Associate Artistic Director, Michelle Martin, discusses how one choreographer’s personality, background and constant curiosity combine to make Hansel and Gretel a ballet you won’t forget.
Nelly van Bommel’s Hansel and Gretel, is one of those rare examples of a work that appeals across generations, and its success is as much a reflection of her energy and sense of humor as it is of her choreographic talent. Nelly’s curiosity provides her with a limitless pool of inspiration, and she draws on her background in street theater, and modern dance technique to express her discoveries.
I came to know Nelly through Ballet Austin’s biennial choreographic competition, New American Talent/Dance. She was one of the three finalists in 2010 and I spent two weeks in the studio with her as she created a new work, Fanfarneta, for our main company. As she worked, I was fascinated by her interest in human interaction and her eye for nuance, particularly within interpersonal encounters. I thought her highly theatrical aesthetic would be a wonderful match for a narrative work, and her collaborative approach would provide a rich experience for the dancers in Ballet Austin II. I was thrilled when she accepted our invitation to create Hansel and Gretel.
Nelly’s work on Hansel and Gretel began with a series of facilitated games for the dancers. Some were based on movement and others involved vocalization. Through this process she began to know the dancers as individuals, in terms of both physicality and personality; and from this foundation, she matched each dancer with her ideas of the characters from Hansel and Gretel. Using the movement from her games, she crafted the dance portions of the piece first. Set to a series of traditional German folk songs, they’re high energy and playful, establishing her whimsical perspective on the story and its characters. The narrative scenes, particularly with the Witch, Hansel and Gretel, and their parents, were made in a very collaborative way – the dancers contributed to the development of the characters and the progression of the story. Nelly’s unique perspective is interspersed throughout the ballet with quirky interjections of props that are brilliantly out of context and absolutely hilarious – a wildly retro vacuum cleaner, baskets of apples and mountains of marshmallows .
This is the last in a four-part blog series about our annual Summer Intensive program. This week, our Associate Artistic Director Michelle Martin discusses the mindset of students and BA artistic staff during the last week of Session One.
As we move into the third week of our Summer Intensive, there is a noticeable shift in the energy and pace of our studio process. The end of this week marks the close of the first session and there is a heightened sense of urgency, both in preparations for the performances on Friday, as well as the departure of some of our students.
Mr. Mills and I have spent the last 2.5 weeks teaching, rehearsing and observing our students and have started to compile a short list of dancers who we think would be a good fit for our Trainee Program or for a contract with Ballet Austin II. Though the extended audition process is understandably nerve-wracking for the students, it gives us the opportunity, in essence, to “read between the lines” of a dancer’s nervousness. We have begun to recognize which elements, both positive and negative, are most representative of each dancer’s work on an ongoing basis, an assessment that is highly significant when we are considering an extended commitment.
Those who are departing at the end of this session will have a conference with me before they leave during which I will talk to them about what possibilities are likely for them here. Though our short list is a clear sign that we’ve begun to discern our strongest candidates, definitive offers, particularly for Ballet Austin II contracts, will not be made until we are midway through the second session. This not only allows fair consideration of dancers who we will not see until Session Two begins next Monday, it also affords the opportunity for first session dancers who continue into the second session to assert themselves. Every year there are at least one or two students whose work in the final weeks of the program substantially distinguishes them, and they end up with an invitation to stay at Ballet Austin for the year.
The second round of students will will arrive this next Monday, beginning their registration and placement classes in the afternoon. We look forward to meeting them!
This is the third in a four-part blog series about our annual Summer Intensive program. This week, our Associate Artistic Director Michelle Martin, took some time to detail what our Artistic Staff looks for from students during the intensive.
It’s hard to believe we’re already half-way through the first session of the Summer Intensive and well into the process of selecting dancers for our year-round programs. Students in Levels 7 and 8 who are, at a minimum, seniors in high school are eligible for consideration for either our Trainee Program or a contract with Ballet Austin II (BAII), our second company/apprentice program. Our Artistic Director, Stephen Mills, and I are committed to identifying and inviting dancers who are a good fit for our programs, meaning that they will benefit from their experience here, and Ballet Austin will benefit from their contribution. There are many factors to consider, starting with a solid foundation in classical ballet technique. Many of the dancers who come here have had training in a ballet curriculum that is different than the technique and aesthetic that we teach. Training is usually quite firmly entrenched in muscle memory and it can be challenging to adjust to the new concepts that we introduce, so much of what Mr. Mills and I are assessing is a dancer’s willingness to explore, and capacity to adapt to other ideas. To help us evaluate this more quickly, all of the Level 7 and 8 ballet technique classes are taught by me, Mr. Mills or our Rehearsal Director, Allisyn Paino.
In addition to strong classical technique, a contract with BAII also requires that dancers have an interest and a developing aptitude for contemporary movement, particularly as it relates to Ballet Austin’s repertoire. This is easiest to assess by having the dancers learn, rehearse and perform some choreographic excerpts from our work. As the dancers learn the material we are able to glean a lot of important information. Beyond capability with a particular movement style, we can get a sense as to how quickly a dancer learns, how they observe and absorb nuance and detail, and how independent they are about refining what they’ve learned. We can also see how they interact in a collaborative environment – with their peers, with a partner – as well as how they approach the rehearsal process.
This process of selection is challenging on both ends, for the dancers who are participating in this ongoing audition, and for those of us responsible for program placement. We are evaluating technical strength and physical conditioning, personal motivations and work ethic, and the subjective considerations of artistry and aesthetic. Though it’s not easy, it’s a method that has created opportunity for many dancers and for Ballet Austin over the past decade, and we are committed to continuing this process for each new group of Summer Intensive dancers.
This is the first in a four-part blog series about our annual Summer Intensive program. This week we wanted to give you a run-down on how the program works, as well as why it is so valuable – both to us and the dancers which attend. Please check back each Thursday to see more behind-the-scenes coverage including day-in-the-life features, as well as posts by our artistic directors regarding their processes. We hope you enjoy!
Starting next Monday, our halls will be overrun with nearly 300 ballet dancers who will arrive for the first leg of our nationally-recognized Summer Intensive. Ranging in age from 9-22, these serious ballet students are split into either the Senior or Junior Summer Intensive programs depending on their age.
The Summer Intensive program is the culmination of an annual 30-city audition tour which takes place the winter prior to the program. This year, we are so pleased to welcome students from 36 states and 4 different countries into our home!
Summer Intensive is incredibly important to both ballet students and our company. Whether students stay for three weeks or six, they leave the program having greatly improved their skills and technical abilities. Aside from this obvious benefit, however, the program also allows our own artistic staff to select students for our Ballet Austin II Apprentice and Trainee programs. The three and six-week programs allow us to observe the students’ work ethics and styles, ensuring our ability to select dancers who be a great match with our company.
Over half of the current professional Company dancers have been through BAII – a program where dancers come and live year-round and work in-residence at our studios. Dancers may only stay in BAII for a maximum of two years, after which they may be invited to join our Company, or otherwise will move somewhere else to continue their career development.
Summer Intensive 2011 starts this Monday, and we cannot wait to meet everybody! Check back next week for a day-in-the-life feature of one of the participants!
For more information the program, please click here. See you next week everyone!
Associate Artistic Director Michelle Martin directing rehearsal for La Sylphide
Choreographed 1836 by August Bournonville, La Sylphide has been a staple of the repertoire of the Royal Danish Ballet for 170 years, and is generally considered to be the most important ballet created during the Romantic period. Though I have been looking forward to staging and coaching this ballet since Stephen announced this season’s programming last winter, I also found myself with some trepidation as he and I prepared to teach the dancers in early January.
When I work in the rehearsal studio with choreographers as they are creating new work, one of my primary responsibilities is to listen and observe, taking both written and mental note of the process and the product. Particularly crucial is that I have a clear understanding of the choreographer’s intentions so that I can help the dancers fully realize the choreographer’s expectations. Trying to apply that same process and sense of accountability to choreography that is nearly two centuries old is intriguing but also very daunting, and requires a lot of advance preparation and research.
Dancers rehearsing the sylph scene
Romantic ballets, in general, have unique aspects of shape and movement, but Bournonville’s work has a very specific aesthetic and theatricality. In setting La Sylphide, and working to fully capture the essence of this ballet, Stephen and I relied on our past experiences as dancers in Bournonville’s work, as well as notes and video recordings. We also had extensive conversations between ourselves and with the dancers about how to best interpret the narrative and tell this wonderful story.
Michelle Martin and dancers rehearsing the fortune-teller scene
Beyond my usual directorial responsibilities, La Sylphide has also given me the rare opportunity to participate onstage in the role of Madge, the Witch. As a dancer I was usually cast in the ingénue roles, so I’m enjoying the chance to portray a darker character. Bournonville’s emphasis on the development of the characters and their interaction makes this role particularly interesting for me and more complex than I’d originally anticipated.
While the responsibility inherent in staging a ballet like La Sylphide definitely offers some challenges, for both the dancers and our artistic team, the simple elegance of the storytelling and brilliant craftsmanship of the choreography have also made it incredibly fulfilling. All of us are looking forward to transitioning from studio rehearsals into the theater this week, anticipating the added energy and theatrical “edge” as we work with the Austin Symphony and the breathtaking scenery and costumes from the Boston Ballet. This marks the first time that Ballet Austin has presented La Sylphide and I’m certain it won’t be the last…
For Tickets and more information about La Sylphide, click here.
In our last installment of the La Sylphide video blog series before the performances this weekend, Artistic Director Stephen Mills and Associate Artistic Director Michelle Martin talked to us about August Bournonville’s penchant for lavish storytelling in his ballets. And La Sylphide is one of his shining examples, one of the greatest and oldest surviving Romantic classical ballets. See you at the theater this weekend!
For Tickets and more information about La Sylphide, click here.
For the first installment of our La Sylphide video blog series, I sat down with Artistic Director Stephen Mills and Associate Artistic Director Michelle Martin. We discussed the great significance of La Sylphide and the beautiful choreographic style of August Bournonville. And they expressed their excitement about bringing this centuries-old masterpiece to the stage for the first time ever in Austin. Check out the video!
For Tickets and more information about La Sylphide, click here.