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American Ballet Theatre

Works in Progress: 'A Look Again: ABT's Corps de Ballet'

by Kate Snedeker

April 6, 7, 2003 -- Peter B. Lewis Theater, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY

The corps de ballet is the heart and soul of any ballet company, and American Ballet Theatre is no exception. Though widely known for its roster of virtuosic principal dancers, ABT depends heavily on the oft-overlooked talents of its 47 corps members. These "unsung heroes" of the ABT company were highlighted in the most recent presentation in the Guggenheim Museum's Works in Progress Series, "A Look Again: ABT's Corps de Ballet."

The program, moderated by ABT’s Director of Education, John Meehan, focused on excerpts from two ballets in which the corps plays a central role," La Bayadere" and "Symphony in C." Following a brief excerpt from Act Two of "La Bayadere," Meehan introduced Susan Jones, a former ABT corps dancer and current ABT ballet mistress, who is the primary person in charge rehearsing the female corps de ballet. She received her formal training at Mary Day’s Washington School of Ballet, and danced with Joffrey II prior to joining ABT.

Jones began by conducting a mini-rehearsal on stage, making corrections as each dancer performed a series of steps from the "La Bayadere" and then explaining some of her corrections to the audience. The rare chance to see the difference in the dancers’ performance before and after corrections, made the often subtle distinctions between right and wrong, and/or good and better much more comprehensible.

Before the program moved on to "Symphony in C," two senior corps dancers, Marian Butler and Elizabeth Gaither discussed their experiences as members of the ABT corps, with Meehan moderating. Members of ABT for seven and eight years respectively, they have danced in the corps of numerous ballets, as well taking on a variety of solo roles. Both mentioned "Giselle" as one of their favorite ballets to dance because, especially in the second act, the corps is so involved in the story and the dancing of the principals. In fact, Gaither said she often prefers to be in the" Giselle" corps, because as a soloist she is not onstage the whole time, and not such an integral part of the story.

They talked about how difficult "Swan Lake" was for the corps, not only because of the strenuous dancing, but also because of the frequent, lengthy periods in which the corps must be remain still in various poses. The longer a dancer must stay immobile in one position, the more muscles tighten up and fatigue. The other ballet which was mentioned as difficult, was of course, "La Bayadere," with its “parade” of Shades arabasque-ing down the ramp in the second act. When asked about interaction and cohesion within the corps, the dancers said that more experienced dancers do help younger dancers learn steps, though some dancers are more helpful than others, and as in life, not everyone gets along. Jones, Gaither and Butler all agreed that the current corps, in particular, is very cohesive.

To provide a taste of" Symphony in C," Jones rehearsed parts of the first movement, first with the corps and then with the two demi-soloists. In rehearsing this ballet, she talked about the challenges of working with a corps that is drawn from a large number of different ballet schools and must dance a widely varied repertory. It’s very different, for instance, from the New York City Ballet where all but a few dancers are drawn from the company’s school, the School of American Ballet, where they are taught primarily by former NYCB dancers. As a part of her job, Jones must bring a sense of cohesion to the diverse ABT corps, so that they can dance as one, no matter whether the choreography is Balanchine or MacMillan or Ashton or Morris. It’s not an easy task in any situation, let alone in the midst of a busy rehearsal, performance and tour schedule. In this particular rehearsal, Jones’ comments were focused on the arm positions -- the slightly difference carriage of the arms and more angularly bent wrists that are characteristic of Balanchine’s choreography.

The program concluded with a full (though condensed, to accommodate the tiny stage) performance of the first movement of "Symphony in C."

David Hallberg, in the principal male role was impressive, a true classical dancer who managed to dance “big” despite the constraints of the stage. Irina Dvorovenko was equally solid in the lead female role, and recovered gracefully from a scary slip on Monday night. In the spirit of the evening, the real stars were the corps members, who adapted very well to the small stage, dancing with power and feeling. Stella Abrera and Adrienne Schulte danced the demi-soloist roles, partnered by Carlos Lopez and Ricardo Torres. The corps dancers were Kristi Boone, Maria Bystrova, Sasha Dmochowsky, Ashley Ellis, Karin Ellis-Wentz, Marta Rodriguez-Coca, Melissa Thomas, and from "La Bayadere," Angela Snow, Carrie Peterson, with soloists Anna Liceica and Maria Riccetto.

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt.

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