Securing a toehold for ballet at Yale

One year after its founding, the Yale Undergraduate Ballet Company will give its first full-length performance, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” this weekend.
One year after its founding, the Yale Undergraduate Ballet Company will give its first full-length performance, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” this weekend. Photo by Zoe Gorman.

Spotting a gap in the Yale dance scene, a year-old group called the Yale Undergraduate Ballet Company is reaching out to ballet enthusiasts interested in an ensemble dedicated to the traditional style.

On Friday, the company will present the ballet “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” their first full-length performance, at the Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School. Group members said the work is the culmination of two months of choreography design and rehearsal, and that they plan to follow it with one formal production annually.

“The show is going to increase exposure to an art form that we don’t have a lot of exposure to on this campus,” said company co-founder Aren Vastola ’14.

Amymarie Bartholomew ’13, Vastola’s fellow co-founder and a member of the Groove Dance Company, said the vast majority of dance groups on campus incorporate ballet as one of the techniques they employ but otherwise leave the form as “a very minor part of their performance.” Yalies trained in ballet and not interested in the contemporary work of other groups had few opportunities to perform or attend regular classes in ballet technique until the ballet company was formed last spring, she added.

“A lot of dance groups demand versatility [at auditions], which means some excellent ballet dancers end up without a group,” said Vastola, who is also a member of A Different Drum Dance Company and a Yale Dance Theater student coordinator.

That would have left current company members like Theresa Oei ’15 and Madeline Duff ’14 without a chance to perform in the style they said they feel most comfortable with.

Oei, who arrived on campus just as the company held its first auditions last fall, said that she has trained in classical ballet since she was 6 years old, and that she knew she wanted to continue in the medium in college.

“I considered other groups, but I enjoy ballet,” Oei said. “I love the structure of ballet, the technique of it — the artistry is complex, but it has that element of control that brings out finesse.”

Perpetuating the ballet tradition is a way to prove wrong those who see the form as too rigid and emotionally lacking, Duff said.

She added that she was left with a choice once she heard about the ballet company and successfully auditioned: keeping her spot on the Yale Ballroom Dance Team, or leaving the team for the fledgling company.

“I loved and enjoyed my time on the ballroom team — I made so many friends and flexed some different muscles — but I wanted to return to ballet,” Duff said, adding that working with the company made her feel more “at home.”

Bartholomew said that of the 18 people who auditioned in the fall, a majority had ballet pointe experience. The company eventually selected 15 members, inviting the others to attend their regular classes, she added.

“For several of them, this is their only dance group, which makes me that these are people who wouldn’t be dancing if we weren’t here,” Bartholomew said.

Jordan Cohen ’12 is one of those dancers. He said he joined the group to get back into dancing, after an injury in high school left him unable to dance until last fall. Training all over again has been a challenge, Cohen added, but has brought back for him memories of joy and exertion from the days when he was at ballet class six days each week.

“It’s the one dedicated ballet group [on campus], and has certainly developed a niche [that] a pretty solid group of people are interested in,” Cohen said. “A lot of people are in the situation where they have a [ballet] background, but with coursework and everything else, can’t do the level of training and time that’s normally required.”

Bartholomew said the company meets each week for a ballet class, in one of the three studios on campus that feature the specific rubber marley flooring she said is preferable for ballet performers. She and Vastola lead these sessions, Bartholomew said, adding that she also choreographed the company’s upcoming debut production.

Bartholomew said the show, which is the first full-length piece she has ever fully choreographed, is very different from the segmented work other groups do, as they present “a semester of small works.”

“The standard model of dance groups here is that every person in the group who wants to do so makes a short piece of three to four minutes, and they merge them,” she said. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but as a new group in a place with so many different dance groups, we wanted to do something different, so we’re the only dance show that is a cohesive performance.”

Oei said the collaborative nature of the production means that the dancers can contribute their thoughts, a departure from the top-down model of studios like the one she attended during high school, in which all direction came from the teachers. Vastola added that this structure makes the Undergraduate Ballet Company more like an “actual company” rather than a group with less direct engagement between members.

Chris Cho ’12, who began learning ballet only last year through classes at Payne Whitney Gymnasium and New Haven Ballet, said that the company has been an accommodating environment in which he can develop skills such as being able to dance with a partner.

“A lot of the other people had an extensive background, so they’re comfortable and natural, but still so supportive,” Cho said. “I’m so excited and nervous — I hope I don’t fall on my face!”

With opening night four days away, Bartholomew said she always knew the company would come through, despite other student dancers’ assertion that a new company “would not get off the ground.” One potential challenge to starting a new company, she said, was that the existing groups already face problems organizing dance venues and rehearsal times between themselves.

Duff said she hopes the show will make audiences laugh and understand why ballet remains relevant.

As of Tuesday night, 238 people had reserved seats for Friday’s performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” forcing the company to open up the balcony of the Coop High School’s auditorium.

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