Creating an original story ballet

PNB Students in Bruce Wells' Snow White

Choreographer Alexei Ratmansky’s ballet The Bright Stream was a highlight of American Ballet Theatre’s performance calendar in 2011. A welcome addition to the year’s full-length classics and mixed bills, it received rave reviews for its use of many levels of company dancers, endearing characters and humorous storyline. And it got the dance world talking about ingenuity in classical ballet.

Professionals aren’t the only dancers who can pull off a new production. Your students and studio could benefit from a recital that focuses on a narrative. Offering an alternative to a traditional recital of short dances can teach students the value of storytelling, which develops young artists. It may also pique the interest of ticket buyers. Aunts and uncles who might pass on their niece’s three minutes of fame may be more compelled to see her play a special character in an original performance.

There’s no doubt that producing a new recital is an undertaking. Bruce Wells of Pacific Northwest Ballet School begins brainstorming initial ideas for a spring performance as early as a full year before the set show date. Rehearsals for a production often begin right after The Nutcracker season finishes. “It’s 24-7 for six weeks,” says Wells. “But I see the dancers’ energy onstage and the audience feeds it back to them. That’s a win-win for both sides.”

Initial Planning

After selecting a story or theme, music will help guide you through assigning levels and choreography. Wells narrowed down music for PNB School’s Snow White by making sure it evoked characters he wanted to convey strongly, identifying motifs that fit the evil queen, Snow White and the seven dwarfs. He planned out the structure of the ballet after most of the score was finalized. He says his productions are “shrink-wrapped” versions of a traditional full-length concert—using the standard model of narration by key principal characters and mixing the school’s students throughout. Alternatively, each level can be assigned to a scene. This allows the recital to follow the standard number-by-number format, but places it in the context of an engaging story.

Mary Paula Hunter, who directs JUMP! Dance Company for youth in Providence, Rhode Island, says the bulk of the group’s annual hour-and-a-half-long Scenes From The Polar Express concert comes from pre-existing recorded music—an eclectic mix of classical, contemporary and cultural pieces. When she couldn’t find the right sound for the train scene, she asked a dancer’s father to create original electronic music that is still used in the production today. Hunter split Polar Express into two acts to help the flow of the storyline; the recital reflects the many styles her dancers train in—tap, ballet, musical theater and modern.

In the Studio

With your guidance, individual teachers can choreograph their group’s section of the ballet, but for a cohesive story, you may want to create the movement yourself. This was Alan Hineline’s preference when he choreographed Hansel and Gretel for Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. After setting the steps on students, fellow instructors helped get the production performance-ready by coaching rehearsals and cleaning the steps. Hineline teaches the youngest levels first, so they have the most time to rehearse thoroughly.

Hunter asked for her dancers’ input throughout the making of Polar Express—they often added in their own steps and gestures. “Many of the scenes were built together,” says Hunter. “They gained a critical eye for creating dances and editing them down.” She says it also helped them invest in their characters.

JUMP!’s members, who range in age from 8 to 18, form the core of Polar Express’ 35-member cast, but students are encouraged to invite friends to fill the “guest” roles and may perform in up to four scenes. Hunter finds this is a great way to boost enrollment—some of them have enrolled as students after performing with JUMP! DT 

Leslie Holleran holds a master’s degree in dance history from the University of California–Riverside. She writes about dance from Seattle.

Use Your Resources

Mary Paula Hunter had a parent craft the music for the train in Scenes From The Polar Express. She also worked with a Rhode Island School of Design student, who created a set for the production. Your community goes beyond the studio: Pitch your idea to local schools, colleges and recreational programs for an engaging, collaborative project that will get everyone talking.

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