Stand Up Straight, Keep Your Feet In First Position And Spray Vodka On Your Dress

Every time I finished reading about Stephanie, I decided that she was one pretty nifty girl.

Jill Krementz must have thought so too. She shadowed the 10-year-old student at George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, photographing Stephanie’s experiences and describing it in her own words as she practiced in class, tried out for a role in the New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker, and then rehearsed for and performed the lead girl’s part in the ballet. The result was A Very Young Dancer, published in 1976.

Out came my much-loved book with the dogeared cover for another read, after I took a behind-the-scenes tour of BalletMet’s headquarters.

Located on Mt. Vernon Avenue in an area that was once an industrial part of downtown Columbus, the Second Renaissance Revival building was designed in 1906 by noted local architect Frank Packard. With a two-story central pavilion and rounded arched windows, the building follows the style of the Arts and Crafts Movement popular at the time of its construction, which called for places of labor to be both utilitarian and artistic in design. Until about 1920, it was used as a warehouse for the F.O. Schoedinger Company, which specialized in steel fabrication for heating and cooling systems.

In 1990, the building became the home of BalletMet, the arts organization founded in 1974. After being located above a Downtown bagel shop on Gay Street, in a church basement on Blake Avenue, and a facility near the Thurber House, BalletMet has thrived in its spacious current location. The building houses a dance academy, a costume shop, rooms to store the dancers’ pointe shoes and onsite physical therapists, and a premier dance-training center said to have the largest rehearsal space outside of Moscow. Neighboring buildings contain storage, a workshop for scenery construction, and a black-box performance space.

The tour that was recently offered by the Columbus Landmarks Foundation provided a unique opportunity to see BalletMet’s professional company of dancers and their support staff put the finishing touches on their performance of Giselle. 

Théophile Gautier‘s beloved two-act classical ballet presents the tragedy that befalls the heroine, Giselle, when she falls in love with a dishonest nobleman named Albrecht. Inspired by Victor Hugo’s poem “Fantômes, about a Spanish girl who dances herself to death, Gautier added to his tale Slavic wilis, young women who die before their wedding day and rise from their grave at night to lead their male victims to dance to their deaths.

Giselle‘s 1841 Paris premiere signaled the beginning of the Romantic ballet. Wearing billowy tutus made from dozens of layers of tulle and newly developed pointe shoes, the graceful female dancers appeared to float across the gaslit stage, which looked like it was cast in moonlight. Their movements, gestures and facial expressions heightened the drama of the story they told in this new form of narrative ballet.

BalletMet’s new version of Giselle is the creation of its artistic director, Edwaard Liang. Relying on the iconic spirit of this ballet, Liang retained its original, beautiful score by Adolphe Adam and the elements of pantomime that enhance the story, but added new choreography with a modern twist and envisioned spare, sleek sets and costumes in a neutral palette. The company worked on this production for the past year, which cast three different pairs of dancers in the lead roles of Giselle and Albrecht.

In the scenery workshop, we learned how three times the amount of lighting would be hauled over to the Riffe Gallery’s Davidson Theatre for the performances, then watched volunteers build rock piles where the wilis are buried that glow from within.

In the costume shop, Erin Rollins explained how she designed and made the costumes for Giselle. To create the dresses for the wilis, she made six different prototypes until she achieved the look that Liang sought. Each dress was specifically constructed, dyed and then hand-painted to achieve a blended look that would match its respective dancer’s skin tone. Thirty leotards were created, each individually airbrushed to create a faded appearance. She designed a pattern for the base of the dress; each of the 26 dresses was cut to size. Then, each of the three layers was measured for placement, pinned, and sewn on individually. Hundreds of tendrils used to shape and frame the torso were cut and pinned to the bodices of the dresses. All told, eight staff worked on the dresses, spending 14 hours on each one. Watch a short video about the creation of the wilis’ dresses here. 

As she worked on the final costumes for Albrecht and Giselle, Erin explained that all of the costumes have hook-and-bar closures so they can fit multiple people. Although the costumes have one launderable layer underneath, their delicate fabrics can’t be cleaned, so she employs an old trick: spraying vodka — a natural disinfectant and deodorizer — on them. Headpieces are made of nylon horsehair, a strong, stiff material that can be pierced with bobby pins to hold them in place. She described how each female dancer is allotted 40 pairs of shoes a year; some go through 14 pairs, others need more.

Finally, we watched the company in a 30-minute rehearsal in which Liang refined the dancers’ actions and intentions for the upcoming performance. I admired their regal posture, well-defined muscles, turned-out legs, and even some examples of their distinctive “duck foot” stance, all fundamental to ballet technique.

As we snacked on red velvet whoopie pies and Roosevelt coffee, BalletMet’s executive director, Sue Porter, told us about Liang’s recent world premiere ballet, one of three in a triple-bill performance called Art in Motion in which water rained down on the dancers as they move on stage. Watch a clip of it here.

As I left the building, I saw students standing elegantly at rest, perfectly executing the first of five positions central to ballet. The other four positions prepare the body to move, ensuring that whether traveling from side to side or front to back, those movements would always be measured and graceful.

Other students were warming up for ballet classes, which begin at the handrail, known as the barre, with a series of exercises to hone particular skills. After progressing through slow, balancing movements and turns in the center of the room, students line up at the side of the room to work on jumping movements and traveling exercises across the floor, then finish with a short bow or curtsy known as reverence.

Ever since, I’ve been standing a little straighter, my feet in first position, just like Mrs. Boatright taught me to do in my Columbus School for Girls Lower School dance classes.

To hear more about BalletMet’s new production of Giselle, which took place February 9-17, watch this January 19 interview on All Sides Weekend: Arts and Culture with Christopher Purdy.

For more on the history of ballet, check out Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet, by Jennifer Homans, and The Ballet Companion: A Dancer’s Guide to the Technique, Traditions and Joys of Ballet, by Eliza Gaynor Minden. If, like me, you’re interested in incorporating ballet into your daily exercise routine, read Barre Fitness: Barre Exercises You Can Do Anywhere for Flexibility, Core Strength, and a Lean Body, by Fred DeVito and Elisabeth Halfpapp, and Ballet for Life: Exercises and Inspiration from the World of Ballet Beautiful, by Mary Helen Bowers. If you’re curious to know what happened to Stephanie, click here. 

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