Dance students take stage for first gala of season

Battaglia and Diamond celebrate 25 years with the program

Brian Smith | Staff PhotographerJosiah Savage, Aaron Anker and Alexandra Waterbury rehearse an excerpt from Mark Diamond’s new piece, “Water Music.”

Brian Smith | Staff Photographer

Josiah Savage, Aaron Anker and Alexandra Waterbury rehearse an excerpt from Mark Diamond’s new piece, “Water Music.”

natalie mayan

In the dancer’s lounge at the Carnahan-Jackson Dance Studio, photographs of legendary dancers and faculty members of Chautauqua Dance’s past and present line the walls. Maris Battaglia couldn’t help gravitating toward these pictures in a room filled with not only some of her idols, but also some of her greatest friends.

Battaglia is a resident faculty member of Chautauqua Institution’s School of Dance. She and Mark Diamond, Chautauqua Dance’s associate artistic director, celebrate their 25th season with Chautauqua Dance this summer.

Diamond will present a new piece, titled “Excerpts from Water Music,” in the School of Dance’s Student Gala at 2:30 p.m. Sunday in the Amphitheater.

The challenge of this piece, Diamond said, came with choosing the music before he had even met the students. He also had to consider members of the Music School Festival Orchestra, who have a limited amount of time to rehearse. The MSFO will be joining the piece when it is performed a second time on July 22.

For these reasons, Diamond searched through his own library of music until he found a piece with many short movements. He ended up choosing classical Baroque music by Georg Friederich Händel. Diamond noted that it was “the farthest thing” from what he would usually choose.

His neo-classical ballet has a lot of independent parts connected by a homogenous style. Full of call-and-response movements and cannons, one section of the piece features long, billowing cloths, said one dancer.

Although the show on Sunday will be performed to recorded music, this gala is great preparation for the show on July 22, which will feature the MSFO.

This first show allows students to relieve some pressure and feel comfortable in the Amp before dancing with a live orchestra, Diamond said.

And there is definitely pressure. Twenty female dancers had five days to learn “Variations from Swan Lake,” choreographed by Battaglia.

The dancers participating in the School of Dance’s Workshop II are on the grounds for a five-week program. Battaglia applauded the group on their abilities and, more importantly, their positive attitudes. She is honored each year to work with such talented young people who soak up knowledge “like sponges.”

“Western Symphony,” originally choreographed in 1954 by George Balanchine, is being restaged for this show by répétiteur Patricia McBride, associate artistic director of North Carolina Dance Theatre and Chautauqua Dance master teacher. McBride will restage just the first movement of the show.

Although Balanchine passed away in 1983, his ballets are still very much alive in the world, McBride said.

Balanchine was very interested in American culture and what differentiated it from the rest of the world, dancer Lucas Bilbro said. The ballet features cowboys and saloon girls and requires an extreme amount of energy from each dancer.

Eight women and four men make up the corps de ballet. Bilbro and Chelsea Dumas, the piece’s lead couple, will perform a pas de deux; both danced in Tuesday’s performance in the Amp with NCDT and the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra.

Bilbro is familiar with Balanchine’s works, having danced the lead in Balanchine’s “Serenade” during last year’s Student Gala. As a lead dancer in this show and as an understudy for many lead parts in NCDT pieces, Bilbro’s mind is filled to the brim with choreography.

Vernon, a School of Dance faculty member, said that “the ballet sort of mirrors the symphonic nature of the music,” including its classical form.

The ballet has a cast of 18 dancers, divided into six groups of three. The cast includes a mix of festival dancers and apprentices.

Vernon said the abstract ballet provides an exercise and challenge for the dancers to be expressive without having any specific emotion or reason to be expressive.

“You can see the complexity of the music in the movement,” Vernon said.

“Händel Suite” was choreographed by David Morse this past year for the North Carolina Dance Theatre Repertory Ensemble. On Sunday, 12 female festival dancers from the Chautauqua School of Dance will perform the piece en pointe, with one male dancer joining for the third movement.

The music includes selections from Händel’s Concerto Grossi, Op. 6, including excerpts from Nos. 1, 3 and 4. The five movements make up an abstract ballet that is as close a representation of the music as possible.

Morse explained that the audience will see many pattern changes in this piece, as it is a dance exploring the “geometries of staging and formation.”

Morse, who is a choreographer as well as a dancer and pianist, came to Chautauqua as a student for many years. He admits that he was often frustrated with some of his peers, who acted as if there was nothing on the grounds besides the dance program.

It was and continues to be enriching for Morse to be here surrounded by so much music. Morse said the Institution has always been the perfect place to “stoke your creative fires.”

In the professional world, dancers perform certain pieces many times, he said. The School of Dance program provides an amazing opportunity for students to experience a parallel to professional life, performing many of these ballets in future shows throughout the rest of the season. Although the students will begin to feel more comfortable with the choreography and will gain confidence, it is essential for them to continue fighting complacency, he said.

Apprentice dancer Ben Kay, returning for his third summer at Chautauqua Dance, will be the sole male dancer in Morse’s piece, dancing the pas de deux with festival dancer Christina Clark. He echoed Morse’s praise of the program.

“At most summer intensives, you really don’t get the opportunity to perform this often,” Kay said.

McBride noted that taking dance classes to improve technique will always remain the most important part of the program, followed by having the chance to perform.

Looking back on her 25 years at Chautauqua Dance, Battaglia remembers being awestruck her first summer. Every season, she is more and more impressed by the talent of both the students and the faculty.

“It’s just a wonderful experience, and I’m honored to be a part of it,” she said.