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In the Presence of Wonderment - A Critic's Comment

by Rita Kohn
December 16, 2011
Scottish Rite Cathedral Theater
650 N Meridian Street
Indianapolis, IN 46204
317.262.3110
Editorial policy for the Indianapolis-based newspaper where I serve as dance critic is not to review student productions. Nevertheless, I regularly attend school-based performances as a way of showing support for dancers at their formative level. What follows is a personal comment about the work of the Indianapolis School of Ballet, founded in 2005 by Victoria Lyras, a Balanchine trained dancer whose professional career includes the Pennsylvania Ballet and guest appearances nationwide. The intention is for the school to lead into forming a professional resident company. Indianapolis currently does not have a resident professional ballet company. The mission statement reads: "Indianapolis School of Ballet advances professional ballet and dance education in our community through world-class training and dynamic performances provided in a culturally diverse environment designed for continual physical, intellectual and artistic growth of all dancers. The Indianapolis School of Ballet's school year offers three main programs: Pre-Professional Program-ages 8-19; Young Children' Program-ages 4-7; Open Dance Program-ages 13-adult.

Rita Kohn is a member of the Board of the Dance Critics Association.
It's December 16, 2011. I'm attending opening night of the Indianapolis School of Ballet production of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker. I've already witnessed two productions of The Nutcracker — at Butler University Dance Theatre in Indianapolis and Indiana University Dance Theater in Bloomington, IN. Each has particular strengths and garners an audience of devotees. [See ExploreDance.com reviews: http://www.exploredance.com/list.htm?s=author&sid=903] But not having to put my reviewer's brain into gear, I can allow myself to 'sit back, relax and enjoy the show.' And yet—

Indianapolis School of Ballet's 5th annual The Nutcracker sparkles with dancers making their debut and returning dancers moving into new roles or reprising last year's roles. What is immediately obvious to an audience member at any ISB performance is every dancer's unabashed sense of joyfulness in being on stage and their presentation of characters as dimensional beings. This afternoon, I'm again brought into the Nutcracker's duality as "real world" and dreamtime world weave in and out of magical episodes. And as before, something new is added to the ISB production. This year the zinger is the Act II debut of Ben Harris as an ebullient Mother Ginger fussing and fluttering in the center of a glittering hoop skirt replete with drawstring manipulation allowing a trove of Polichinelles to troop onto the stage and coax Clara to join them.

Mr. Harris, a physical therapist, reconnected with his former dance background by enrolling in ISB's Open Division adult ballet classes in 2010. He continues to be part of the Act I Party scene, along with adults from the Riolo Dance Ballroom, housed adjacent to ISB's studios in the heart of downtown Indianapolis, overlooking the State Capitol.
From beginning to end I watch for what else might be different beyond the expected element of a different dancer affecting familiar choreography. Credits read: "Scenario based on "Nutcracker and the King of Mice" by E.T.A. Hoffmann (1816); Choreography by Victoria Lyras, Fiona Fuerstner and Robert Rodham with Grand Pas de Deux from George Balanchine's The Nutcracker TM, a Balanchine ® Ballet; Balanchine Repetiteur, Victoria Lyras"

By virtue of Lyras' connectivity with Balanchine, ISB's Nutcracker incorporates elements of Balanchine's recollections of his youthful experiences in Russia and his never-ending sense of wonder, inquisitiveness and imagination. Yet Lyras, who trained at the School of American Ballet and danced with New York City Ballet and the Pennsylvania Ballet, in honoring Balanchine's brilliance moves beyond his mentorship to make a personal mark not only on her choreography but on the school she founded, and the company she intends to build in partnership with Indianapolis residents and other organization. Sparked by her philosophy, which balances perfection with tenderness, a special aura surrounding everyone connected with the ISB in its daily operation and in its public productions. Effectively and efficiently board members, teachers, students, parents, volunteers, guest artists, designers and all other personnel emanate a sense of sharing and building that is beyond business-as-usual. They happily inform you that their goal is 'to merge attention to each student's individual needs, aspirations and talent with the overall goal of making fine art while balancing the budget.'

Lyras has been dancing since age five, has moved through the usual professional ranks to critical acclaim, and has 'met payroll' through personal entrepreneurship following her retirement from performance. She's smart about what it takes to be financially viable, but not at the expense of what she really cares about—the individual child and his/her family. Lyras savors her own family's support and sacrifice along with the enduring care of her teachers, mentors, fellow dancers and others who make up the world of dance. She carries this obligation to honor those who have surrounded her and continue to surround her, supplemented by a strong sense of building community, into every aspect of the Indianapolis School of Ballet.

This helps me understand why audience members—who do not have a relative in the cast — tell me they think ISB stands out among a laudable dozen Nutcrackers within easy driving distance of Indianapolis. When pressed to explain why they come to this conclusion, what it to translates to, 'Well, maybe it's not just what the dancers do, but why they are doing it'. What is ISB's special element that builds connections, loyalties, praise and viability for a dance company? When everything depends upon performers and their performance to make an audience feel they are in the presence of something truly special we indeed are reminded that what's happening on stage reflects what's coming from the top. This is the true trickle-down-effect of inspired and inspiring leadership. Staff and board members being at-one with an artistic director who cares about each person involved in the school and in a production translates into a deep sense of humanity radiating across the lights into the seats. "Sold out" for five performances is a word-of-mouth tribute to an organization with a vision, a heart and a soul founded on the principles of transmitting communal and personal historic relevance, honoring tradition and growing the art, craft and essentiality of dance as a living entity.

When Tchaikovsky's alluring overture eases us out of the crush of getting into our seats, we are a continuum of audiences worldwide for over a century. However, something unique is afoot because when the curtain rises at the ninety-year-old Scottish Rite Cathedral to reveal a scenic backdrop depicting the 165-year-old Morris-Butler House, we are connected with stone, brick and mortar of our own city's living history. And when Paul Vitali as Herr Drosselmeyer looks us in the eye, suddenly turns into profile and raises his cane as if in salute to an off-stage entity, then beguilingly transforms a red handkerchief into blue, we are lured into suspending disbelief, simultaneously here and now but not exactly only here and now. Based on a story written by E.T. A. Hoffmann in 1816, the year Indiana gained Statehood, there are as many variations on the central theme of Clara's dream of an enchanted Nutcracker as there are interpretations of the nickname "Hoosier."

Lyras brings guests along the street and with them also takes us inside the Morris-Butler House to experience first hand its legacy of lovely holiday parties in the parlor. Fritz is a frisky child, not mean, but neither is he considerate. Yet, because of what he does, Fritz sets the crux of the story in motion and is as central to Clara's after-party experience as is Herr Drosselmeyer.

From the moment of her weeping over the injured Nutcracker at the party, to her curling up on the sofa with her beloved toy, to her drifting into layered dreams, to her seat of honor as a spectator of foods in graphic motion, to the point of engagement with the Polichinelles, Clara's fanciful delight is ours, and when she moves from dream into wakefulness within the swirl of repetition, we come back to our seats as changed as she is by mysterious, magical, momentous episodes.

Since this synopsis is pretty much the arc of all Nutcrackers, and since every company strives to make its Nutcracker the hit of the season, and every Nutcracker has endearing children in the cast and applause-getting moments, what is it that brings ISB audience members to comment to a critic, 'This is so different from other Nutcrackers,' and 'I got more swept into it here than at any other Nutcracker.'

Perhaps the mystery, magic and momentousness is something particular within the ISB dancers and production crew because when you hear them saying versions of 'being in this [production] is like being in Clara's head' they are articulating how completely they embody Victoria Lyras' vision of being in the presence of the story as a truthful participant; of being an embodiment of a dimensional character with a full history, moving in a very clear way to convey emotion, intention and context. For ISB dancers it's incorporating impeccable technique and fine performance with their body, mind and soul to create an analogous being. It simmers down to a collective 'I'm putting my whole self into Clara's dream so it's real to me what I'm doing.'

This Nutcracker is a perfect vehicle from which to extrapolate the effect of what makes dance a life-giving endeavor on and off-stage. It's in attention to detail that I recognize when good enough is not good enough, and when I applaud so vigorously it's not because I'm expected to applaud at this juncture, but because the dancers just gave me something beyond what is expected.

Ultimately, I conclude it's what's happening in the studio and backstage that creates the unique sparkle on stage and envelopes me with a sense of wonderment, awe and wellbeing. It's what I am given by a hundred people ages four to forty-plus, wearing meticulously crafted costumes, and moving elegantly in partnership with music and lighting. Truth transmitted in being Columbine, Harlequin and Soldier dolls has the same staying power as truth in being Clara and Fritz. Humor in being Mouse Queen is as poignant as grace in being Snow Queen, Sugar Plum Fairy and Dew Drop Fairy. Holding rank as a Toy Soldier is as inspiring as is corps precision as Snowflakes, Angels, Flowers. Awesome is as apt for exacting depiction of Spanish Chocolate, Arabian Coffee, Chine Tea, German Marzipan, Russian Peppermint Candy Canes and Bon-Bons, as for the jumps, turns and flying leap catches of the Snow King and Cavalier.

The tip-off for this critic of something extraordinary going on at the Indianapolis School of Ballet is, for the fifth time in as many years, witnessing the glow of delight on the faces of a dozen Angels as the Sugar Plum Fairy swirls about them. Tiny as they are, these dancers on December 16 show they have absorbed something beyond the usual admonition to come onstage and get off without falling down or otherwise messing up. These Angels, imbued with the spirit of truth in performance, enticed me into their world of wonderment. And when they floated off it felt as though Angel dust glittered across to me to carry into my life for another year of savoring small delights, in the same way that Drosselmeyer, in a gesture of gathering ethereal airiness and sprinkling it upon Clara as she awakens, equally anoints me with everlasting powers of wonderment.

I knew I wasn't alone in this ownership when another person exiting whispered to me, 'I love this Nutcracker because it's so personal.'
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