Although the Chautauqua School of Dance Student Gala highlights the dancers, behind the scenes it is the collaborative effort, energy and expertise of the staff and faculty that makes the event possible.
After just three weeks of classes and rehearsals, Apprentice, Workshop II and Festival dancers will perform six pieces from five different choreographers at 2:30 p.m. Sunday in the Amphitheater.
Glenda Lucena, Chautauqua School of Dance’s ballet mistress, is the mastermind responsible for scheduling all of the classes and rehearsals for the Workshop and Apprentice dancers. These rehearsals must work around the dancers’ classes, which vary based on their classification within the school. This, however, is nothing new for Lucena, who brings her expertise from serving as the ballet mistress of the Ballet Nacional de Venezuela and Miami City Ballet. It’s a task that she said keeps her busy.
“Sometimes it gets difficult, it becomes like a puzzle,” Lucena said. “I have to work it out so that I don’t create any conflict, but I have to make sure that all of them get the amount of rehearsals they need and the amount of classes they need.”
The School of Dance attracts talent from all over the country. Students travel from more than 10 different schools and academies in North Carolina, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland and other regions to spend their summer dancing at Chautauqua Institution.
The apprentice dancers are 16- to 19-year-olds and are in residence for seven weeks. They have the opportunity to perform with the Charlotte Ballet and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, and take master classes from visiting companies, like Ailey II. The Chautauqua Festival Dancers are 15- to 18-year-olds who, aside from rigorous training and classes, receive individual coaching from resident faculty. The Workshop dancers are 11- to 14-year-olds who dance and perform during two- or five-week sessions at the School of Dance.
“They perform very often when they’re here, which is a wonderful thing,” said Lucena, who’s been with the school for 16 years. “Chautauqua is the only place that they get to perform as much, compared to other programs.”
Aside from creating the schedule, Lucena teaches classes, assists choreographers and fills in for faculty if they’re unable to teach. She’s a former ballerina herself, having danced as principal at the Ballet Metropolitano de Caracas.
“For me, ballet is the most complete art because it involves not just dance, it involves music, painting with your body — every detail needs to be taken care of.” Lucena said. “It’s certainly a wonderful work to do. I enjoy everything I do.”
For many of the students, this will be their first time performing on the new Amphitheater stage. Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, the school’s artistic director, said all of the students want to pursue careers as professional dancers.
“They need to be tested with an audience,” Bonnefoux said. “Some are naturals, some are nervous. It shows how they react.”
Maris Battaglia, associate artistic director and resident choreographer, has only had six days to work with the Workshop II dancers, a group of 21 girls and three boys.
“You look in the classroom and they’re practicing and working,” Battaglia said. “They’ve just been really a joy to work with; they’re really a talented, nice group of kids.”
She described the two pieces she choreographed, “Concert in the Park” and “Mozart,” as classical pieces en pointe. “Concert in the Park” is typically performed with 15 female dancers, but Battaglia decided to increase the number of dancers and include boys, for a total ensemble of 24.
Sandwiched in between Battaglia’s piece is “Playground Teasers,” a piece choreographed by Sasha Janes. Janes, the school’s director of contemporary studies, called upon a group of students from the Children’s School to name the piece.
“I thought it was just a perfect name,” Janes said.
The other option — “Tickling at Home Depot” — didn’t quite make the cut. Janes describes the piece as “very light and very playful.” It draws on music from a few different symphonies and includes five couples and a total of 13 dancers.
The show also features pieces by resident faculty members, Mark Diamond and Michael Vernon. Vernon choreographed his piece specifically for the dancers. The closing piece is staged by resident faculty member and master teacher Patricia McBride. “Raymonda Variations,” which originally debuted in 1961, was choreographed by George Balanchine. It features a waltz, a pas de deux, eight variations each performed by one dancer, and closes with a 14-dancer finale. During Week One, McBride taught all of the dancers the variations then cast students for solos.
“It was a difficult choice because they all did so beautifully,” McBride said. “It’s such an exciting ballet to stage. I love each and every solo.”
The piece holds a special place in McBride’s heart. She danced the lead role early on in her career up until the last few years she was actively dancing.
“The energy, the musicality is so magnificent in this ballet,” McBride said. “(Balanchine) was one of the geniuses of the 20th century and he’s still relevant in the 21st century. It’s a wonderful thing for the students to get a chance to do this.”
Four of the students performing the variations are Apprentice dancers, and four are Workshop II and Festival dancers.
“The variations are all very challenging,” McBride said. “It’s difficult. It’s difficult for professionals, but they’re doing really well and I’m proud of them.”
The core of “Raymonda Variations” is 12 female dancers who perform in clusters of three or four.
“They all have to work together as one, which is part of their work — learning together, working together,” McBride said.
McBride said one of the challenges of Balanchine’s piece is the strict lines that require dancers’ arms, heads and legs to be connected throughout. In striving to “keep the beauty of the choreography intact,” McBride showed the students recordings of the piece from before Balanchine’s passing in 1983.
“I love passing on the Balanchine; it’s a great joy and such a pleasure to be able to pass it on to our future,” McBride said. “They don’t have to hold back on a tiny stage. I think they’ll love the experience.”