CHAUTAUQUA, N.Y. It’s a Spanish story, written by a French composer, set in North Carolina, and created here in upstate New York.
“Carmen,” a new ballet by choreographer Sasha Janes, will premiere in Charlotte Oct. 17. But its first steps were taken in a wooden dance studio on the shores of Chautauqua Lake, a 13,000-acre ribbon of water southeast of Buffalo.
Former New York City Ballet dancers Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride have run a summer dance school here since 1989. When N.C. Dance Theatre hired them to serve as artistic directors seven years later, the company not only gained two of America’s most renowned retired ballet dancers, it also gained a summer home.
“It really is wonderful for the dancers,” Bonnefoux said Saturday, before the company’s final performance of the Chautauqua season. “It gives the dancers eight weeks of summer work, and that is so rare in America.”
The setting is idyllic. Since 1874, arts lovers have been vacationing in Chautauqua, attracted by the music, dance and theater programs offered during the summer season. The dancers share three rental cottages, and Bonnefoux and McBride own a house. On their off-hours, you might catch the dancers performing an improvised ballet by a fountain, or jiving with senior citizens at a Beach Boys concert. But make no mistake: They are also working hard.
“It’s a great place to create,” Janes said. “Chautauqua has a vacation atmosphere, but I don’t think I’ve taken a single day off for eight weeks, really.”
“Carmen” is one of five new ballets that Janes has choreographed for the company during an eight-week season when the dancers also performed more than a dozen other works. That’s a prolific pace, considering that for every five minutes the dancers spend onstage, they might spend three hours learning steps in the studio.
Many company members – including Janes – also teach at the school. At the final rehearsal for “Carmen,” student bunheads peeked in through the studio windows, eager to see the professional dancers sashay to the habanera.
Saturday night in Chautauqua, Melissa Anduiza made her debut as the sultry heroine. Rather than perform the hourlong ballet, Janes worked with conductor Grant Cooper to devise a 20-minute excerpt. Anduiza took a bow to rapturous applause, but knows she has work to do before the full “Carmen” premieres in October.
The two-part rehearsal process is a luxury in ballet, and one that benefits North Carolina audiences. The dancers had just two and a half weeks to learn “Carmen,” and now they have two months to perfect it.
“Because the process is so fast, you are forced to produce something. You have to make it happen whether you feel ready or not,” Anduiza said. “When we get back to Charlotte, there is this ease, because the choreography is already in our bodies … We can clean things up, get more comfortable, and take it to another level.”
While the other Janes ballets that premiered at Chautauqua – “Last Lost Chance,” “Rhapsodic Dances” and “Shelter” – retained the same basic structure and steps when they were performed in Charlotte, Janes has work to do on “Carmen.”
The hourlong version of the ballet will be set in a North Carolina textile mill rather than a Spanish cigarette factory. One of Anduiza’s lovers will be a soldier called in to subdue the workers’ strike, and the other will be a baseball player known as Miller, not Escamillo the bullfighter.
There will still be some Spanish references, given Bizet’s classic music, but little of the fan waving and thigh slapping that has become so clichéd in Latin-inspired ballet. Janes’ habanera, for example, is performed while Anduiza had her hands tied behind her back, and he’s thinking of doing a scene in a baseball locker room.
The sports references even filtered down to the “Toreador’s March,” one of the most famous numbers in “Carmen.” “Really pump your arms,” the choreographer told his dancers in rehearsal. “It will help the physicality if you all pretend to be Usain Bolt for a second.”
Janes began reimaging “Carmen” almost a year ago, when Bonnefoux called him into the office and asked him to create another story ballet. Coming up with the textile setting was easy, but the Australian choreographer did some research to learn more about the factory labor disputes and baseball teams of the 1930s.
“Everything fell into place,” he said. “It was the perfect parallel story.”
This week, the company is decamping from upstate New York. Now, for the next two months, Janes expects to have the “Toreador’s March” stuck in his head. He’ll be rethinking steps and supervising design of the costumes and sets.
“I’m looking forward to the end of October,” he said. “But I’m going to enjoy the process.”
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