NEW YORK — Growing up in Versailles, Mo., Nancy Walton Laurie traveled an hour and 15 minutes to dance class each week. Laurie, the daughter of Wal-Mart co-founder “Bud” Walton, had no choice: She was desperate to take lessons, and there was only one teacher within 100 miles of her home. But after a while, the young Walton stopped making the trip.

“It was a short-lived future for me as a dancer,” Laurie humbly admits of her talent.

Ever since then, though, the petite Midwestern heiress has had a passion for dance, and in 2002, she founded Cedar Lake, a contemporary ballet group based here. “I wanted contemporary ballet, because I truly think the most beautiful thing is seeing a woman on pointe in a contemporary environment where you can see how she can move,” Laurie says, sitting in the rented studio in the Theater District where the company is rehearsing.

A friendly and straightforward woman, Laurie wants to keep Cedar Lake at a reasonable size — 21 to 22 dancers — and introduce new contemporary choreography, not classic, to her audience. “It’s like anything,” she explains. “If it’s always the same, after a while people just won’t see it. They want change.”

Perhaps one reason Laurie is not inclined to revisit ballet’s masters is that, although she is an enthusiastic lover of the art, she’s not necessarily an expert. “I do not know ballet terms, very frankly,” she admits. “I know what I like. Swan says I know more than I do,” she adds, referring to Benoit-Swan Pouffer, Cedar Lake’s artistic director.

Indeed, what seems to drive this company is her heart. As dancers pass through the hallway, Laurie calls them by name and is quick to compliment them on their performances. She feels a maternal pride for the work they’ve achieved and takes care of them by way of 52-week contracts and health benefits — two luxuries largely unheard of among fledgling dance troupes. “I wanted them committed,” she says. “I didn’t want them to have to have five other jobs or worry about how they’re going to pay their rent.”

This story first appeared in the August 22, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Laurie chose to set up Cedar Lake in New York instead of Columbia, where she lives with her husband, Bill, because of the talent pool. “I knew I would never get any of the quality dancers that we wanted for this company to move to Columbia, Mo.,” says Laurie, who seven years ago founded the Columbia Performing Arts Center in her hometown. “It’s a great place to live, but once a New Yorker, I think you’re always a New Yorker.”

Laurie herself clearly doesn’t fall into that category, even though her Rochas pumps, Verdura Maltese cuffs, and ranking as number 243 on Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s richest people would fit in quite nicely on Park Avenue. “I don’t want to live here. I love to come visit and want to spend a lot of time here.”

Already she travels to the city once every six weeks for a few weeks at a time, staying at the St. Regis. “But when the season starts in October, I’m not going to miss a performance,” she adds.

Later next month, Cedar Lake will move into 547 West 26th Street, its first permanent location in the city. Laurie bought the 16,000-square-foot building from photographer Annie Leibovitz for approximately $11 million, according to published reports.

At first, she entertained the idea of buying a 40,000-square-foot-building and dividing it into seven studios, but “the more I thought about it,” she says, “I could not tear those buildings down, because I think it was 1914 when they were built. There are just very few carriage houses left like that.”

Hearing her say that could be a relief to those who fear that, given her family background, Laurie is interested in paving paradise to put up a dance studio. But she’s quick to separate herself from the family business. “Not at all,” she replies when asked how involved she is in Wal-Mart (she and her sister, Ann Walton Kroenke, are shareholders). But she defends it nonetheless. “My uncle and my father have done this country great in terms of what their vision was. Their vision was way ahead of its time,” she says of her dad and uncle, Sam, who founded the retail giant together. “I don’t know if everyone agrees with that, but I am proud that my name is Walton.”

And Cedar Lake is run under some rather empowering auspices. Whereas many famed choreographers — Jerome Robbins and Paul Taylor, for example — have a reputation for breaking dancers down in order to build them back up, the rehearsal studio here is filled with gentle voices and laughter. Egos are not easily tolerated. “I know there have been a couple dandies who have come through here,” Laurie says of a few unnamed choreographers, “and to be quite frank, I would never use them again for as long as I live. Demanding this, demanding that. In today’s world, to be mean and hostile toward some people, you’re going to get nothing out of them. We’re here to give them great dancers, and try to make their life easy. But I just can’t have someone come in here who’s difficult to work with and makes everybody miserable. Life’s too short.”

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