Their name might sound ostentatious, but the ladies behind Magnum Opus are anything but.

Although they are still a brand new ballet company with just six dancers, they are ready to take on the dance world and mold their company around the love of dance.

Ultimately they want to change the image of the “hoity-toity ballerina.”

Abigail Henninger, the 29-year-old artistic director, founder and company artist, sees her young troupe as ready to take on that unique challenge.

“We want to be part of the community,” she said. “We want to love the people we are dancing for. We want to know those people ... we want to be role models for kids and connect to them.”

Henninger has been in Madison for more than three years. She originally came to the city to dance for Madison Ballet, was with them for two years and left cordially about a year and a half ago. She then freelanced around the country before founding Magnum Opus in March.

The company premiered in October with their performance of “Aloft” which was choreographed by Henninger and set to a live ensemble of musicians.

Henninger is the oldest among the group with a span of 10 years, the youngest is just 19. But with that youthful spirit comes a drive to embrace the new company whereas older dancers might shy away from a troupe without a long track record.

Sometimes older performers aren’t keen on learning a new style or “creating a flow between one another,” Henniger added.

Company member Katina Johns, 22, said being part of the creation of something is really great.

Fellow dancer Lexie Ehmann, 23, agreed that working with the “first vision” is exciting because the dancers get to help shape what it could be in the future.

Having danced for other companies before, the ladies have seen that even well-established companies can struggle, which is why Henninger is determined to keep her dancers in the know with the company finances.

She has danced for multiple organizations when she suddenly wasn’t getting paid or a show was canceled. She couldn’t say it was a common occurrence in the dance world, but “it happens more often than it should.”

When dance companies get into financial trouble it drastically affects the lives of the dancers, Henninger added.

“Suddenly people have to scrounge and find more teaching work to make ends meet,” she said. “I understand as a non-profit it’s hard—we’re a non-profit and it’s hard. But I want to stick to my guns. When you have a budget, it’s the budget. End of story.”

Ehmann said Henninger’s openness is one of the reasons she was immediately drawn to Magnum Opus. It was clear to her that this would be a special kind of company to work for.

Changing perspective

Both Ehmann and Johns moved to Madison to join Magnum Opus, Ehmann from Pittsburgh and Johns from New York.

Johns called the move “a leap of faith” to take part in a company she believed aligned with what she wanted.

Aside from keeping the dancers humble, something that Henninger believes is an important quality, she also wants them to feel valued.

In the dance world performers are looked at as a body or a number, she said.

“You’re the tall one in the back, the short one in the front or number 27 in this line,” Henninger added. “You aren’t looked at as a valuable and loving creature.”

Ehmann applauded Henninger’s leadership and abundant respect for the company members. She sees Magnum Opus as a chance for the six performers to come together to keep the good things they’ve learned in other troupes and leave the bad at the door.

Dance is a “cutthroat” industry, but this company is special, Ehmann said.

Johns agreed, saying the support is a strong aspect of the small company.

“We’re so small and so close there isn’t that cattiness,” she added. “In a larger company you might be fighting over parts or roles, but here we have a deeper connection. It’s not about who is going to get this part or that part, this is more supportive than competitive.”

Cooperation among the dancers gives the troupe the means to focus on what matters most to them — the work.

Inspiring through performance

Henninger wants the work done by Magnum Opus to always connect back to the community. Every show they do, for example, is appropriate for the whole family, which provides the opportunity to share ballet with even the youngest of audience members.

And work for the dancers doesn’t end at the final curtain. When the show is over they head out to mingle with the patrons.

Ehmann said that mentality gets back to the heart of why the dancers have dedicated their lives to the art.

They love to dance and want to share that passion with everyone.

For Magnum Opus in particular, the opportunity to connect with audience members is a unique one. Each dancer teaches somewhere in the greater Madison area and there is something really special about connecting with students, especially the young ones.

“I know I had a few students at our premiere and they were so excited to see someone they knew on stage,” Johns said. “It’s reachable to them. They can relate. They can see themselves up there.”

Establishing common ground with the audience is made possible by keeping the dancers approachable, according to Henninger.

That’s one reason why traveling to multiple venues during the run of their shows is so fun, according to the dancers.

It helps the company reach different parts of the community, Ehmann said.

A desire to integrate more ballet into the local arts scene is one of the things that spurred Henninger to found her own company. She wanted to introduce more inspiring art geared toward the whole family.

Ballerinas inspiring young children to follow their dreams feels particularly important since at least three of the dancers started dancing at young ages. Now they live their dream in a delicate balance between teaching others either dance or yoga while continuing to make their art.

“I could not find a more perfect fit for where I thought I belonged,” Johns said of Magnum Opus.


Amanda Finn is an arts and lifestyle reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.