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Flash First-person, 4-24: BBOC (Big Ballet on Campus)
A University Creates a New Evening-Length Ballet

By Stephan Laurent
Chair, Dance Department
Butler University

INDIANAPOLIS -- How often does the world of dance see the creation of a brand new evening-length ballet? The criteria to qualify in the category of "brand new" must include all of the following: original (meaning brand new) libretto, score, choreography, scenery, and costumes.

The obvious answer is -- not that often. The sheer cost of originating so much has hindered the above far too often, as our art is one that is usually begging in the street for scraps. As a result, the premiere of a wholly new evening-length ballet occurs very seldom even in the professional world. The scope of such an enterprise, in purely artistic terms, is staggering. Four acts of action in a libretto (and it must make dramatic sense). Four acts of music, or about two hours worth of original composition; four acts of brand new choreography; four acts of scenery; as many costumes as there are characters; a large cast of able and technically well-trained dancers. Yet, Butler University, the first academic institution in memory to do so, has come forth with the support needed to undertake such a task.

It is no surprise that Butler University should be the first institution to support the premiere of a completely new evening-length ballet. Butler was the first academic institution to open a dance program with a central focus in ballet -- our first graduates date back to 1951, over 52 years ago. Since then the Butler Ballet has premiered in Indianapolis and on tour numerous version of the great classics --- "Swan Lake," "Sleeping Beauty," "Cinderella," "Coppelia," "Giselle," and even an Homage to Diaghilev-era works, including "Petrouchka," "Afternoon of a Faun," and "Song of the Nightingale." The Butler Ballet's "Nutcracker" has been a local tradition for over 20 years. In 1991 it originated a nationally-recognized multi-media premiere of a one-act contemporary ballet entitled "The Planets: A Child's Fantasy," to music by Gustav Holst and electronic music by Isao Tomita, with full-stage screen videography that made national headlines.

To say that Butler is to dance what Oberlin is to music is probably no surprise to anyone; reputation speaks for itself. What may not be understood widely is that Butler embraced early on what few dared -- excellence in professional dance performance combined with the enrichment of liberal arts education. Moreover, Butler has always considered that good dance is good dance, regardless of style; we merely think that the best dancers have a solid classical background, but are also exposed to rigorous training in other techniques. Thus, in addition to daily ballet training supplemented by Pointe and Pas de Deux classes, Butler requires every major to also take classes in Modern, Jazz, Character Dance, and even Tap and Theatre Dance.

All of our students are not only among the best-trained dancers in the entire nation and abroad, with a stellar background in ballet technique; they also are intellectually gifted and able to understand the context of technique vs. dance, and technical achievement vs. expressive needs. About a third of our dance majors are invited to be a part of the Honors Program at the university.

This makes the world premiere of "The Willow Maiden" all that much more exciting, for these incredibly multi-faceted students are able to bring to the fore not only technical execution, but understanding of context. This is a hard ballet in that respect, for it calls for not only mastery of the entire ballet vocabulary, but also of contemporary techniques, including contraction/release (Graham-based), Fall/Recovery (Limon-based), and post-modern innovations such as everyday movement translated into dance, fight sequences (every bit as hard to stage as Jackie Chan movies), and everyday or symbolic gestures substituting for traditional mime.

"The Willow Maiden," in my view, clearly sets a standard for what dance should strive towards at the dawn of the 21st-century: to encompass meaning and movement in one single breath (Fokine's dream 100 years ago); to remain artistically and socially relevant (every director's dream nowadays); and to give opportunity for all the hungry and capable dancers coming to the fore to exhibit their considerable talent and passion for this art that continues to prove its liveliness even in troubled times.

"The Willow Maiden, choreographed by Stephan Laurent, Cynthia Pratt, and Norman Walker, on an original score by Frank Felice with an original libretto by Ellen Denham, premieres Friday night in Indianapolis. For more information, please click here.

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