American Ballet Theatre performs on campus

Photo courtesy of Kyle Froman  Members of the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company perform opening duet “Tarantella.”

Photo courtesy of Kyle Froman

Members of the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company perform opening duet “Tarantella.”

BY EMMA MARTIN ’20

The traveling American Ballet Theatre Studio Company performed to receptive audiences in the Kendall Studio Theater last Friday and Saturday. The 12 young dancers were met with gasps, murmurs and extended applause from the crowd in the small, dark space as they performed six stunning, diverse pieces.

Curtains opened on the first traditional piece, “Tarantella,” a lively duet in the Balanchine style. Both parts, that of the flirtatious, graceful female and the charming, spritely male, carried tambourines that they tapped to the beat of the music, often while dancing technically difficult steps.

“Tarantella” was followed by the contemporary piece “On the First Star of the Night,” performed by eight dancers creating fantastic, unexpected shapes with their bodies. The piece notably upsets traditional male/female ballet pairings, opening with a trio of male dancers and often featuring two male dancers and one female dancer moving together as a unit. This weekend’s performance marked the United States premiere of “On the First Star of the Night”; the piece, choreographed by Ma Cong, premiered in London in May 2018. “On the First Star of the Night” was Rebecca Dial ’22’s favorite of the pieces. “I liked how it showed off how the dancers could really contort their bodies and the range of motion and talent,” Dial said.

Pauses that gave the dancers time to change costumes backstage divided the show into intervals that also gave audience members an opportunity to process what they’d just seen and discuss their impressions with their neighbors. “It seemed like a really awesome opportunity to see more of the community and what goes on around here,” Dial said. She was right — the show attracted a large community presence thanks to local advertising. One community member said she’d never been to Mount Holyoke before, but had seen an ad for the show in Springfield’s local newspaper “The Republican.”

Warm lights came up on a group of 10 dancers frozen in position for the fourth traditional piece, “Overture.” These lights brought out the warm green, gold and pink tones of the dancers’ costumes and tutus as they performed breathtaking leaps, chased and imitated one another and danced in perfect unison. The fourth contemporary piece, “Untitled,” featuring music by composer Philip Glass, saw a quartet of female dancers and a quartet of male dancers moving together and apart. Shadows cast on the curtains by the dancers seemed to mimic and aggrandize their movements as well as echo the black and white of their costumes.

The goal of the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company is to prepare dancers aged 16 to 20 to perform on professional classical ballet stages. Dancers are trained to enter either the American Ballet Theatre itself or other global leading companies. The ensemble of 12 frequently performs works by budding choreographers and its dancers gain experience through residences, touring and local performances. Studio Theatre is the highest level of the American Ballet Theater training ladder for young dancers of “outstanding potential,” a level of excellence reflected in the talent on display in the Mount Holyoke showcase. Last weekend’s performance was coordinated by the Mount Holyoke Dance Department, staffed by a student crew and made possible by the financial support of alum Robin Chemers Neustein ’75. Dance department Chair and ballet Professor Charles Flachs noted the significance of Neustein’s contribution. “Performances like this in New York are upwards of 50, 60 dollars and here they’re 10 bucks for students,” said Flachs. “Some people can’t travel to New York to see an organization like this so they get to see an extremely professional performance at a very low price locally.”

The modest space of the Kendall theater lent itself to an intimate, personal experience; audiences were level with dancers who were sometimes only feet from the first row. Their close proximity to the dancers gave Mount Holyoke audiences an exclusive window into the realities of the craft. The soft knocking of pointe shoes against the ground and even the sound of dancer’s heavy breathing — details normally meant to be concealed from audience — were audible from a seat in the crowd. Flachs stressed the importance of viewing live dance, a very different experience from what’s possible on a TV screen due to “the different dimensions involved.”

The dancers’ final piece, “Don Quixote Suite,” gave audiences a taste of classical narrative ballet with five dancers playing different colorful roles costumed in elaborate, Spanish-inspired attire. One male dancer played a matador, deftly twirling a red cape as he danced. The bold red projected on the back wall of the stage for the duration of the piece left an impression that lingered after the group had taken their final bows.