Dance gala to show off student talent

Matt Burkhartt | Staff Photographer
Student dancers performing in a production of “Lewis and Clark Expedition” at 2:30 p.m. Sunday pose in costume at Carnahan-Jackson Dance Studios.

Chautauqua Dance’s student gala is like a buffet. It serves up a little taste of everything: a sweet smackerel of classical ballet, a fresh morsel of new choreography and a savory glimpse of student performers ranging all across the skill spectrum of dance.

This first of two student galas — the second slated for Aug. 9 — will be held at 2:30 p.m. Sunday in the Amphitheater. It will feature a smorgasbord of performances intended to give the audience a flavor of Chautauqua’s different students, choreographers and dance styles alike.

Go West! (Excerpts)

The afternoon’s recital kicks off with excerpts from Mark Diamond’s choreography for Go West! The complete Go West! production is July 26 and is meant to examine the unbridled American spirit and nation’s historic hunger for adventure.

This weekend, Diamond presents the first dance section from the production, a piece called “Lewis and Clark Expedition” that will be danced to Christian Woehr’s composition “Missouri Nights.”

“This piece is an abstract depiction of Lewis and Clark’s expedition across America,” Diamond said.

The piece channels a sense of expanding America’s horizons, a blending of the core essence of pioneers and patriots. It utilizes the talents of nine student dancers — eight male and one female en pointe — who will dance the portrayal of Sacagawea.

“Boys Will Be Boys” and

The youngest group to be represented at this weekend’s student gala is the Workshop II dancers, ranging in age from 11 to 14.

Sunday’s performance is the only student gala that workshop dancers have the opportunity to dance in, as the second gala is exclusive to apprentice and festival dancers.

Workshop students will dance two pieces choreographed and directed by Maris Battaglia, associate artistic director of Chautauqua’s School of Dance. “Boys Will Be Boys” is the afternoon’s second dance and features the workshop’s six male dancers. “Invictus” is the second workshop dance and, with 19 dancers, consists of a much larger group.

The workshop students’ recital is an impressive feat, at least according to Glenda Lucena, the dance school’s ballet mistress. At the time of their performance on Sunday, Workshop II students will have only been at Chautauqua for one week. This means that they had extremely limited turnaround time to learn, practice and produce their routines.

“That’s the way it is here in Chautauqua,” Lucena said, referring to the dancers’ frenzied schedules. “It’s always like that. It’s basically just one week until the students are on stage. Then after that they have to get ready for the next show, and then the next. There’s no down time, and they have to be prepared for that.”

Mendelssohn String Symphony No. 7

The gala’s third performance features original choreography by David Morse, accompanied by Felix Mendelssohn’s String Symphony No. 7. The piece spotlights only festival students, mixing together 14 female dancers and five male dancers.

Morse said that the piece, as performed on Sunday, will only be snippets of a longer dance to Mendelssohn’s symphony that he is still choreographing. Students will be performing movements one and four this weekend, and at the second gala in August, they will finish the piece by performing movements two and three.

“This piece is primarily abstract, and it’s kind of a study piece for the students,” Morse said. “It’s an exercise in using their lines properly and using their legs quickly.”

Morse sees his time with the students as an opportunity to help them develop into their full potential. He said he likes to challenge them, as he does in this dance with fast-tempo choreography and partner work. 

Partnering is an obstacle that not many of these young dancers have tackled before, but Morse said he exposes them to challenges so they can and grow and learn.

“The students are really having to learn quickly,” he said. “But that’s an important skill to build as they’re working their way into professional dance careers — they’ve got to be able to pick choreography up lightning fast.”

The students are not the only ones pushing themselves, however. Morse said working with student dancers — as opposed to with professionals — also stretches and bends his choreography, forcing him to have increased flexibility as a teacher.

“It’s kind of a challenge for me, too,” he said. “I’m always trying to push myself choreographically, but then I’m trying to find things that suit the students. I want them to look good. I have to find a balance of something that I know is pushing them, but they also can still feel confident and organic doing.”

“Raymonda Variations”

The final performance of the gala is a re-staging of George Balanchine’s classical “Raymonda Variations.” Three sections of the dance are being staged by former Balanchine dancer and repetiteur Patricia McBride: the waltz, the pas de deux and the finale. The ballet features both apprentice and festival students, and according to McBride, is intensely demanding of its dancers.

“Each variation has a challenge,” she said. “They’re not easy, even for professionals. There’s nothing more difficult than wearing tights and a tutu: everything shows. But I’m very proud of the students, because they dance it beautifully.”

McBride said that Balanchine originally choreographed “Raymonda Variations” in 1961 with the intent to show off the soloists and principal dancers of the New York City Ballet. He meant for it to be a dance that displayed dancers’ impressive technique and lines, and he expected his ballerinas to have the skill set to perform the intricate steps.

McBride expects no less from her students. She said she views the staging of Balanchine variations as a chance to pass along the classical tradition of ballet and to drill good technique, musicality and speed into students. 

For this dance in particular, she focused on the articulation of feet and lines, on épaulement — a traditional, slightly arched position of the head and neck, and on the port de bras — a graceful carriage of the arms.

“We’re focused on a learning experience,” McBride said of the way she conducts her rehearsals. “If you want to be a professional dancer, you need the experience of performing ballets on stage and the reality of what it’s like to be in a ballet

Although preparation for the gala has been anything but easy for the student dancers, McBride and the other teachers feel that it is ultimately a rewarding and satisfying experience. According to Morse, the students have risen to the challenges presented to them and are ready to attack this weekend’s performance head-on.

“They’re going to go out there and kill it on Sunday,” Morse said. “That’s the plan, anyway.”