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Elbert Watson Receives 2023 Virginia Arts Festival Ovation Award


VAF Perry Artistic Director Rob Cross presents Elbert Watson with 2023 Ovation Award
VAF Perry Artistic Director Rob Cross presents Elbert Watson with 2023 Ovation Award

Words and Images Courtesy of the Virginia Arts Festival


Virginia Arts Festival presented its 2023 Ovation Award to an artist who has had an extraordinary impact on the region for more than 50 years: former Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater principal dancer, choreographer, and beloved educator Elbert Watson. The award was presented to Mr. Watson in a ceremony on Saturday, April 29 at the Slover Library in Norfolk.

The Virginia Arts Festival Ovation Award honors the lifetime achievement of artists with a special connection to the Hampton Roads region.


“Elbert Watson has served as an inspiration, a guide, and a mentor for young people in the Hampton Roads region for decades,” said Virginia Arts Festival Perry Artistic Director Robert W. Cross. “A brilliant dancer who toured internationally for years, he returned home to create and lead one of the most vibrant arts education programs not just in the region, but anywhere—and is still building a legacy that has influenced generations.”


About Elbert Watson Born and raised in Norfolk, VA, Elbert Watson fell in love with dance as a child. He performed with the modern dance group at Campostella Junior High School, the Tidewater Dance Guild, the Norfolk State University dance theater and the Academy of the Tidewater Ballet, and won numerous local dance competitions while attending Booker T. Washington High School.


He auditioned for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York in 1973 and was accepted into the famed company, where he quickly became a principal dancer, taking on major roles and performing across the U.S. and internationally. He later joined the Staatstheater Ballet Company in Kassel Germany. Returning home to Norfolk in the early 1980s, he discovered his purpose in life: to teach. He was asked to join the Norfolk Academy faculty in 1984 and created a far-reaching dance program that remains one of the most arts education programs in the country nearly 40 years later.


In addition to his role as Co-Chair of the Norfolk Academy Arts Department and Dance Master, Mr. Watson continues to perform and to choreograph new works, joining in special projects with many area arts groups including the Chrysler Museum and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. Past arts administration roles include service as a former member of The Commission of Arts and Humanities for the city of Norfolk.


He currently serves on the advisory board of Learning Bridge, as the artistic advisor of the Portsmouth Redevelopment Dance Project, and as the master teacher for Ballet Virginia International and for the city of Norfolk Dance Program. He is the founder of the Tidewater Dance Collective and The Elbert Watson Dance Company. Mr. Watson co-founded Kinetics of Stone, an international visual and performing arts collaborative, started in Christchurch, New Zealand, and currently in Graz, Austria.


Awards: Elbert Watson was named Norfolk Teacher of the Year in 1997 by the upper school student council, 2007 by the lower school and 2011 by the middle school. He received the city of Norfolk legacy award for work on dance education 2018, the Norfolk State University Alumni Association Dance Theater award in 2018 and the Distinguished Alumni Award presented by the Friends and Alumni Association of Booker T. Washington High School in 2019. He received the J.E. Wallace Sterling Award for Scholastic Achievement at Stanford University in 2014, an award that recognizes the top 25 graduating seniors in Stanford's School of Humanities and Sciences and their most influential secondary school teacher.


About Virginia Arts Festival The Virginia Arts Festival celebrates its 26th Anniversary in 2023. The largest performing arts organization in southeastern Virginia, Virginia Arts Festival has transformed the region's cultural scene, presenting great performers from around the world and making this historic region a cultural destination for visitors from across the United States and around the world. In 2019 the Festival welcomed visitors from 47 states, the District of Columbia, and 12 foreign countries. Each season, the Festival presents over 250 performances, including free community events, student matinees, and workshops, with an annual attendance of over 110,000. Millions more are reached through international broadcasts of Festival performances on American Public Media's Performance Today, nationally on PBS TV, and regionally on WHRO TV. Over 32% of ticket sales come from outside the region, bringing tens of thousands of visitors to local museums and attractions and filling regional hotels and restaurants. Estimated annual economic impact of the Festival exceeds $25 million.

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