Indianapolis School of Ballet Summer Intensive offers the community two diverse public programs: wrapping up the first two weeks, a half-time show at an Indy Eleven Professional Soccer home match and, at the culmination of the entire five-week session, a fully costumed presentation in the Indianapolis Artsgarden Atrium. Every year I remark, “It can’t get better than this” and, lo, every next year tops the year before.
Really, what can be more exhilarating than a racing, kicking, saving, scoring squadron of ever-shifting “teams” of dancers in Indy Eleven uniforms taking to the Lucas Stadium soccer field, on June 29, 2019, for a choreographed scrimmage match where your eyes belie you into thinking you’re actually seeing a ball in motion and referees are calling penalties. Please, someone in the world of professional soccer, let me know what other school of ballet offers a “Soccer Dance” Halftime Performance opportunity at one of your home matches?
While Indianapolis School of Ballet students regularly perform at ‘out of the box’ sites, for summer intensive students arriving from elsewhere it’s usually an unexpected new opportunity to present at what seems like ‘guerrilla performance spaces’. This concept of ‘exhilarating and unexpected ’ are ordinary cornerstones of the Indianapolis School of Ballet, as well as for the professional members of Indianapolis Ballet.
The Indianapolis Artsgarden was designed by architect Walter Blackburn as a glass-domed atrium floating above iconic Washington Street, equally known as The Historic National Road and “Old U.S. 40.” The audience experiences the dancers against a due-west horizon, with clouds gathering and dispersing atop historic buildings. Vehicular and pedestrian traffic is a natural part of the mix below. Dancers are looking out at an audience seated in rows of chairs, around tables, up the staircase and seemingly suspended above them on a catwalk at the wall opposite from the impromptu stage.
What we all in unison experienced on July 19, 2019, just a day short of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on The Moon, felt like a program collectively more introspective than those from previous years. It’s a truism artists reflect the tenor of the time in which we are living, making art to counter or uplift the events that socially, economically affect us. Tension growing from uncertainty, divisiveness, has become part of the current norm. Yet, here in this space, I was feeling uplifted, perhaps vibes still resonating from the July 14 Crystal [15th] Annual “Men of Substance and Style” fashion event in support of the Walter and Alpha Blackburn Scholarship Fund for students of architecture. In addition, the Walter Blackburn Protege’ Award annually is presented to an individual who has had a distinguished career in dedication to family, community and professional excellence. WTHR political analyst Robin Winston, in accepting the 2019 award, thanked “every one of you for living by the motto of Winston Churchill that you make a living not by what you get, but you make a life by what you give.”
Making a life ‘by what you give’ is what I felt as dancers bonded with each other to deliver music-inspired choreography as a community of giving.
Division 1 students opened with complicated footwork and head moves perfectly in sync with Omi’s Jamaican-inspired world-wide hit, “Cheerleader.” In striped pastel-hued tutus over black leotards, Greg Guessner’s choreography started as a response to the trumpet call and closed with a seemingly non-ending walk off stage to a continuing drumbeat. Not so much as a tad of, ‘hello, audience, look at us being cute’ filtered across the space. Rather, it was, ‘We’re here together exploring the inner life of this music and Mr. Greg’s choreography; thanks for coming to share.’
I settled in, headlines banned from thought process.
Roberta Wong choreographed to two original works by Charlie Ballentine on his newly released album “Cold Coffee,” [signifying the leftover cups accumulating during the writing process], with Ballentine on electric guitar, accompanied by bassist Jesse Wittman and drummer Chris Parker. Division 3 students embraced “Strange Idea” with the spunky spontaneity and suave moves Ballentine describes as “coming out of left field.”
“It wasn’t like anything I had written before and it helped give shape and direction to what the album was going to be.” On musicalfamilytree.com
, Ballentine described “Strange Idea as “a really tense tune with some dissonant harmonies which probably came out of the frustrating writers block I was having at the time. But as soon as I wrote the opening riff I immediately started thinking of all the cool things that Chris and Jesse would add to it.” Wong gave dancers free reign and it proved amazing as a call and answer bouncing across the trio.
Division 4 students took Ballantine’s hypnotic “Further” into Wong’s vision of an ethereal space in which changing emotions and fluid relationships evolve without resolution, simply floating off-stage. This vision of sculpting emotion from sound into space has been with me for days. I keep expecting to see the troupe materialize around my garden as I put some order into the plots overtaken by what I call ‘weeds,’ but nature admonishes as gifts. But maybe that’s what Wong’s interpretative choreography for Division 2 dancers was asking me to consider with her choreographic interpretation "Drumming Jungle Flower,” which had a tinge of pre-Baroque close to floor glide-lift-steps
“I most always let the Div 1 and Div 2 students choose their own title,” informed Wong in an email when I asked her about Drumming Jungle Flower. “The music is from a large (42 track) album I bought off iTunes, called "Bang!" It is composed of drumming groups from various sources, and I use it for classwork as my classes use pre-recorded music.”
Moves replicated plants growing in a shaded place, each vine or stem cohabitating with the others for a glorious array. This uplift emerged as I watched green tunic-over sorts-clad dancers in singles and groupings at varying instants wriggling, sprouting, rising straight up from a cross-legged on-the-floor opening.
“I was excited about that dance,” reported Wong. “I don't know why I never thought of that beginning for a dance before now; that particular group inspired it to fruition and it completely works with their skill level.”
The concept continued with Wong’s choreography for Division 1 students in black leotards, sitting cross-legged in a circle, initiating hand movements to Bela Fleck music that morphs into Bach and brings the dancers to their feet, sculpting body moves to the music in the art of playing before floating to sitting as a circle-back-to-beginning. It was magical.
New York City-based choreographer Scott Jovovich brought students into the heat of Broadway dance. Division 4 sizzled with a glyph of Chicago’s “Hot Honey Rag” and Division 3 literally raised the temp with a fast-paced profusion of groupings spiraling out from the opening trumpet call to the gutsy “L.O.V.E.” body sculpting paired perfectly to Bert Kaempfert’s beloved original 1964 composition, that’s been picked up as album covers by a half-century of singers we adore. It was 1970 when Robert Indiana began creating his ‘body’ of LOVE sculptures, with one residing at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields. However, the visual genesis does go back to 1964 with the commission by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City for Robert Indiana to create a Christmas card.
Carrying forward from what ISB founding artistic director Victoria Lyras cited as the foundation of Classical Ballet leading into preparing students for diversity within the world of dance, we witnessed Division 1 students ‘killing it’ to Emily Womersley’s re-imagined Billy Joel’s “It’s Still Rock & Roll to Me,” along with Abigail Bixller’s grace-filled “Jazz Suite” bringing yet another interpretation to this exploratory music by Shostakovich. The young ladies in black and pink, and the young man, as soloist, in white and black layered speed with grace.
Division 2 students were completely WOW in rendering Greg Goessner’s KA-ZAM choreography to Jeanine Tesori’s “Thoroughly Modern” score, absolutely suave for Emily Wormley’s tap take on Van Morrison’s “Wild Night” call out to dance and the epitome of light, smooth grace peeling off from massing for uplifting feel in sync with Michael Giacchino’s “What’s Up Waltz,” choreographed by Riley Horton.
Classical Ballet at its finest emerged with Pacific Northwest Ballet trainee Conner Horton, who spent the summer at ISB, essaying the male deux in Bournonville's ballet The Flower Festival in Genzano, set to music by Adolphe Adam and coached by Paul Vitali.
For Division 3 students, upon Beethoven’s glorious “Moonlight Serenade” also known as Crimson Tide, Vitali created stunning group interweaving, from which soloists spun out, the corps reforming into ever-changing formations, heightening the emotionality of ‘breaking rules,’ which is what Beethoven mastered in this work.
Countering expectations is what we’ve grown to expect with ISB over the past decade-plus. The program closed with Division 4 students delivering meticulous melding with the rhythmic dynamism Saint-Saens infused into his Allegro composition for Cello and Piano. Lyras’ choreography uplifts the lyricism with soloists visually depicting the interplay between the instruments, who deliver the requisite virtuosity emanating through their bodies from the instruments in dynamic contention.
Upon reflection, what continues to touch me, is the breadth and depth of musical experience—a spectrum of Russian composers side-by-side with Broadway’s and Pixar’s hottest composers. Newly emerging choreography alongside with work by seasoned veterans with a commanding resume, production values in line with professional expectations, and a sense of ownership alongside the best.
The hand off is a mere second-generation from the greats—Balanchine to Lyras and now to Bixler Guesser and Horton; Martha Graham to Dance Kaleidoscope’s David Hochoy to Wong; Fosse to Jovovich; Eliot Feld to Vitali, generation after generation just a step from someone great, making space for the next ‘great.’
Yes, the spirit of Walter Blackburn resonates throughout the Artsgarden. Credit outstanding technical support by Mike Prusa.
Next Up: Beyond Ballet at the IndyFringe Festival, The District Theatre Christel DeHaan MainStage : Aug. 16, 7:30p.m; Aug. 17, 3p.m.; Aug. 18, 6p.m.; Aug. 20, 6p.m.; Aug. 22, 9p.m.; Aug. 25, 7:30pm.
Tickets: www.indyfringe.orgAbout the Venue:
“Owned and operated by the Arts Council of Indianapolis, the Indianapolis Artsgarden is a destination for arts and culture in the heart of downtown. The structure is a seven-story tall glass and steel icon over the intersection of Washington and Illinois Streets. The Artsgarden presents more than 250 free and public performances each year, along with monthly visual arts exhibitions by central Indiana artists. It is also rented for private events, including weddings, corporate receptions, and nonprofit events, which support funding for public arts programming.”About Indianapolis School of Ballet Summer Intensive:
“Receive professional training at America’s newest Balanchine company The summer intensive program is catered for the serious-minded dancer. The five week Intensive provide classes in Technique, Pointe, Variations, Adagio, Modern, Ballroom, Jazz, Pilates, and Weight Training for Men. There will also be lectures on various topics that pertain to dancers and their lifestyles including nutrition, foot care, and college and career preparedness. ISB provides dancers with enriching experiences within and outside of the studios throughout the duration of the five weeks of classes. Conveniently located downtown, the ISB studios provide access to the city’s best cultural attractions, shopping, scenic bike and walking trails, museums, parks, and art galleries – many within walking distance of the studio and housing accommodations. Students enjoy an atmosphere that fosters long-lasting friendships with people from across the nation. Pre-approved activities give students the opportunity to see great performances, and take trips to museums, historic landmarks, sporting events, concerts, and the zoo. All outings are chaperoned by ISB staff. Sightseeing could include Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis Indians Game’ Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Connor Prairie, Indianapolis Zoo; find more here:www.facebook.com/Indyballet/videos/10155238638309792
Photo © & courtesy of Moonbug Photography