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Inspired by Immigration

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A family history sets the stage for a school’s story ballet

By Robin Stuyverson

In my early days of teaching dance, in the mid-1980s, I taught in an after-school dance program. One year I decided to write a mini story ballet based on my teen years. I am interested in looking back to gain a sense of destiny, purpose, and hope for the future. I am on a quest to understand my own life in a deeper way. I believe we all have stories just waiting to be told.

Months of research in museum archives preceded the birth of The Journey. (Photo by Front Porch Farm Photography)

For that first story ballet, I chose music that supported the story and drove it into deeper places. I called the process “visual narrative artistic research” and found that it gave me, as the creator/writer, director, and choreographer, a deeper understanding of the story.

A year later I left the after-school program and started teaching at a local dance studio, so my story-ballet idea fell by the wayside for many years. Then in 1998, I founded Wildwood Ballet at Wildwood Presbyterian Church, PCA, in Tallahassee, Florida. Bored with the traditional recital format, I revived the idea of a story ballet and wrote another story based on my life. I gave each class its own dance but together, they all told the story.

Since then I have produced three story ballets, each one building on the preceding one. I based the second one, Hide and Seek, on the relationships among my mother, my grandmother, and myself. When I finished it, I found that I wanted to understand my mother’s story, which meant that I needed to go back further and learn my grandmother’s story. When my grandmother was 12 years old, she was greatly affected by her mother’s untimely death. I discovered that my great-grandmother was a Swedish immigrant during the 1890s, a period when more single women came to America than at any other time in European immigration history.

The Journey is based on research, my family story, and a bit of imagination. I spent several months doing research on Swedish immigration, including traveling to Chicago to visit the Swedish American Museum and North Park University archives. Also, I participated in a graduate course in Dance History and Research at Florida State University in which I had to develop a plan for producing an original story ballet. I studied fairy tales, mother–daughter relationships in psychology and in fairy tales, and Swedish immigration in the late 1800s. And I learned how to write a short narrative, translate it into a ballet, and develop a plan for promotion.

The process
Years ago I read a quote by Harriet Beecher Stowe responding to a question about her writing process. She said that the story had “to come to her.” I have found that the process of producing these story ballets is just that. I have to be actively patient and watch and listen. When it is time, the story comes. Telling it through choreography—putting the emotion-generated images that are inside of me into movement—is therapeutic for me.

Music is a big part of my creative process. As I find one song and then another, before my eyes a story begins to unfold. I usually have a basic “skeleton” of a story, but the musicians lead me to the “meat.” Sometimes I am not sure which comes first, the story or the music.

In the case of The Journey, I had purchased an instrumental album, December Morning by Tim Janis, that I heard playing in a store. As I listened to it, the story unfolded—the hard times in Sweden, the excitement of hearing about America and the promise of good jobs there, the anguish of the mothers and daughters saying goodbye to one another, the homesickness and seasickness, the storms they encountered—and since my imagination had to play a bit, a Sea Goddess and her envoy intent on capturing a vulnerable maiden for their kingdom. As I listened, I jotted down the titles for each scene of the story. It truly was an experience of the story “coming to me.”

Last year we presented Act 1, the voyage from Gothenberg, Sweden, to Hull, England. Presenting it as a work-in-progress gave me the comfort of knowing that I would have another year to work on the choreography and music for this year’s production, which added Act 2, the voyage from England to America. Under my direction, my teachers choreographed their class dances to the music I had chosen.

I learned that there was a lot of dancing during the voyage to America, a discovery that created new possibilities for dance and different styles of music since the Swedish passengers were on a ship with immigrants from Ireland. So, along with such traditional Swedish dances as polka, waltz, and schottische, I could use Irish hard and soft shoe dances for my tap and jazz dancers. I arranged for my tap/jazz teacher to take some Irish dance lessons, and she incorporated what she learned into her own tap and jazz choreography.

Immigrants were often victims of robbery when they arrived in New York, which gave me the idea to include an element of evil—always good for a story, and in keeping with the fairy-tale aspect of 19th-century story ballets. The Cinderella story is a favorite of mine, so I added a fairy godmother and her fairies to be the rescue element of the story. I also extracted the mother–daughter theme from Cinderella to illustrate the impact I believe a mother has on a daughter’s life.

I wrote a detailed scene-by-scene description of the story, which helped me choose which classes would dance each part of the story and, once in rehearsals, helped everyone stay focused on what was happening in the choreography. During the initial rehearsals with each class I read the scene to the dancers and gave them a summary of the story so they would have a frame of reference for the importance of their part. The younger dancers were thrilled to play the Irish children, fairy angels, and spiders in the story.

I asked the seven lead dancers, who played the Swedish women, to contribute their thoughts about the story’s development as we rehearsed. They were a great help in filling in important details since they danced throughout the whole production. I asked my teachers to play the mothers and key roles that needed strong dancers. The teachers loved getting a chance to perform and the students were excited about having our whole studio involved.

Because the ballet grew to 23 dance pieces, I needed help with the choreography. I created 12 pieces and co-choreographed 6 others with my teachers or guest choreographers; the teachers choreographed the remaining 5 pieces. One of my guest choreographers was Rebecca Lee from Greenville Ballet, whom I also commissioned to dance the lead roles of the Sea Goddess and Black Widow Spider.

I am interested in looking back to gain a sense of destiny, purpose, and hope for the future. I am on a quest to understand my own life in a deeper way. I believe we all have stories just waiting to be told.

Breaking down the story scene by scene also helped me to determine our needs for sets, props, and lighting. I purchased costumes that suggested the idea of young women from rural Sweden and women and children from Ireland. (I plan to design period-specific costumes and have them custom-made someday.) In the early part of the second semester I collaborated with my technical director, who made suggestions regarding props and minor adjustments to the sets, and designed the lighting.

In working on story ballets, I have found that the more help I have, the better. Wearing many hats has helped me determine what our changing needs are, but since the ballets are more theatrical than a traditional recital, they require a lot of people to pull them off. Along with a cast of more than 100, I had a production staff of more than 30 people, both paid and volunteer.

One of the challenges of producing a story ballet as a school production compared to one for a dance company is the need to give the dancers in each class enough dancing time. This requires a lot of creativity on my part as the creator/writer. As I write the story, I cast each class in the piece I think will work best in terms of number of students and type of dance and sometimes adjusted the story to accommodate everyone.

The benefits of something big
Many times during the long hours of rehearsals and planning, I would ask myself why I was doing this. (We usually produce a story ballet for a year or two and then switch back to traditional recitals for a few years.) But with all that work comes numerous benefits. One of the primary ones was the dancers’ excitement. Since we were working on something bigger than individual class dances, it created a great “dance family” atmosphere. Spending so much time together in rehearsals gave everyone a great opportunity to get to know one another better. With each class playing a significant part of the story, everyone was supportive. We found that there is joy in community.

It was also a great opportunity for the students to learn what it takes to put on a full-scale dance production. Although sets and props are often used for traditional recitals, with a story ballet there is an added challenge of maintaining the flow of the story over two acts. (With a 10-minute intermission, it ran about an hour and a half.) It requires quick set changes and a sharp stage crew.

Because the story-ballet aspect gave the production broader appeal than a traditional recital, we advertised in the community with posters, newspaper articles, a television interview, and radio press releases. More than 800 people attended the one performance. I believe it gave the school more exposure and hopefully generated interest for other dancers to join us in the future. More students are registered to take more classes next year than ever before, and there’s a great sense of enthusiasm about what’s ahead.

I have also seen excitement in my older dancers who want to be creative with choreography. I’ve heard them dreaming about the possibilities of exploring their own ideas for choreography next year, since we will be taking a year off from producing a story ballet.

My greatest joy as a teacher is knowing that I have not just filled my dancers with knowledge about dance but that I have helped light a fire inside of them, encouraging them to be whoever they were created to be. Who knows what stories and creative endeavors might come from them one day?

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