloy says it’s more difficult setting new work on the company since reluctantly leaving the dance floor herself. She danced with Terpsicorps during its first three years.
“The pieces I used to create are so hard on the dancers. Jump, fall, jump fall, constant running, just extremely aerobic,” she said “I’m still creating pieces that are hard, but they’re not as intense as they used to be.”
Maloy grew up in a tiny Pinnacle, N.C., a suburb of Winston-Salem. Her parents were hippies who’d moved there from the Northeast. There was no school in Pinnacle to channel Maloy’s incessant dancing, so Maloy’s mother opened a dance school of her own.
“I was not born with a traditional ballet body at all, and she would say to me all the time ‘You’re not going to be a ballet dancer, probably,’” she recalled. “But there was no telling me it wasn’t going to happen for me.”
After high school, Maloy was accepted into North Carolina Dance Theatre, which later became the Charlotte Ballet. At the time, she was the youngest dancer ever brought into the fulltime company.
“Whatever I didn’t have in traditional ballet body and flexibility I would make up for with artistry and personality on stage,” she said. “Even choreographers who were not as excited about the look of me as a dancer would wind up putting me into work anyway when they saw what I was able to portray on stage.”
Maloy began setting work on fellow company members, then saw Asheville as the perfect home, despite not knowing anyone here. Almost nobody came to a lavish fundraiser at the Orange Peel to launch her company and her business partner suddenly left before the dancers made their first leaps.
“It was awful, but I’d already started everything, so I just thought ‘Well, I’ll do it on my own,’” she said.
The company bounced from rehearsal space to rehearsal space, and Maloy had run out of money. But during the premiere production at Diana Wortham Theatre, Maloy watched a packed audience give standing ovations after the first two acts.
“I got up on stage before the third act and I started to cry and just lost it,” she recalled. “I said was ‘There’s no way I can pay these people you’re looking at,’ and if you’re interested in having this company be part of the scene in Asheville, we need money and we need it now. And we got enough money that night to pay the dancers that night and cover the next show.”
Maloy hasn’t abandoned her ideal of building into a year-round, full-time company. She has simply stopped defining that as the apex of success.
“I would like to have a year-round company and dancers I’m supporting, and I think that’s part of what I miss about my life as a dancer,” she said. “At North Carolina Dance Theatre, we were such a family together. You become so close with all the people you work with, and I miss my dancer family.”