The life and work of professor Violette Verdy will be celebrated this weekend as IU Opera and Ballet Theater presents its fall ballet, Classical Europe — Celebrating Violette.
The show will open 8 p.m. Friday at the Musical Arts Center, with a second performance at 8 p.m. Saturday.
Verdy, originally from France, spent the majority of her career as a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, where she worked with legendary choreographer George Balanchine.
Upon her retirement, she served as director of both the Paris Opera Ballet and the Boston Ballet and taught at the New York City Ballet before joining the IU faculty in 1996.
Verdy is the choreographer of “Variations for Eight,” one of three ballets, along with Nicolo Fonte’s “Left Unsaid” and Balanchine’s “Divertimento No. 15,” in the fall program.
“The reason we do three ballets is because it gives more opportunities to the dancers,” said Michael Vernon, artistic director of IU Ballet Theater. “But it’s also great for the dancers and the audiences that there are three different styles.”
Senior Colleen Kerwin is one of four female dancers in “Variations for Eight,” a classical ballet broken up into various sections.
“There’s no story line that goes throughout the whole piece, but each individual short piece has its own feeling,” she said.
The ballet is traditional in style, but Kerwin thinks it’s still distinct.
“We’re dancing very classical, but she puts these little quirks in there that are really cute and funny, and it brings a certain style to the piece that is very unique,” she said.
And despite Verdy’s status in the ballet world, Kerwin said she is pleasant to work with.
“The way she gives us corrections makes me want to work hard for her and improve and do well,” she said.
Sophomore Alexandra Hartnett, another dancer in “Variations,” also complimented Verdy’s teaching style.
“Everything she says is so on point and helps you fix something that you may have been struggling with,” she said.
“Left Unsaid,” a contemporary ballet choreographed by Nicolo Fonte, is the second performance in the program.
Sophomore Aaron Anker, had a great experience learning Fonte’s original work from the choreographer himself.
“To get to work with the actual creators is really special,” he said. “It’s really exciting to be able to be on the forefront of the dance world and what’s being created right now.”
Of his decision to include the piece in the fall program, Vernon said, “What I’m trying to bring here is the same sort of cutting-edge ballets that a major professional company would perform.”
But the atypical nature of Fonte’s choreography has proved to be a bit of a challenge for some of the dancers.
“It’s not what they’re used to, but it’s good for them because that’s how they learn about other styles,” Vernon said.
Despite the choreography’s novelty, Anker said he is happy to be pushed outside his comfort zone.
“I’ve never done a contemporary ballet before, so that’s been difficult because it’s something new, but it’s also been a nice learning experience,” Anker said.
The final ballet in the fall program, and the only one accompanied by an orchestra, is Balanchine’s “Divertimento No. 15.”
“Nowadays, it’s one of the testing grounds for dancers to be able to do Balanchine’s work because it’s classical, it’s en pointe, it’s demanding and technically challenging,” Vernon said. “It’s a great education for the dancers and the audience.”
Junior Leslie Theisen is one of five female soloists in “Divertimento.”
“It’s very playful with the music, which makes it more of the neoclassical that Balanchine goes for,” she said.
Hartnett, another of the soloists, said “Divertimento” is reminiscent of older styles of ballet, while still moving fast.
With only two weeks for dancers to learn and execute the choreography, the short rehearsal time has proved to be difficult.
“There’s so many details that need to be addressed,” Hartnett said. “We had to learn it in a really condensed version of time.”
Maria Calegari, a former New York City Ballet principal dancer who worked extensively with Balanchine, came to IU to stage “Divertimento.”
“We have a lot to learn from her because she was part of that whole new generation of dance, so it’s really cool to listen to what she has to say,” Theisen said.
Hartnett said she appreciated Calegari’s attention to detail during rehearsals.
“She’s very careful and thorough with how she stages the piece on us, which is always helpful,” she said.
Vernon thinks watching “Divertimento” will be a special moment for viewers.
“I often say that once you see a Balanchine ballet, you will always hear the music differently because if it’s famous music, he puts the images to it in such a way that it’s hard to forget,” he said. “It’s very powerful.”
With each ballet, Vernon said he hopes the beauty of the movement and its relationship to the music arrest the audience.
“Dance is meant to speak about things that you can’t really talk about,” he said. “The things that work best in dance are visual, spatial and linear, and all three of these ballets are.”
Follow reporter Rachel Osman on Twitter @rachosman.