March 29, 2024

Ballet – Celebrating the Life of Bill Atkinson

About the Author: Suzanne Wagner
By Published On: March 29, 2024Categories: Ballet, Blog Daily

Ballet – Celebrating the Life of Bill Atkinson


The Etgen-Atkinson School of Ballet was my emotional home for years. It was the place I felt free, safe, and loved in the ways that mattered the most to me. It was not that my parents did not love me, it was that they did not understand what made my heart beat in my chest.
And that was ballet.
To my parents, ballet was a detour on the path that life had in store. To me, ballet was life itself.
In my home, emotions were not expressed fully because my father had a top-secret security clearance as he was the co-creator of the smart weapons systems for Texas Instruments. My mother was a walking ball of insecurity, anxiety, fear, and upset. Her constant emotional upheavals were legendary in our house, and she literally took up all the air in that context so that there was no room for others to feel upset or express their feelings. If you shared your feelings, within minutes she turned everything back around to her problems, concerns, upsets, and issues.
Only in the Etgen-Atkinson School of Ballet were my emotions allowed to be more fully expressed.
Ballet was my space of permission and acceptance. Artists are a temperamental lot, and we are intense by nature. Ballet was a world of passion, expression, pantomime, drama, and wonder. While words were less the focus as a form of expression, the body was the instrument to feel into and express those emotions in powerful ways that could cross over the footlights of the theater and spill out into the audience.
My father was rarely demonstrative. He was an engineer with the very secret mission and that purpose was rarely spoken about in our house. While I adored my father in all ways (as he was a very good and honorable man), he was not the cuddly dad that you could tell your problems too. If you tried, he would tell you that it is a tough world out there and that you have to “Not let the Bastards get you down!”

That statement did not make much sense to my ultra-sensitive ballerina self.
But Bill Atkinson, became my surrogate dad in the ballet world. While Bill was tough and I mean very tough, he at least allowed the expressions of emotion to form, flow out, and find their own meaning and purpose. He understood that ballet was going to be hard work and instilled in us confidence through repetition and practice. He liked excellence in angles and positions.
Deep inside, I understood the feeling that would come from my body when I did things correctly. It gave me a great sense of accomplishment.
For me, Bill Atkinson was somewhat distant but that was a good thing in a world that was so touchy feely. I felt safe with him, even when he and I would disagree.
While Ann Etgen (his wife) was the choreographic genius of the two, Bill was great at explaining Pas de Deux and coming up with crazy, insane lifts that would take your breath away.
I know many people preferred Ann’s classes to Bill’s, but I actually really enjoyed Bills classes. Because they operated around a familiar theme, one could get a sense of accomplishment because I (personally) could see how I was getting better and more exact in the mirror.
Bill could see that I struggled with my growing body and keeping enough calories in me to have stamina during classes and rehearsals.
When I first got into the Dallas Metropolitan Ballet, he would bring me smoothies with honey, yogurt, fruit and protein powder. He did not want the other dancers to know so he would hand them to me in passing as he told me to “Drink up!” That showed me that he cared and understood that my body was growing even as I was rail thin, and I needed the extra calories to make it through classes and rehearsals.
He also brought me jars of honey with a spoon and told me that if I felt weak to take a spoonful of honey and that I would feel better.
He was right.
I remember that we were preparing for a Southwest Regional Ballet Conference and the Dallas Metropolitan Ballet (our small school company) was usually the final, thrilling performance that closed the event yearly.
We had an amazing dancer (Christy Dunham) that was incredible in her turning ability, and she was by far much better of a ballet dancer than any of us in the company. But she injured herself before the adjudication and was unable to perform the leading role.
Instead, I was chosen to do the performance that would decide our placement in the program. It was a thing of pride that the Dallas Metropolitan Ballet always got to close the event. Not getting that position would be a failure and I was bound and determined to not fail. I was going to perform to the best of my ability and keep that spot.
I went out to do that performance and I believed that while I was no Christy Dunham, I at least did the best I knew how in that moment.
Weeks later, it was confirmed that we got that coveted spot, and I was so very proud that I had kept the tradition alive.
Unfortunately, I was under the illusion that if I had solidified the slot, then I would be getting to do that lead position at the Southwestern Regional Ballet Conference.
That was not to be my fate.
Bill Atkinson put up the casting for the show and Christy was back in the lead.
Now, I am young, probably 16 years old and living in an idealistic fairy tale world of ballet. A part of me knew that Christy would be back and that of course, she would get her position back. But I thought that I had earned that slot and so I should get that show.
But the fates had other things in mind.
I went up to Bill and argued my case. He looked bemused (which I found irritating) and said, “Suzanne! Christy is a much better dancer than you! That should be obvious! She is going to be the lead and that is how it is going to go.”
As infuriated as I was, I knew he was right. She was better than me. I knew that! I just wanted fairness to win out in the end. But here was another lesson in that ballet was not fair. It would be a lesson that I would have to learn again and again. I am grateful that Bill just said the obvious truth with no other explanation.
He was not kind, but he also was not cruel. He was honest and honesty can hurt.
Christy Dunham would go on to become a principal dancer with the Dallas Ballet and eventually as I was retiring from Ballet West, shockingly she became a principal dancer with American Ballet Theater, which was as prestigious as one could get in an American company. For unknown reasons she only stayed a few years, but her performances got rave reviews.
Bill was right! And I am grateful for that lesson.
I liked Bill! He allowed me to express my exasperation and frustration on him and we could disagree without that undercurrent of care disappearing. That was something that I could never do with my father.
On all levels, I felt that Ann Etgen and Bill Atkinson were like the emotional and artistic parents I never had.
On all levels they saved me!
They saved my soul from suffocating under all the suppressed emotions of my family. They gave me that tools and the confidence to know that I was a good dancer and that I had potential. They gave me free classes when my father refused to pay for anymore silly ballet classes because they did not want me to stop trying to reach for that illusive gold ring of being a professional ballet dancer.
Ann and Bill gave me back myself.
Life kept trying to take away what was so beautiful inside my soul. They fought to keep that spark of creative perfectionism alive and vibrating.
They gave me opportunities to perform amazing unique choreography on stage that was fun, playful, and technically challenging. They gave me enough chances to stretch and to succeed. They were proud of who I had become as a ballet dancer and celebrated my successes even if at times it was because they could put their name on those success for their school programs and advertising.
Today, I celebrate the life of a man that made a difference in the lives of so many dancers, especially my own. I am grateful to consider him one of my spiritual and artistic fathers in this life. I am grateful for his care and concern for my well-being. I am grateful for the love he offered me at such a critical time in my growth. And I am grateful for the honesty he showed me, even when I did not want to hear it.
I know that on many levels, Bill could be a challenging person to deal with and many dancers may not feel as I did. But to me, he was a doorway. And he faithfully stood there holding that door open to any dancer who was willing to do the hard work and put in the effort. I was one of those that understood what he was offering and why. I was one of the few that managed to get to that door and through that door. And I will be forever grateful to him for his genuine love of ballet and how he tried to share that perfectionistic passion with me.
Be at peace Bill Atkinson. I am sure we will meet again. Thank you!

~Suzanne Wagner~

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