A Time to Dance, Stanton Welch's first choreographic commission, was first choreographed in 1990 for the Dancer's Company in Australia. Since then it has been performed all over the world. BalletMet Columbus is the fourth company to perform the ballet.
In Welch's ballet, character dancing is combined directly with classical dancing to create an entirely different set of movements. While audience members will see pointe shoes and pirouettes, they will also see dancers deliberately flexing their feet and turning their legs in from the hips, infusing more refined European dancing with the energy of peasants and gypsies. Performing this combination of classical ballet's geometry with character dancing's abandon is deceptively difficult. Welch admits as much, saying that this ballet was designed to challenge the dancers yet allow them to have fun within the boundaries of classical ballet. And if rehearsals are any indication, the dancers are clearly having fun, even as they rush across the stage trying to catch up to the music.
The piece is a celebration of youth and exuberance and calls to mind evenings outdoors in late summer. These are characters that have few worries and take the time to revel in the pleasure of friends and the excitement of discovery.
The dancers run with abandon. They spin, and spin and spin until you are sure they are going to fall right over. Not to mention the fact that there is some pretty exciting partnering going on. Ballerinas are constantly being tossed into the air as easily as if they were small children. At one point, two of the male dancers lift one woman high above their heads by her ankles. It looks difficult and a little scary, but after a few tries she climbs into the air and floats back down to the floor with perfect ease. In the last moments of the ballet the women are thrown and caught over the heads of their partners. They gracefully tumble back to earth in a faint and leave the stage at a fast clip as the last notes of music die away.
There are several sections to this ballet each dressed in a different color that could have been taken right out of a late summer garden. After a rousing opening section, there is a friendly pas de trios for one man and two women, followed by a solo for a woman. She is a bit older and mature than the characters that just appeared. There is an obvious sensuality about her dancing alone that says to the audience "I am comfortable with the woman I am becoming." Then there is a pas de deux, less confident, more exploratory. The dancers touch each other tentatively, almost surprised at the feelings they have for each other. There are moments of abandon and restraint as they try to negotiate what is appropriate and what is exciting. Almost in direct contrast to this pair, a woman struts around the stage as the men of the company literally fall at her feet. A pas de trios for one woman and two men rounds out the suite and the entire company rebounds to the stage for a driving finale.
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Character (caractère) Dancing
Character dancing became a phenomenon in 19th century European ballet. A spirit of exploration and revived nationalism all over the continent resulted in an interest in people living in areas outside the main factory of ballet, Paris France. Choreographers began telling stories that centered on common people and injected stylized folk dances into their ballets. The first, Jean Dauberval's La Fille Malle Gardée (1789) looked beyond the usual suspects who usually appeared on the ballet stage (gods, goddesses, kings, queens) and chose instead to tell the story of a peasant girl, Lise, and her imminent betrothal to a man she did not love.
Later, Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot would use stylized versions European folk dances in Giselle (1841). While those references have not completely survived in present-day restagings of the ballet, the idea continued and was an important part of many other Romantic Era ballets. The last great ballet of that era, Arthur Saint-Léon's Coppélia (1870), saw the heroine Swanhilda dancing the folk dances of Europe to the delight of Dr. Coppelius.
By the time French choreographer Marius Petipa was installed in St. Petersburg as ballet master in 1869, Russian dancers had already had a strong education in folk dancing. Unlike Renaissance-influenced Italy and France, Russia had no strong tradition of court ballets. Instead of celebrating a refined, understated type of dance, Russian students learned the folk dances of different regions. While he imported Italian ballerinas to dance the more classically technical roles in his ballets, Petipa chose to incorporate the Russian dancers' specialty. Realizing the value of such dances, he continued to encourage the study of character dancing in the ballet academy.
A number of Petipa's ballets include divertissements utilizing stylized versions of European folk dances. Most notably are those in Act II of The Nutcracker (1892) and Act III of Swan Lake (1877). The dancers may wear heeled shoes or boots and costumes that resemble the national dress of the country they are depicting. They may stomp their feet, click heels together and fold their arms at their elbows. They polka, mazurka, czardas, polonaise and tarantella in large and small groups.
Character Dancing Today
While it is important to acknowledge the roots of these dances, it is also important to recognize that they were never meant to be genuine reconstructions of national dances. They were born in the mind of the choreographer and stylized to match the aesthetic of the ballet as a whole. It is possible that in today's artistic climate, labeling a clearly European dance as "Arabic" or presenting a French interpretation as "Russian" could be seen as insensitive appropriation, but 19th century ballet made no such apologies. For the choreographers of the time it was a celebration of the diversity of a world they were only beginning to know.
Today, the study of character dancing is still a part of many dance academies since ballets that incorporate stylized folk dances are still widely performed. While not as technically demanding as classical ballet, these dances require an amazing amount of rhythmic precision and stamina.
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Antonin Dvorak Slavonic Dances 1, 2, 7 op. 46; Slavonic Dances 3, 4, 7 op. 72; Serenade For Strings (4th movement)
At the same time that European and Russian ballet masters were drawing on the folk dances of their regions for their productions, Dvorak was doing the same thing with music. He has come to be recognized as one of the most influential composers to combine the rhythms and sounds of Slavic music with the classical European tradition. It is completely natural then that Welch would turn to Dvorak for his ballet that blends the energy and shape of European folk dancing with classical European dance.
According to Welch, the choreography seemed to spring right from the music. In watching the company dance it, the whole thing makes sense. Encased in the accompaniment are the rhythms of stomping feet as well as the subtler sounds of love songs.
Dvorak composed two sets of Slavonic dances and Welch uses parts form each of them for his ballet. These were the songs that propelled Dvorak to international fame when his friend Brahms saw amazing talent in the young composer. Welch also draws on Dvorak's highly praised Serenade for Strings from 1875.