By Peter Jacobi
On the Thursday afternoon before spring break, the Indiana University campus had already lost many of its inhabitants. It was already a quiet place. But not on the third floor of the Musical Arts Center, where the Jacobs School’s Ballet Department does its academic and artistic business and where IU Ballet Theater prepares its shows.
Preparation for a show was definitely in progress, that show being the Spring Ballet which lights up the Musical Arts Center this coming weekend. “Spring break comes along at the worst time for us,“ Michael Vernon, the artistic director and department chair, told me. “This is when we take care of all the refinements, when the dancers have reached a level of assurance with their roles, when we’re frantically putting everything together. And we must stop for spring break. The calendar gets in our way.”
So, everyone involved — Michael Vernon, the dancers, the teachers, the trainers, the invited specialists — remained in place, in those studios and rehearsal spaces on the third floor of the MAC, to make fullest possible use of that pre-break Thursday afternoon and all of Friday, too. One sensed no urgency from anyone to leave; rather, the urgency focused on getting things done, on improvement.
They sat me down in an unfolded folding chair, right in the midst of a row of the knowing: Michael Vernon, a veteran of England’s Royal Opera Ballet and choreographer for the Eglevsky Ballet; ballet mistress Shawn Stevens, former New York City Ballet principal during the Balanchine years and, now, a prominent re-stager of Balanchine ballets; distinguished professor Violette Verdy, one of Balanchine’s favorite ballerinas and rated among the greatest dancers of the 20th century, also former artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet; Patricia Blair, a highly regarded ex-dancer from the Eglevsky Ballet and, today, a prominent teacher visiting here as repetiteur.
They watched as two casts rehearsed parts of “Swan Lake’s” second act, as choreographed by Gorge Balanchine. They watched and they consulted and they made commands and asked for repeats. Meanwhile, the silent Peter Jacobi also watched, overwhelmed by the high quality of the dancing and very interested in what the line of coaches was requesting.
This was no half-hearted rehearsal. No one was holding back. The twirls and leaps, the lifts, the runs and sweeps across the dance floor featured total involvement, not an amp of energy held back. The dancers applauded one another; there was recognition of accomplishments. They thanked those who were sharing advice, smiling not only when one coach or the other expressed approval but when corrections were called for.
The atmosphere was uplifting. Everyone seemed to care. Gratitude was in the air.
As the afternoon progressed, attention turned to a second item on the program, another Balanchine piece: “Rubies,” part of the legendary choreographer’s ballet, “Jewels.” “Emeralds,” another part of “Jewels,” all of which is set to music of Stravinsky, was featured earlier in the season, during the Fall Ballet.
“I love Balanchine,” Michael Vernon insisted, “and it’s wonderful we have the approval of the Balanchine Trust to use his ballets. There’s so much to learn from his choreography. For our dance majors, exposure to his masterpieces is incredibly important and helpful. Of course, everything we do, in addition to entertaining our audiences, must add to the young dancer’s experience and craft. That’s why, when we do three different ballets in an evening versus a full length ballet, we need to bring a variety of styles into our repertoire. In the fall, we did Balanchine, Antony Tudor and David Parsons, dances of theirs with great differences. This spring, to Balanchine’s ‘Swan Lake’ and ‘Rubies,’ in themselves dramatically different one from the other, we are adding Merce Cunningham’s ‘Duets,’ dances for six couples, very contemporary. The music is from John Cage. It’s an exciting piece and a challenge.”
“Rubies” was next on the rehearsal schedule, and the process of sharpening again was in evidence, with attention given to the changes in rhythm, style, stage aura, movements and music. I commented to Violette Verdy that the students were so commendably fixated on their dancing.
“They must be,” she answered. “There’s never enough time because dancers, serious dancers, never let their attention weaken. For the men, and really for all the dancers, life is lived in what we might describe as a cross between a seminary and West Point. That’s what we do. Dancing for the professional comes close to religion, and never mind the fatigue. The dancers are musical athletes, disciplined not only physically but mentally.”
“And they’re constantly faced with benevolent criticism,” Michael Vernon observed. “In an art form where even the foot position reveals the personality and capability of the performing artist, well, those of us on the sideline must very carefully watch and instruct and correct. In a company such as ours, being as professional as we can possibly be in a university setting, we discourage exhibitionism and show boating and stress serious participation. That’s the atmosphere in which young dancers can learn and prosper. We are proud of what they accomplish while here and, of course, for what they will do successfully after the school days are over.”
All this week, with spring break over and a performance weekend looming, activity in the MAC, in the studios and on stage, will mount so that, by curtain time on Friday evening, everything will be as ready as ready can be. Having watched the preparation on just part of one afternoon, I feel safe in predicting that all participants, including an orchestra under conductor Stuart Chafetz, will very much be at the ready.
©Herald Times 2015