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First-person, 4-24: BBOC (Big Ballet on Campus)
A University Creates a New Evening-Length Ballet
By Stephan Laurent
Chair, Dance Department
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
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