Ann Dunn has spent her entire life in motion -- by necessity, force of will, restlessness and, through it all, a curiosity that refuses to sit still.
At age 71, Dunn has so many active elements in her life: She has a fulltime teaching schedule at UNC-Asheville. She’s working on her fourth book of poetry. Every summer, she dives into culturally immersive travels the world over, and she’s eager to share what she sees and learns both in her classroom, with her 11 grandchildren and anyone she has time to sit with.
Then there's the little matter of the Asheville Ballet. This weekend's free performances in Pack Square Park mark the 36th season-opening program under Dunn's artistic leadership. Click here to watch a short video of Ann Dunn rehearsing her company.
“There’s three things, and I wanted all three of those things society told me ‘It’s one thing or the other,’” Dunn said. “I wanted to dance, I wanted to have children and I wanted to learn -- go to school.”
All three blossomed around the same time. Dunn was only 14 when she met the first man she would marry. She attended New York University while studying on a full scholarship at New York City Ballet. The birth of her son didn’t slow her stride. Dunn studied at Merce Cunningham’s studio and brought the infant Ethan along.
All the while, she soaked up the art, music and mind-expanding enhancements that went with life at the time in Greenwich Village. But she didn’t like the prospect of raising children there, and when her first marriage crumbled, she found refuge back with the people who never left her.
Dunn’s parents had moved from Raleigh to South Bend, Ind., and after Dunn moved back in with them to regroup, she did her best to recreate the life she idealized in New York. She enrolled in Indiana University and developed her first dance school and company. She also re-married there, but Dunn recalls the marriage as polluted with harshness and struggle.
“I didn’t feel the need to get married again. I got pregnant. I wanted babies; I wanted children,” she recalled. “The reason I moved back with my parents is I didn’t know how to survive. How do you survive when your only skill is dance?”
There’s a lot of serendipity threaded through Dunn’s life, none more so than her stake in the Asheville Ballet.
Dunn turned money given to her by her grandmother into a down payment on the Leader Building downtown—she and her family lived upstairs, with Dunn’s dance school taking up the main floor. She also taught classes for Art Fryar, who then ran the Asheville Ballet. When Fryar gave it up to devote himself to a drag club, he gave his company to Dunn.
“So much of life is luck,” she said. “One of the ways I’ve managed to make money is with real estate, by buying low and selling high, and doing it again and again and again.”
Even when she came up through ballet school, Dunn leaned to modern movement. With her own company, she rarely lingers in the formality and tradition of classical ballet, and she blends her own choreography into programs that regularly incorporate pieces from guest dancemakers.
“It’s not about self-expression, at all,” she said. “But I do want people to feel moved in some way.”
Asked if she sees a day on the horizon when she’ll have to become more selective with her time and commitments, Dunn shook her head and smiled.
“I told my children if I die on top of a camel, don’t be sad,” she said. “If I fall over in the classroom, that’s where I fall over. If I fall over in the studio, that’s where I fall over. I'm doing what I love."