Hobbs Waters dances with destiny

Hobbs Waters hasn’t conquered the world yet, but give him a minute.

Hobbs Waters is a pre-professional ballet student with Classical Ballet Academy in Sellwood. Photo by Rob Woodcox.

The 12-year-old Portland-based quadruple threat—he dances, plays trumpet and cello, creates fine art pieces, and runs his own arts business, called City Troll—took a breather just before the holidays at the book-lined Stacks Coffeehouse in North Portland. Wearing black-and-white checkered overalls, his feet splayed into a modified balletic third position, Waters shared his artistic ambitions and his plans for what will be a busy 2019.

This January, he’s heading to the Youth America Grand Prix and New York City Dance Alliance regional competitions in Seattle and Vancouver, respectively, followed by the International Association of Blacks in Dance conference in Dallas. The clock is ticking: along with rehearsing the solo variations and group pieces he’ll perform at those events, he’s selling his abstract paintings, pen-and-ink illustrations, and the T-shirts he silkscreens through City Troll to help fund his journey.

Waters sells his artwork to help fund his dance pursuits. Image courtesy of Hobbs Waters.

Waters, who chose his own first name based on his love of tigers (in particular, the title character of Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes strip), the arts aren’t so much a hobby as a way of life. He and mom AJ McCreary, herself a painter and photographer, have embraced Unschooling, a form of homeschooling that advocates learner-chosen activities as a primary means of education. And Waters, the only 12-year-old I’ve met with his own resume and artist statement, has been doing his homework: unlike many youngsters who focus on a single genre, he is conversant in multiple arts and arts entrepreneurship, naming the painter Basquiat as well as Cuban dancer Osiel Gouneo as inspirations.

Of his many pursuits, dance is dearest to Waters’ heart. He began studying five years ago; three years ago, he got more serious, enrolling in Classical Ballet Academy’s pre-professional program. Though he takes contemporary, modern, and hip-hop classes, his primary love is ballet as an outlet for what he describes as “self-expression and freedom”; he intends to pursue a ballet career. In student productions, he has danced Beauty and the Beast’s Beast, the Nutcracker’s Rat King, and, in this year’s CBA Nutcracker, a porcelain doll and a corps member in the Arabian divertissement. Last year, he entered the pressure-cooker competition arena, attending YAGP and NYCDA and auditioning for summer intensives through IABD.

Waters intends to pursue a professional ballet career. Photo courtesy of Hobbs Waters.

Founded 30 years ago, the IABD conference draws a diverse group of arts administrators, choreographers, dance companies, students, and teachers to a weekend of panels, performances, and auditions. Its mission is greater racial inclusivity in the dance industry; ballet, in particular, has been criticized for its homogeneity. “There are minority teachers from around the world,” McCreary says of the conference. “It’s an opportunity to meet dancers who are doing big things in the industry, and to meet people who are paving the way” for young black and brown dancers.

Waters acknowledges that he has experienced racist behavior in the ballet world, although he is reluctant to elaborate, saying only that “being around other students who look more like me” is an aspect of the conference he especially appreciates. The appreciation appears to be mutual: at last year’s conference auditions, 13 institutions accepted him into their summer programs. He chose an intensive at Connecticut’s Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory, although he also studied with Nashville Ballet and New Orleans School of Ballet.

Dance competitions and summer intensives aren’t cheap: tuition and entry fees, travel and lodging costs, and dance costumes and shoes for growing kids add up quickly, McCreary notes, with a competition weekend running as much as $2,000. This is where Waters’ entrepreneurial side comes in. City Troll, which he started more than two years ago and describes as “an urban lifestyle line,” sells his artwork and T-shirts to defray his dance costs.

When it comes to the artwork, Waters has expanded his horizons in the last few years, from producing colorful pen-and-ink illustrations of animals to mixed-media and abstract paintings with social justice themes, including racism and sexism. Local gallery owners have taken note: Waters has shown at Basic Space Gallery and Luke’s Frame Shop, among others, and will open a new show at The Keep PDX with a reception Jan. 12.

Waters’ artwork includes mixed-media and abstract paintings with social-justice themes. Image courtesy of Hobbs Waters.

As for the T-shirts, “I’ve been expanding slowly,” he says. “I want to it to become a comprehensive clothing line.” He is now producing T-shirts for Wisconsin’s 5 Points Art Gallery & Studios; in Portland, he does occasional popups and consignments at Bridge City Kid and greenHAUS Gallery + Boutique. To learn about business, Waters is interning with greenHAUS and Flipside Coffee Shop. Every other Wednesday, he attends openHaus, a business coworking space where entrepreneurs can discuss their struggles and share ideas.  

Waters in one of his T-shirts. Photo courtesy of Hobbs Waters.

In the short term, Waters and McCreary are looking forward to seeing what results from this year’s events; he would like to return to Nutmeg, but she is hoping for a new opportunity, perhaps through a program in L.A., Chicago, or Washington, D.C. In the long term, although he says he has City Trolls to fall back on, he’s envisioning life in ballet’s big leagues. He lists some of the roles he’d like to dance someday: “Swan Lake, Giselle, something dramatic,” he says. “It could be cool to be the Cavalier in The Nutcracker or Sleeping Beauty.” And, too, he’s eyeing potential employers: in a video he made a few years ago, he mentioned London’s Royal Ballet, but now, he says, he’s thinking “more realistically—somewhere like Houston Ballet.”

“Why do you say ‘realistically’?” McCreary asks.

“I don’t want to limit myself, but don’t think I could be principal dancer anywhere,” he says.

“Don’t limit yourself, kid,” McCreary replies.  

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