The US International Ballet, diverse and innovative, ushers ballet into the twenty-first century. Sold out audiences are captivated by cutting edge choreography interlaced with digital film and visual effects. USIB is the only professional company in America that guarantees every first and second company dancer a professional contract.
Health, inclusion, and innovation are the three pillars of the US International Ballet. Our company recognizes body diversity as a key pillar of dancer wellness. We give every company member the opportunity to dance professionally and perform extraordinary choreography. Innovation is the cornerstone of every USIB performance. Visionary Artistic Directors create mesmerizing ballets through a brilliant combination of choreography, film, and visual effects. USIB brings ballet into the modern age by combining the technical prowess of the classical art form with the technology and imagination of the twenty-first century.
Executive Chairman & Founder
Elizabeth Hester was a founding professional and soloist in the formative years of the Carolina Ballet. Anne Vorus grew a youth company, Raleigh Dance Theater, into a thriving professional company, Carolina Ballet. Anne was Elizabeth's mentor and guide in both ballet and company development. Elizabeth danced leading roles in Giselle, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Pas De Quatre, and Les Sylphide under Anne's direction. Elizabeth attended NC School of the Arts, Walnut Hill School of the Arts, Richmond Ballet, and Atlanta Ballet (on full scholarship). Elizabeth trained and lived at East Carolina University as a high school student in order to perform as a soloist for the premier opening of Mcginnis Auditorium. Elizabeth founded Wilmington Ballet Company and Wilmington School of Ballet in 1999. Her visionary approach to collaboration attracted dancers, choreographers, and directors of many companies to participate in her works. Project collaborators include prestigious companies such as Joffrey Dance Ensemble, North Carolina Dance Theater, Raleigh Dance Theater and Chuck Davis African American Dance Ensemble. Dancers and choreographers from many companies have been drawn to her work. Such companies include Joffrey Chicago, Washington Ballet, Nashville Ballet, Sarasota Ballet, Columbia City Ballet, Columbia Classical Ballet, Atlanta Ballet, New York City Ballet, and Richmond Ballet. Elizabeth has a remarkable history of bringing diverse audiences and performers together. Diversity in choreography, staging, and casting are key to her success. Integrating diverse populations into performing is a foundational principle for Elizabeth. Performer populations have included rural, inner city, special needs, diverse ethnic groups, seniors, circus artists, live musicians, and preschoolers. Integrating special effects and circus arts with cutting edge choreography has built a following that has sold out theaters for over two decades. In 2017, Elizabeth founded US International Ballet based on the belief that dancers should be healthy and that there was not one body type for ballet. Dancers flocked from around the world. The first year USIB opened with 27 dancers from 5 countries. Elizabeth began mentoring Aunika Browne in 2020 to be her predecessor. In her first year, USIB faced a global pandemic. Despite this hardship, USIB performed a full length Giselle and Nutcracker (all live streamed from theaters) despite the COVID crisis. Elizabeth will continue to mentor Aunika Browne, so that USIB can flourish long into the future.
Elizabeth is also a Civil Engineer (NC State Alumni) , the founder of Wilmington Preschool of Arts, and a serial entrepreneur as she owns multiple The UPS stores.
After dancing her whole life, Aunika opened Studio A of Wilmington in 2017. With the vision of a studio that accepted kids of all backgrounds and levels, Studio A began to thrive in a family friendly atmosphere. After working with USIB in their production of The Nutcracker, Aunika quickly fell in love with their mission of acceptance, as well, and accepted the role as Executive Director in 2020. As Executive Director of USIB, Aunika kept the company dancing through the COVID-19 pandemic with successful live-streamed and in-person shows throughout the 2020-21 Summer and company season. Currently, Aunika is also the School Director of the two affiliate schools, Wilmington School of Ballet and Studio A, and is Executive director of the affiliate dance nonprofit, Wilmington Ballet Company. In 2020, Aunika won the Rising Star category of Wilma Magazine's Women to Watch Awards for her work in her first year with USIB. Aunika is excited to bring her passion for dance and business experience together as she continues to expand USIB’s legacy for diversity across Eastern North Carolina.
Interim Artistic Director
Debra Berger began her professional career at the age of nine when she performed with the New York City Ballet Company. Debra was a student at The School of American Ballet and performed with the company in The Nutcracker, a Midsummer Night’s Dream and Harlequinade. She studied modern at the Alvin Ailey School, as well as jazz with Luigi, Charles Kelly and Nat Horne.
Growing up in New York City she had the opportunity to study acting at HB Studios and voice with some of the greatest teachers in musical theater. Her performing credits also include: A Chorus Line, West Side Story, I Ought To Be In Pictures, and Educating Rita. As a director, choreographer, and teacher, Debra has traveled extensively, teaching ballet and jazz in the U.S. and Brazil. Debra is a certified Teaching Artist with Dancing Classrooms. She recently moved to Wilmington, and is thrilled to contribute to the performing arts in our community.
Anne Firmender is originally from Stratford, CT and has called Wilmington home since 1998. She has trained at a number of prestigious schools including The School of American Ballet, California Institute of the Arts, and Cornish College of the Arts, where she received her BFA in Dance summa cum laude. Anne has taught dance in both public and private schools to students of all ages and backgrounds since 1982, including New Haven’s Performing Arts High School Educational Center for the Arts (her alma mater). Additional teaching residencies include New Haven Ballet, the Wilmington School of Ballet, and the Educational Center for the Arts of New Haven. Since 2012, Anne has served as a teaching artist at DREAMS of Wilmington, an arts education program serving youth in need, where she co-founded the intensive instructional and performance group Dance Theatre of DREAMS. Her choreography has been performed in a wide range of venues, including the North Carolina Dance Festival, Dance-a-lorus, and innumerable benefits and community showcases. A founding member of The Dance Cooperative, where she served as School Director for many years, Anne organized two annual events: Community Dance Day and the Emerging Choreographers’ Showcase, for which she has mentored multiple young dancers. In addition to her artistic background, Anne has many years of experience working with exceptional youth, including children on the autism spectrum and with mental health challenges. She continues to choreograph and teach throughout Wilmington.
Yoga & Pilates Instructor
Heather Till holds a BS in Psychology with a minor in Dance from Appalachian State University. Originally intending to continue her studies in Dance/Movement Therapy, she “bumped” into Yoga Therapy along the way and chose to follow her lifelong interest in the healing and movement arts. Heather is a Certified Integrative Yoga Therapist (recognized by the International Association of Yoga Therapists) and Pilates Instructor (both mat and full equipment) with over 20 years teaching experience. She holds additional certifications in Gentle Somatic Yoga, Restorative Yoga and as a play facilitator with Turning the Wheel Productions. Heather’s playful personality infuses her teaching that is rooted in mindfulness and slow yoga/movement practices that invite moving from an inner awareness to unravel chronic tension and pain patterns, strengthen and integrate the brain-muscle connection, nourish an overstimulated nervous system, and awaken to new possibilities for greater health and resilience. Heather occasionally still dips her toes into modern and African dance and is thrilled to be working with the dancers of USIB.
Alycia is the the office manager of USIB. She has been a part of the Studio A family since it opened in September 2017. Over the past three years, she has become more involved in working closely with Aunika Browne, the owner, and now works as the office manager. She is the mother of two girls: Alexis who cheered with All Star Cheer at Studio A and Brianna who competes on the company Dance team there. As a young child she took dance in a small town in New York where she grew up. Alycia has worked in some form of management for the past 20 years and looks forward to supporting and helping the company dancers here at USIB.
Addie began dancing at the age of 3. She studied at Dance Theatre of Jacksonville and was a member of their award-winning competition team and ballet company, where she danced several soloist roles in the annual ballet productions. She currently attends the University of South Carolina, studying Dance Performance & Choreography and Graphic Design. Under the direction of Jennifer Deckert, André Megerdichian, Stephanie Milling, and Olivia Waldrop, Addie has performed several classic and contemporary works, as well as studying with guest artists, such as Pablo Ruvalcaba. Additionally, Addie has also interned with the UofSC Department of Theatre & Dance marketing office, as well as working with the Marketing & Communications office of Campus Recreation. Addie is excited to bring her passions for dance and marketing together in her work with USIB.
Stella studied with Nicholai Morosov and Ludmila Morkovina, both graduates and professors of the Vagnova Institute and Maly Theater (Mikhaylovsky) in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Madame Morkovina also taught at Kirov Academy of Ballet and currently still teaches at the City Dance Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, MD. Mrs. Johnson also danced under the direction of Francoise Adret, Paris opera, French ballet dancer, teacher, choreographer, and company director of the National Ballet of Panama. She studied under Estrella Kadiaj, who had danced with Bejart. She studied with Henry Danton from the Royal Ballet as a guest Margot Fonteyn from Panama. Stella performed professionally with the National Ballet of Panama and Ballet Concierto. She performed in the following ballets: Swan Lake, La Bayadere, Les Sylphides, Paquita, Dying Swan, and many more.
In addition to Mrs. Johnson's extensive ballet background, she acquired a B.S in Economics and a Masters in Human Resources, which opened an opportunity for her to work for HR Information Systems with the Navy and Office of Personal Management for 30 years. Married with three children, Mrs. Johnson now resides in Wilmington and teaches at the Wilmington School of Ballet and Dance.
Permanent Guest Faculty
Oscar Sanchez was born in Havana, Cuba in 1991 and started dancing at the age of 15 at The National Ballet School "Ena." After graduation, Sanchez continued on to The National Ballet of Cuba where he danced many roles, including Hilarion from Giselle, principal Mazurka in Coppélia, Majisimo, and others. After arriving in the United States, he joined The Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami where he still continues to dance as a guest principal. There he performed in Le Corsaire, Diana and Actaeon, Don Quixote, Fairy Doll, Firebird, Les Sylphides, and Paquita. He was principal dancer with the Columbia City Ballet for the 2014-2015 season. In January 2015, he received the Award for “Best Dancer of Miami” at the Miami Life Awards. Sanchez is currently in his fifth season with The Washington Ballet, where his repertoire includes Black Swan pas de deux, Le Corsaire pas de deux, Cavalier in The Nutcracker, Mercutio and Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet, as well as featured roles in Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante, Serenade, Theme and Variations, Cunningham’s Duets, Ratmansky’s Bolero, Kylian’s Petite Mort, Taylor’s Company B, and Webre’s Carmina Burana. He dances in galas all over the world, most recently in Costa Rica, Mexico, New York City and Miami.
A native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Kara Wilkes began her professional career performing classical and contemporary work for five seasons with Milwaukee Ballet Company. In 2006, she became a soloist for Victor Ullate Ballet in Madrid, Spain. In 2007, she joined North Carolina Dance Theatre (now Charlotte Ballet), where she danced leading roles for four seasons. Wilkes was named one of “25 to Watch” by Dance Magazine in 2009, and joined Alonzo King Lines Ballet in 2011. During her five seasons with Lines, she was named one of “12 Standout Performances of 2015” by Pointe magazine. In 2016, Wilkes choreographed works for the Lines BFA program at Dominican University and for Midland Festival Ballet in Texas. She has taught all levels of dance, including master classes at East Carolina University, UC Santa Barbara, and in Dublin, Ireland. Kara will begin pursuing her MFA in Dance at Hollins University this summer.
Perry Smith is a multi-instrumentalist who accompanies movement for US International Ballet, UNC Wilmington, and Turning the Wheel Productions. He also teaches private lessons and workshops, and is the Wilmington Branch Director for Turning the Wheel Productions. Inc. Holding a BS in Mathematics from Appalachian State University and a BA in Music from UNC Wilmington, Perry is passionate about blending movement with music either with hand percussion, guitar, or keyboard, and he performs live regularly in the greater Wilmington area.