Members of the Yale Undergraduate Ballet Company broke with tradition as they pliéd to Beyoncé and pirouetted to Kygo in the Off-Broadway Theater last Saturday.
A substantial leadership change, coupled with ambitious freshman recruits, allowed YUBC Artistic Directors Bella Berglund-Brown ’19 and Lance Chantiles-Wertz ’19 to revamp the company’s annual fall show, “Amour.” During last year’s performance, the organization spent half the show staging Tchaikovsky’s 19th-century “The Nutcracker Suite.” However, the group’s new president, Charlotte Brannon ’19, and directors executed an artistic pivot, dedicating “Amour” entirely to original pieces.
“This year, we wanted to produce a themed fall show with original student choreography,” Berglund-Brown said. “Pop and contemporary music don’t typically accompany ballet performances, but we wanted to show a different side of ballet, one that is accessible to everyone.”
The show presented a triptych on love. Audience members watched as dancers interpreted “Falling in Love,” “Heartbreak” and “Reconciliation” to rhythm and blues ballads, folksy Americana and downtempo electronica. Each of the 14 individual pieces was self-contained, but Berglund-Brown and Chantiles-Wertz strung them together to create a unified narrative progression.
Traditional ballets often feature orchestras that separate the audience from an elevated stage. In the Off-Broadway Theater, people sitting in the first row could have reached out and touched a dancer’s spinning leg or twirling arm.
Berglund-Brown said the company tried to use the small space to their advantage.
“We wanted more audience engagement — almost as if they were going through the motions with us,” she said.
At times, the theater’s intimacy allowed the dancers’ breaths to break through the music and become audible, just as their pointed shoes’ squeaks did upon contact with the floor. During “Reconciliation,” three dancers lifted their eyes to stare straight toward the audience, as if inviting those watching to join in their motion.
Still, the size of the theater led to new challenges and rewards for the performers.
“Being able to see everybody’s faces made me a little more nervous, but at the same time, it was nice to see everyone’s reactions in real time,” said Ashna Gupta ’20, a member of YUBC.
According to Berglund-Brown, the company’s members have experience with a diverse range of dance styles, so she trusted their ability to break with ballet’s mold. Gupta, who began Indian classical dance at age three but fell in love with ballet in middle school, was excited by the freedom the performance afforded. She collaborated with Danielle Yerdon ’20, another member of the group, to choreograph the penultimate number, and danced in four other pieces spanning the three sections.
She estimated that the performers rehearsed an hour each week per dance number they were in. During the week before the performance, the daily practices lasted up to six hours.
The substantial time commitment helped to bring the group closer together, Gupta said.
The company will enjoy more team bonding in mid-February, when they will travel to New York City and participate in the Ivy Ballet Exchange for the first time. According to Chantiles-Wertz, company members will have the opportunity to take interesting workshops, listen to lectures from professional ballet dancers and perform alongside students from Columbia University, Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University.
Amid all the changes that have taken place this year, one constant remains — the company’s spring show will be a traditional ballet. Chantiles-Wertz and Berglund-Brown said they will decide on the specific show over winter break, but look forward to collaborating with and receiving feedback from the rest of the company as well.
“The best part of the semester was bringing on all the new members,” Chantiles-Wertz said. “The company is still fairly young, so the energy of the new freshmen is great to see.”
That energy ran through “Amour.” As Gupta sees it, any opportunity to breathe new life into the art she holds dear is indispensable.
“People are quick to dismiss ballet as outdated or limited,” she said. “I think this company shows how misguided that is.”