The Birth of a Ballet
This month, thanks to a generous gift from a local couple, the Catskill Ballet Theatre premieres a brand-new ballet created just for them by renowned choreographer Davis Robertson. A look behind the scenes.
The Birth Of A Ballet
A Midsummer Night’s Dream dances into Kingston
By Valerie Havas — Photographs by Jennifer May
On a frigid February afternoon in Kingston, a cluster of dance students struggles to follow the latest instructions being given by renowned choreographer Davis Robertson. Robertson, a former dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, has created a new ballet just for them, and the production is still very much a work-in-progress. Steps the dancers had painstakingly mastered the previous week are replaced with entirely new footwork; dramatic mannerisms they had adopted over the past several months are revamped, if not summarily discarded. A sense of urgency prevails, for in just a few weeks, professional dancers will arrive from New York City to work alongside the young students in joint rehearsals. The grueling creative process, which began last August, culminates this month with the debut of a new full-length production by the Catskill Ballet Theatre (CBT) of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a big deal for the 28-year-old dance company, which hasn’t mounted a new ballet since 1990, when it premiered Dracula on Halloween weekend. Commissioning and staging a new ballet is an extraordinarily costly proposition, which is why it’s rarely done by small regional ballet companies like the CBT. The upcoming production was made possible by a $60,000 gift from Judith and Peter Hauser of Accord, Ulster County.
“A gift of this magnitude is impressive even on a national scale,” asserts Theresa Vanyo, president of CBT’s board of directors. A “significant” grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she says, would be around $10,000. The new ballet will expand the company’s repertoire, she points out, which in turn will help increase its audience and improve its long-term financial health. The CBT usually mounts two productions a year; in addition to Dracula, their repertoire includes The Nutcracker (which is performed annually),
Though the gift from the Hausers is a substantial one, it doesn’t entirely cover the costs associated with staging the new ballet. “We still have to raise funds to have the production come off, but this will get us to the stage door,” declares Vanyo. Ballet production is very expensive, notes CBT Artistic Director Anne Hebard, who says that “Audiences don’t realize that ticket revenues in ballet don’t ever cover the entire cost of a production — they only cover about one-quarter to one-third of the total.” The rest, she says, has to come from public grants, corporate donations, or private funding.
The Hausers, co-owners of VisionPilots, a Stone Ridge-based company that stages special events and meetings, feel strongly about the need to support the arts, and new art in particular. “New work is the lifeblood of a company,” insists Judith, a former dancer with New York City’s Feld Ballet. “That’s true for the dancers, the choreographers, and certainly the audience. You need something new. It keeps the creative juices flowing.” Her association with the CBT dates back to 1985, when she danced the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, and continued after she and her husband moved to the Valley in 1990.
Choosing a theme for the new work was a collaborative effort, notes Peter Hauser. “We had been talking with Anne Hebard for several years,” he explains. “We liked A Midsummer Night’s Dream because it has a good story, the music is accessible, and it’s got drama as well as humor.” Like other productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the new work uses music by Mendelssohn, including his “Wedding March,” which is familiar to pretty much anyone who has ever attended a wedding. The fact that the ballet is based on a Shakespearean play was another plus for the Hausers, who hope that it will attract local students and teachers.
New work, suggests Hebard, is essential to a ballet company’s artistic vitality. “A choreographer creating a new work with us can look at individual members of the company, and design a ballet that speaks to their personal skills,” she explains. The result, she says, is “a new way of imaging things.”
One dancer benefiting from this individualized approach is eight-year-old Hunter Davenport of Lamontville, Ulster County. “Hunter is the Changeling,” explains Robertson, referring to the youth who causes dissension between Titania, the Queen of the Fairies, and Oberon, the Fairy King. “It’s not normally that large of a dancing role in ballets,” he notes. “But when I came in and saw the caliber of Hunter’s dancing, I thought, this is the perfect opportunity to expand that role and let him do a little more featured dancing.”
Although the ballet’s principal parts will be danced by New York City professionals, most of the roles will belong to nonprofessional dancers — like Hunter — who are students at Hebard’s ballet school. Other local dancers include the Hausers’ 10-year-old daughter, Lydia, and Kingston resident Kate Franklin, a 32-year-old math teacher and mother of two. “I am Bottom,” says
While many of the students have danced in The Nutcracker, the chance to work on a new production is a whole different experience, notes Judith Hauser. “The Nutcracker is about learning a part that already exists,” she explains. “It’s like learning a written piece of music, as opposed to having something composed for you right on the spot. It’s quite a different process.”
“The biggest difference when you are creating something new,” adds Robertson, “is there is no mold to start from. Working from scratch, everything has to come through me. I give them all of the steps, the musicality, their artistic inspiration, what their character is, and what they should be feeling in that moment.” It has, he believes, been an eye-opening experience for young dancers who’ve never had the opportunity to work on an original piece before.
Seventeen-year-old Deena Gerstenhaber, a senior at Rondout Valley High School in Accord, compares her experiences working on the new ballet with her 11 years in the company’s annual production of The Nutcracker. “It’s a lot harder; we had to put in a lot of extra time,” she comments. “It’s all new choreography; it changes from week to week. You’re learning new things all the time.” Rehearsals, she says, are very fast-paced. “We learn a big chunk of choreography at a time and then go back the next week and build on it, changing it so it works better. We need to learn quickly so we can keep progressing.”
“Learning a new ballet absolutely is more difficult,” concurs Katy Vanyo, a 15-year-old sophomore at Coleman High School in Hurley. “But it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The choreographer brings new styles, new steps, and a whole different perspective.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be top-notch in terms of stage production, promises Robertson, who started performing as a break dancer on the streets of Jacksonville, Florida, before coming to the Joffrey in 1993. He has choreographed several ballets for the Joffrey, one of which led the Chicago Sun-Times to declare him a “choreographer with an undeniably bold sense of the dramatic.” He also created Mikhail Baryshnikov’s featured role in the 2003 film The Company. With a hectic schedule — he’s juggling other projects in New York City, Chicago, and Florida — Robertson often comes to Kingston just for the day. “I’m not sure that people are aware of the great amount of talent that is sitting right in their own backyard,” says Robertson of the CBT. “It’s very nice that this talent is getting shown off at home. There are a number of dancers with great potential, both older and younger.” And he shrugs off the differences between working with big-name stars and Kingston kids. “It’s exactly the same. It is equally rewarding; they have something to teach me and I have something to teach them.”
Robertson also points to the contributions of Peter Hauser, formerly a designer and production manager for opera and dance companies; Michael Piotrowski of Middletown, whose credits include serving as a lighting designer for the Washington Ballet and the Brooklyn Academy of Music; and Rhinebeck-based set designer Richard W. Prouse, who has designed scenery for numerous Broadway plays.
This marks the fourth time that Prouse has painted scenery for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, though it’s the first time he has done so for a ballet version. Prouse says he is excited to take on the “challenge of creating this world of Shakespeare’s, on a stage that must remain clear for dance.” For inspiration, he looked to the Art Nouveau period, as well as to the beautiful renditions of the fairy world done by artists Arthur Rackham and James Christensen. “There will be minimal manipulation of scenery,” he continues, “but I will still take the viewer to several locations via layered, translucent scenery that will be totally changed by the use of light.”
The Hausers are hoping that their gift will help jump-start local philanthropic efforts. “Our hope was that if we made a serious contribution, not only in time but in actual dollars, then other people who have the means to help out in the arts would consider doing so,” says Peter. “We think the arts are an important part of the quality of life of the community and an important part of the educational experience for kids.”
“When I was dancing,” Judith Hauser adds, “the NEA was big, money was flowing in, and everyone was happy. But that is certainly not the case anymore. Without private donations, arts organizations just can’t survive.”
The couple also want to do their part to keep ballet relevant to today’s audiences. “There’s a perception that ballet is an old art form, a classical art form,” says Judith. “But there’s lots of wonderful new dance happening all over the world, and it’s happening right here in Kingston!”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be performed at the Ulster County Performing Arts Center in Kingston on Apr. 25 and 26 at 8 p.m. and Apr. 27 at 2 p.m. Tickets ($25 for adults, $18 for students and seniors) can be reserved through Ticketmaster or the UPAC box office (845-339-6088). For more information, visit www.catskillballet.org.