As the head of a nonprofit, Christopher Mohnani’s personal achievements and that of his organization are deeply intertwined.
“Personally, right now, I think every single little thing, or every single milestone that we do with Dance Theatre of Tennessee is a short, continued step to success,” he shared.
Mohnani is the artistic director of Dance Theatre of Tennessee and was recently named among Nashville Business Journal’s “40 under 40” – a list that honors young people “deemed to be making a difference in their companies and community.”
He was honored to make the list, particularly since the recognition comes from a business publication.
“To be recognized early on, it’s really a very encouraging and positive sign,” he said.
Mohnani started the dance company in 2009 as the official performance arm of the Asian American Performing Arts Society (AAPAS), which he started in 2004 to expose dance to new audiences and bring eminent artists from all over to the area.
He recognizes that people have a pre-conceived notion about ballet.
“When you see ballet, it’s still intimidating for most – they think you have to dress up, and it’s stuffy … and it’s only for those people who can afford to do it, but it’s the opposite,” he said. “Ballet, as an art form, is one of the most accessible art forms there is. It’s one of the most easily related. You don’t have to know the score or even a foreign language to appreciate it.”
To increase exposure, he makes sure performances are held in different venues, as opposed to one main venue. Their Nutcracker tour took them to Smyrna, Clarksville, Dickson and other Tennessee cities. He is particularly proud of Ballet at the Park, which is held at Centennial Park and suggests people donate only $10 to attend.
“We want as many people as possible to get the opportunity to experience and enjoy it even if they don’t have the means,” he said.
Mohnani’s devotion to Nashville is indisputable. He spends much of his free time volunteering, including reading to school children, promoting anti-bullying programs, being part of his local chamber of commerce, and participating in beautification projects in the Donelson-Hermitage area, where he lives, which can sometimes even include cleaning up the streets.
Originally from the Philippines, Mohnani was invited in 2001 to join the Nashville Ballet. For 10 seasons, he was its top male Principal Danseur. His impressive resume also includes having been a soloist and principal dancer with Ballet Manila, Krasnoyarsk State Opera and Ballet Theater of Russia.
He felt supported by the Nashville community and made a home here; his partner is a dancer in the company. He retired in 2009 from dancing and traded in his dance shoes for that of an administrator. He still feels like he’s growing into the role but feels very encouraged.
Shortly after hearing about the NBJ honor, Mohnani learned that Dance Theatre of Tennessee was nominated for the Rhubarb Theater Company's Leadership in the Arts Award. He also recently learned he was nominated again in the arts category for the 2013 Nashville Emerging Leader Award – an honor he received last year.
Despite his successes, Mohnani remains humble, with two feet firmly on the ground.
“You can only gauge success according to your journey and path,” he said. “You open yourself up for disappointment when you measure success.”
'Muses' in March
Dance Theatre of Tennessee’s next production is called “Muses.” Mohnani describes it as a “celebration of the artistic inspiration that one has.”
It’s divided into three sections, each one showcasing the work of a well-known choreographer. They will present a piece from George Balanchine, considered the father of American ballet, featuring music from Gershwin, as an ode to New York. The second piece is from Ma Cong, from the National Ballet of China and Tulsa Ballet, and focuses on relationships, expressed through tango music. The third piece is a world premiere from New York-based Darrell G. Moultrie; the piece is called “Points of Interest” and focuses on quirkiness.
Performances will be at the Father Ryan Auditorium in Nashville on March 2 at 7 p.m. and March 3 at 2 p.m. You can find out more and buy tickets at dancetheatretn.org.