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Ballet Scene | From Boring to ‘Bravo!’

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How to make the most of ballet dancing in your recital

By Jennifer Rienert

It’s recital-planning time, and if you offer ballet at your school, you’re probably wondering how to avoid hearing audiences grumble when your ballet students take the stage. Jazz, lyrical, and tap routines are audience pleasers because they tend to be upbeat and showy. But all too often recital ballet numbers are slow and repetitive or danced by students who aren’t up to the challenge—and that kind of presentation gives ballet a bad rap. Audiences who are subjected to unimaginative choreography and shaky pointe work think the b in “ballet” stands for “boring” or even worse, “bad.” Well, it’s time to change that!

(Photo courtesy Jennifer Rienert)

So how do you incorporate ballet into a performance without leaving your audience snoring? Here at New Hampshire School of Ballet the ratio of ballet classes to all other disciplines is about two to one. So over the past 40 years we’ve learned how to produce fun, entertaining shows that are about 50 percent ballet.

The key to an engaging production is simple: Tell a story. The worst mistake you can make is to present a string of random dances and songs that does not engage audiences in any way; consequently they quickly become bored or distracted. By utilizing a familiar story line to make a cohesive production, the audience is enjoying a new interpretation of something they already know, so it doesn’t matter which dance disciplines are in it. Or you can come up with a new story that will prove just as engaging. Either way, a story allows you to mix dances of various genres in a way that makes sense in the context of the action onstage.

Stories for all ages
This year we based one of our performances on a children’s favorite, the fairy tale “Cinderella.” It began like the Disney movie with Cinderella cleaning diligently and dancing a pointe solo to “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” followed by a funny, contemporary ballet duo danced by the stepsisters to “Stepsisters’ Lament,” from the Broadway version. We then continued the story by using songs from the Disney and Broadway soundtracks to keep the audience involved, but we expanded it by including other songs and dance styles.

Audiences who are subjected to unimaginative choreography and shaky pointe work think the b in “ballet” stands for “boring” or even worse, “bad.” Well, it’s time to change that!

When there’s not enough music in a soundtrack to accompany all the dances you’d like to include, select some classical pieces that work with your theme. To give you an idea of how to do that, here’s a sampling of numbers from our show:

  • “The Fairy Godmother” was a pointe solo set to the song “Bibbidy Bobbidy Boo” from the Disney movie.
  • “Mice Friends,” set to “The Work Song” from the Disney movie, was danced by a ballet class of 5-year-olds. Then to add a twist of humor, we added “Tappin’ Mice Friends” to the song “Hamster Dance.”
  • A class of 6-year-olds performed a ballet dance as “Barnyard Chickens” to “Gavotte,” an upbeat instrumental piece from the original production.
  • Cinderella’s bird friends performed in blue tutus to “Sing Sweet Nightingale” from the Disney movie.
  • A ballet class played the Courtiers who delivered the ball invitations, dancing to “The Prince Is Giving a Ball” from the original telecast and Broadway version.
  • To mix it up for the audience but still stay within the story line, we had Tappin’ Pumpkins dance to the song “Impossible; It’s Possible” (also in the original 1957 telecast and the Broadway version), but we used classical music from Coppélia for the Royal Horses that pulled the carriage.

This format works well for young children and still offers advanced students a chance to dance ballet and pointe lead roles. Think about stories that include (or allow you to add) the kinds of roles you need for your students. The story “Cinderella,” for example, lets advanced students shine in the soloist roles of Cinderella and the Fairy Godmother. The roles of the Stepsisters create an opportunity for a fun duo, and if needed you could add another solo for the Stepmother. Getting creative in how you tell the story and having fun with diverse music choices are great ways to incorporate ballet into a show that includes other dance genres.

Choices for older students
If you’d like to mix lyrical and jazz with ballet in a production that your older students would enjoy, choose more mature musicals like Phantom of the Opera, Carousel, or Les Misèrables. Ballet can play a huge part in these shows and will be audience-friendly as long as you tell an engaging story. And often audiences enjoy this change from the children’s themes to more mature ones. If you limit the production to a reasonable time frame and cast only the most advanced dancers, it will eventually become a part of the recital that students will strive to be in and look forward to for years. We present this more professional part of the recital as a privilege for the advanced students, and when they reach the level of ballet training that allows them to perform in it, they are thrilled (as are their parents).

Mini classics
Studios that have a strong ballet program have another option for integrating their ballet classes into a recital: an abbreviated version of an original ballet. Over the years we have chosen such classical favorites as The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake and shorter works like George Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes and David Lichine’s Graduation Ball. This kind of showcase rewards your most serious and talented dancers by allowing them to perform in a mature and professional atmosphere.

This year we produced a mini Coppélia, in which only the five most advanced ballet classes were allowed to participate. We used the original story and music as a framework, linking the highlights together in an abbreviated version to keep it short (around 30 to 40 minutes) and maintain the audiences’ attention.

With this type of production, you can opt to place the mini ballet after intermission, allowing the younger dancers to enact children’s stories in the first half of the show. That allows viewers and students to leave after intermission if they are not interested in watching the advanced dancers perform. But don’t be surprised if many parents of younger children remain in the audience for this portion of the show. Many of them want to see what the advanced students are doing, and they often encourage their children to continue their studies so that they can someday be a part of this important performance.

 Of course, most ballets have roles for men, and not all schools are fortunate enough to have male dancers to fill these roles. One option is to check with other dance schools for a “loaner” male dancer or two. Another is to look among your clientele for a student’s brother or father who might be up to the task. Or try checking with local theater groups; even if you can’t find dancers for those roles, an actor (ideally someone who can move well) can help keep your story cohesive.

This kind of exclusive ballet production can offer deserving bunheads a chance to dance the classical roles they’ve always dreamed of. They feel like they are a part of something very important, and it’s a great experience for those who aspire to a career in ballet.

Original productions
It’s easy to incorporate ballet into a recital when you put together your own contemporary production. Find some interesting music and build a story of your own that you can tell in a way that utilizes ballet and pointe classes along with other dance forms.

For example, one year we did a show called “American Swing.” The story line was based on sporting events, so we dressed the ballet students in the appropriate sportswear and choreographed dances for them that included basketball and tennis racquets as props. The advanced pointe students were the cheerleaders, and they did some fabulous contemporary ballet with pom-poms. Of course there was a lead role that involved flirting with a basketball player (a student’s brother, who got to show off some dribbling action and do a little partnering with the soloist). I used 1940s Big Band music and some old-school jazz.

Another original production was based on a fun idea that had the audiences laughing and enjoying ballet at the same time. Called “Mistake Waltz,” it featured clever and funny groupings of ballet classes, all making choreographed mistakes. Along with the group dances, a lead dancer did a pas de deux with a male non-dancer. We played off the fact that he wasn’t a dancer with choreography that had him crashing into her, missing the big lifts, and with knees ending up in all the wrong places. Humor is a great way to incorporate ballet into your shows, and audiences are usually very appreciative.

The beauty of ballet
Remember those important rules for any recital: Keep the dances at a reasonable length (2 1/2 to 3 minutes) and move the show along by connecting the dances musically or by having one group enter as another exits. Backdrops, props, and proper lighting help tell the story effectively and enhance the professionalism of your show. But because ballet takes many years to master, there’s another rule to consider: Don’t over-choreograph the dances. Keep them clean and beautiful and let your students’ artistry, not tricks, be the star.

Ballet can be a wonderfully emotional, humorous, beautiful, and expressive way to tell a story, so don’t be afraid to fill your performances with it. Stay creative in storytelling, music choices, and costuming, and your audiences will be right where you want them—in their seats!

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April 2014
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