Excellence takes stage with School of Dance’s first student gala, featuring premiering work


After weeks of training and rehearsals, students from Chautauqua’s School of Dance take the stage to showcase their talents and hard work.

“It gives the opportunity to students to perform on stage and learn the choreography, work with the great choreographers, and be able to express onstage what they are learning in the class,” said Sarkis Kaltakhtchian, School of Dance guest faculty and artistic and education director at the University of Hartford’s Hartt School of Music. “It’s that balance of keeping your technique in the classwork and being able to perform it. That’s what makes you professional dancers.”

At 2:30 p.m. Sunday, July 17, in the Amphitheater, the young dancers will present Student Gala I; the second gala is set for Aug. 14.

The gala will feature both the Festival Division students, ages 13 to 16, and the Pre-Professional Division students, ages 16 to 21. 

Kaltakhtchian said the gala is a chance for Chautauquans to see “how much (the students) learn, how much they improve, and in such a short time,” noting that Festival dancers train at the School of Dance for six weeks, and Pre-Professional dancers train for seven.

“It gives an opportunity to students to perform on stage and learn the choreography work with the great choreographers,”  Kaltakhtchian said.

The performance will include work by Kaltakhtchian, as well as new work by guest choreographer My’Kal Stromile of Boston Ballet. 

“I’ve definitely been trying to push myself choreographically and then, in turn, pushing the dancers in a way that stretches their own limits. It kind of makes all of us question: ‘Is this ballet?’ ” Stromile said. “I find that to be one of the most interesting things about the art form in general because it’s a living, breathing, art form. Dance isn’t an art piece where you put it up on a wall and it’s there and exists. This art form exists because living, breathing bodies do it. It’s up to us to kind of stretch the idea of what dance and what ballet is.” 

Stromile choreographed “Baile de la Gente,” which is set to Spanish Renaissance music from the 14th and 15th centuries; Sunday’s performance is the piece’s premiere.

“This piece is more classical, but it starts in one place, and as the piece shifts, you start to see more and more extreme uses of the body,” Stromile said. “It starts off in this very placed, held, elegant (way) … and then as the piece keeps going, it deviates from it a little bit. We kind of turn ballet on its side for moments … where it shifts and (the dancers are) pushing themselves in their own physicality.”

Along with the premiere of “Baile de la Gente,” Kaltakhtchian choreographed two pieces: one for Festival dancers and one for the Pre-Professional dancers. The character piece, choreographed for the Festival dancers, is set to Hungarian dance music by Johannes Brahms. The ballet piece, choreographed for the Pre-Professional dancers, is set to music from Masquerade Suite by Aram Khachaturian.

Stromile said the performance is unique to Chautauqua and features something for everyone.

“What excites me the most about the programming? Honestly, it’s going to be the variation. The variety that you’re going to get in the performance,” Stromile said. “… I think that as a viewer, especially for people who either it’s their first time at Chautauqua or first time really seeing dance, you are getting this buffet of exciting things to watch people do with their bodies.”

Stromile hopes with this variety, the audience will walk away reflecting on the pieces and their meanings.

“I feel like in the work that I make, there is a sense of social commentary or political commentary, but it’s never overt. It’s never literal. But it’s enough to where people can walk away from it and just at least have something to think about,” Stromile said. “… I really hope that at the end of this program as a whole, people will be able to do that for all the pieces and be able to have a conversation about it, and not just passively watch it, but actively watch it with a sense of curiosity.”

To Kaltakhtchian, the Chautauqua School of Dance summer intensive is unlike any other in the industry.

“​​In Chautauqua, it’s amazing — they see some of the best dancers in the world,” Kaltakhtchian said. “That changes your perspective about dance, that can change your lifestyle completely. (To go from), ‘Oh, I’m just doing this for fun,’ to ‘Oh, I really want to do this, and I want to become professional.’ ” 

Students get to perform work that would not be available to them if they were not at Chautauqua, said Kaltakhtchian, as he listed faculty such as Patricia McBride, director of ballet studies and master teacher, and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, principal resident coach. 

“Those are living legends in the dance world, and the students are so fortunate to be able to learn from them,” Kaltakhtchian said. “… It’s a very unique atmosphere in that sense. … And they make friends with different students that are here for different things, like musicians, actors in the theater. I think to become a complete artist, it’s the whole environment that’s extremely important.”

For Stromile, the environment at Chautauqua breeds creativity.

“I love creating when I’m surrounded by so much nature, because it just kind of gives me a different sense of inspiration,” Stromile said. “It gives you just another layer of humanity.”

Kaltakhtchian and Stromile said Sunday’s performance will be a showcase of talent and hardwork.

“You’ll see that they learn these ballets and they perform, and sometimes they look like a professional company (even though) they’re students,” Kaltakhtchian said.

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The author Cassidey Kavathas

Cassidey Kavathas, a Buffalo native, is a rising junior journalism student at St. Bonaventure University. This is her first summer at the Daily. She is covering Advancement, Institution administration, the board of trustees, the CPOA and dance. She serves as editor-in-chief at her college’s newspaper, as well as news director at her college’s radio station. Cassidey has previously reported for PolitiFact NY, The Olean Times Herald, TAPInto Greater Olean and St. Bonaventure University’s advancements office.