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Tuesday, April 16
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arts

Jacobs prepares new ballet, “Star on the Rise: La Bayadère...Reimagined!”

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Notes from the pianist in the corner guided the dancers across the Marley floor of studio 305 in the Musical Art Center. It was the third week of rehearsals for the spring ballet, “Star on the Rise: La Bayadère... Reimagined!” None of the dancers looked the same, yet there was a sense of cohesiveness that flooded the room. 

The last note on the piano triggered huffing and puffing. Sweat glistened on the dancers’ skin, and their faces flushed red. The room warmed from the body heat filling the studio. All the sounds, images and sensations of hard work were heard and felt within the four walls.  

Sarah Wroth, chair of the department, the eight faculty members and two guest stagers rehearsed the dancers to create moments of transcendence. 

A held balance. A solid lift. Synchronization within a corps. The way two dancers looked into each other’s eyes and played the feeling of love. Moments the audience would only get to really feel with the visceral experience of seeing it live.  

The final scene of the first act presented a special challenge for Ruth Connelly, one of the dancers who plays Nikki. She has to dance a solo with a plastic jar attached with a magnet on her head, but it wasn’t ready for rehearsals two weeks before the production premiered. Committed to the moment, Connelly tried balancing it anyway. 

Throughout most of the choreography, she held it in place with her hands, but each time she would bourrée — fluttery runs on pointe — she would let go of the jar.  

On the first attempt, she caught the jar slipping to the side. Her nose scrunched slightly, but she continued with the choreography. Again, she went for it, but her hands moved back up quickly to keep it from falling. The third time, the other dancers held their breath.  

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The Jacobs School of Ballet dancers prepared to perform the new production based on the classical ballet, “La Bayadère” for the performances set to take place March 29-30.  

The ballet was restaged by guests Phil Chan and Doug Fullington to eliminate racist elements from the original production including blackface as well as inaccurate and offensive portrayals of Indian culture and Hindu religion, Wroth said. It now implemented comedy and drama on the grounds of an old Hollywood film set. Chan is a co-founder of Final Bow for Yellowface, a worldwide organization dedicated to remove “outdated and offensive stereotypes of Asians” in ballet productions. 

For a regular production, the program would rehearse for about five weeks before performing. Because of the additional time needed to put together the remake and refine every detail, rehearsals ran for nine weeks.  

“This faculty working together has brought forth the kindest, strongest, most intuitive artists that we’ve yet to see,” Wroth said. “They are adding things, artistically, to their work that’s really powerful.” 

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The dancers came to the studio at 11:15 a.m. and didn’t leave until after 5:45 p.m. They attended different classes for each of the eight scenes of the production, and the multiple assigned sections to rehearse changed every day.  

The dancers continued learning the steps and corrected the mistakes they made along the way. They always took time to practice the movements that didn’t come to them initially. 

“It will probably feel different in two weeks than it does today,” Wroth said.  

Two weeks later, on Feb. 26, rehearsal called for the full team to run through each scene. There are three casts to correlate with the three performances being conducted this weekend, and each member will perform in at least one of the shows. The cast for the corps stays the same for each performance due to the inability to completely replace the large number of characters in that scene. 

Fine tuning can begin, now that the steps have been learned. What angle were their bodies supposed to be? What direction were they looking? Were they upstage or downstage? How smoothly should they turn their heads? Each question grew closer to an answer.  

The rehearsal process contained many imperfections. They tried. They failed. They learned. They tried again.  

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The weeks that led up to spring break were challenging, Wroth said. Not in the way that things went wrong during the rehearsals, but it took extra motivation from the dancers to be their best selves in the studio. A few worked through injuries, others were stressed with their second academic disciplines, some just felt fatigued. 

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Cast members rehearse new ballet, "Star on the Rise: La Bayadère...Reimagined!" on March 27, 2024, at the Musical Arts Center in Bloomington. The Jacobs School of Ballet dancers prepared to perform the new production based on the classical ballet, “La Bayadère” for the performances set to take place March 29-30.  

Wroth’s biggest challenge was to make sure she paced the dancers evenly, trying not to burn them out too quickly while keeping them engaged at the same time. It was a tough balance to maintain, she said. She hoped spring break without rehearsals would serve them well. 

“Every semester there’s a little bit of a space where everyone gets a little oversaturated,” she said. “But everybody needs rest, and everyone needs distance to see the good.” 

Her distance from the production came from the class she taught for the elderly once a week at Bell Trace, a senior living center in Bloomington, called “Music and Movement.” She spent 14 years training with Boston Ballet Company, where she later taught its adaptive dance program for children with Down Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorder. She said these experiences gave her a new perspective of how her ballet career could inform her life and make the world a better place. 

Anytime she had the opportunity to see a new person try to move was a gift, she said. They shared a part of themselves; just like the artists she and the rest of the faculty trained to work towards their own goals. 

The uncertainty of what might happen next fascinated Wroth as an instructor.  

“Every time I watch it, it’s a little bit different and it satisfies a little bit of a different element of the story,” Wroth said. “It intrigues me so that every time I watch it, I’m like, ‘how’s it going to go this time?’ It’s wonderful.” 

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The first day back in the studio after break brought in a high energy, but with it, a higher stake: The first performance would premier on stage in 11 days. There was a glow among the dancers’ faces and an excitement in their voices. 

The whole team gathered in studio 305 at 3:30 p.m. to watch the first cast run through the entire first act and the last scene of the production.  

Instead of facing the full-length mirrors that lined the front of the room, they turned around and faced the back wall; a test of their memorization and timing of the steps which they had only been doing for the past week.  

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The Jacobs School of Ballet dancers prepared to perform the new production based on the classical ballet, “La Bayadère” for the performances set to take place March 29-30. Performers line up during rehearsal March 27, 2024, at the Musical Arts Center in Bloomington.

Children ages 9 to 17 from the Jacobs Academy Ballet Program were included in the production, too. For several minutes leading up to 4 p.m., they peered in, wide-eyed with admiration from the hallway. The older dancers clapped and yelled “whoop whoop” as the children walked into the room to rehearse with the full team for the first time.  

One young student had a feature section with five of the Jacobs dancers. Another young girl called out to her as she went to rehearse her part. 

“Come on, you’re going to do great!” the young girl whispered loudly. 

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Dancers live to perform, and in performances, they live. There are moments where they simply turn themselves over to experience, but it takes patience, grit, rest, recovery and that final snap of energy where every moment they spent in the studio shines through, Wroth explained. 

Connelly was still working to defy gravity. She struggled to keep the jar steady while her body was moving during the first couple of attempts. 

She tried for a third time. It was so light that any step off balance would cause it to fall. The room quieted with only the sounds of the music and her pointe shoes against the floor. 

Finally, it stayed still in the center of her head. The dancers clapped and cheered for her while the corners of her mouth lifted as she moved with fluidity into the next steps.  

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