Later this month the eyes of global ballet professionals and fans will focus on Varna, Bulgaria for an international ballet competition equivalent to the Olympics of that art. But last week, they directed their gaze at Jackson, Mississippi, for a reunion gala of medal winners from the USA International Ballet Competition held every four years in the capital of the Magnolia State. The USA IBC returns to our state in 2014, something former USA IBC Chairman Billy Mounger of Jackson calls a bragging right for the city and state.

"They don't call it the American Competition; they call it the Jackson Competition," retired oil man Mounger said Saturday night at the reunion gala where he was honored with a gold medal for his work and financial commitment to event held in Jackson since 1979. U.S. Senator Thad Cochran introduced Mounger with U.S. Representative Gregg Harper also in attendance.

Political observers know Mounger as an early leader in Mississippi Republican politics and a finance chairman for Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, as well as Cochran and former Senator Trent Lott. Mounger led the Reagan faction during the 1976 Mississippi split at the Republican National Convention, helped expose alleged sexual escapades of Bill Allain in the 1983 gubernatorial race, raised $300,000 for the reelection of Gov. Kirk Fordice in 1995 and served on the Electoral College for George W. Bush in 2004. Most Mississippi Republican elected officials will answer the phone anytime he calls, but in addition to politics, Mounger has fervor for the arts.

He has served on the Advisory Committee on the Arts for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, was instrumental in the international exhibitions in Jackson of "The Palaces of St. Petersburg" and "The Splendors of Versailles," and has been a long time patron of the arts. But his zeal for ballet has its own chapter in his life, and his book.

Mounger notes in "Amidst the Fray: My Life in Politics, Culture, and Mississippi," that he raised over $6.25 million for the USA IBC. He writes, "I became involved with saving the IBC in Jackson for several reasons: being a Mississippian I was tired of everybody constantly denigrating Mississippi with comments like: 'The people are rednecks down there'; 'They don't know what they are doing'; 'You are racists.' The Jackson USA International Ballet Competition, being number one in the world, goes a long way towards refuting those stereotypes....[the competition] has contributed more than any other thing towards enhancing the image of our state around the nation and the world."

The story of the USA IBC begins in 1975 when Thalia Mara left New York and her National Academy of Ballet for Mississippi. She saw Mississippians' passion for competition in sports and developed a vision to bring an Olympic style international ballet competition to Jackson. The first event in June 1979, sanctioned by the United Nations' International Dance Committee, brought 70 dancers from 15 participating countries and secured the event in a rotation including Varna, Moscow and Tokyo. Mounger credits Cochran for the 1982 passage of a Congressional joint resolution designating Jackson the official site of the USA IBC.

The Jackson IBC Competition has become the top exhibition for identifying the world's leading talent in dance and a critical step in the development and exposure of elite international ballet professionals. But the competition goes beyond bragging rights and cultural exchange.

An independent study by the Department of Economic and Workforce Development at the University of Mississippi reported the 2010 competition generated a $10.2 million economic impact for Mississippi, a 35 percent increase from the 2006 event. That competition brought 100 competitors from 31 countries along with ticket buyers from 40 states and ten countries.

Today, the facility that hosts these performances and competitions is named for Thalia Mara and two of her ballet company members, David Keary and Kathy Thibodeaux, are artistic directors of the two professional ballet companies in Jackson: Ballet Mississippi and Ballet Magnificat! respectively. They continue her heritage of teaching, as does the USA IBC which provides professional development for ballet educators, classes for ballet students and artistic outreach to schools in the Jackson area.

The arts need funding and to carry on the tradition of Mounger, the new Chairman of the USA IBC is Haley Fisackerly, President of Entergy Mississippi. Under his leadership, Mississippi will continue to host international artists and accentuate our creative economy while enhancing our cultural reputation in the world.

Bruce Marks, artistic director of the Boston Ballet, called the Jackson Competition "the world's premier competition" and gave insights on what may have brought Thalia Mara from New York to Mississippi to create this cultural legacy, "New York is wonderful, but Jackson is America."

If you missed last week's gala reunion, you have two years to plan for the next competition.



Brian Perry is a partner in a public affairs firm. Reach him at reasonablyright@brianperry.ms or @CapstonePerry on Twitter.