Students take the stage for shows centering new works at Schrott Center for the Arts. Photo courtesy of Butler Ballet
LEAH OLLIE | CULTURE CO-EDITOR | firstname.lastname@example.org
Tethered hands find one another while the bodies attached to them find their swiveling inertia. Feet sweep and patter across the panels of sprung marley flooring. Syncopated breaths rhyme with percussion, thrumming synthesizers, whirling violins and vocal trills. For minutes on hours, bodies and rhythm are bound as one. The hard work dedicated to this art is all in a day’s work for Butler Ballet.
The students’ first performance of the spring semester, Midwinter Dances, was a mixed bill that blended the classical with the contemporary. Including both new faculty-created works and guest choreographer Jennifer Archibald’s new piece, “Ourfire,” the show pulled from past and present influences on dance. The cast of each piece brought the visions of each choreographer to life in new pieces that merged history with modernity.
Professor Derek Reid’s new work, “Mos-a-man’s Shout,” merges his research conducted while on sabbatical during the fall 2022 semester with his creative aspirations for Butler Ballet. Reid spent time in the regions of coastal South Carolina and Georgia to learn about the history and present of the Gullah Geechee people, an enslaved community that built a faith-based culture of music and connection. The contributions of the Gullah Geechee formed the development of the United States as we know it, and their culture survives to this day.
Reid shared that the opportunity to tell the stories of what he witnessed in his research through movement on stage was a worthy challenge.
“My [research] experience was so rich, and I arrived at the idea of perseverance and spirituality [while creating my piece],” Reid said. “I found that not a lot of people realize that there was a group of African diasporic people who really laid the foundations for this country and yet, their land was still taken away, and they were still viewed as ‘almost a man.’ So I touch on that a bit, but I think just the overall sense of hope and spirituality … comes through, and I hope that that is something that can resonate with an audience.”
Though Black history was not officially advertised as the theme for the Midwinter Dances program, for years the influence of faculty research in the fields of Black dance history and cultural studies has shaped the works displayed in the show.
Assistant professor of dance Ramón Flowers reflected upon the research and professional experiences that shaped his piece titled “Noir et Blanc,” featuring music from Black and biracial composers and artists. He said that bearing witness to a lack of diverse representation in his own career has informed his current creative endeavors of reclamation and celebration.
“I studied at the School of American Ballet, which was founded by George Balanchine, and I realized once I started doing Balanchine-esque movements, they felt very organic,” Flowers said. “When I was in graduate school doing research, I realized [that] it was because he appropriated a lot from African American culture, which a lot of [artists] did back then … I like to say that [in my work] I’m reappropriating the appropriated. I’m unpacking the appropriation of mainly the African American aesthetic within George Balanchine’s work, and that shows up in the movement [of ‘Noir et Blanc.’]”
Flowers’ research illuminates a broader conversation regarding cultural responsibility and attribution in the arts, especially regarding the concept of “giving credit where credit is due.” The world of classical ballet has seen inspired calls for diversity and inclusion in recent decades to amend systemic hegemony in many performing companies and training institutions, while many other modern dance styles historically took inspiration from the art of communities of color without proper recognition.
Flowers elaborated on this history, and said that it informs his creative process that examines the racial divide in classical ballet.
“[This piece] that I’m doing, it’s an eclectic mixture of everything that I have become in my training,” Flowers said. “I’ve danced jazz, I’ve studied classical ballet, I’ve studied the American School of Ballet form of ballet training. Then I worked with William Forsythe in Europe, who was also inspired by George Balanchine and African American culture. I am exploring all of that in my movement aesthetic in this piece.”
The unique positioning of collegiate dance programs — on a conservatory or mixed curriculum level — allows for greater exploration of the varying cultures and styles that inform the current dance world, as well as novel opportunities for students. Butler Ballet’s nationally accredited program hopes to diversify the collegiate dance experience both on and off the stage, by cultivating unique training experiences and introducing students to a variety of styles.
Senior dance performance major Camille Loftis said that she appreciates the versatility of performing roles in shows such as Midwinter Dances.
“This is my favorite show because [students] get the opportunity to [perform pieces] that are not ballet, and we also get the opportunity to work more closely with our professors than we normally would,” Loftis said. “It’s an exciting process because we don’t get a lot of time to create the pieces, and you get to see how each professor individually works and how they all differ. [This show is] a really good experience that also prepares you for work in the professional dance field.”
Mixed repertoire shows such as Midwinter Dances offer students the chance to display their versatility while building a portfolio, as well as providing a platform for faculty to share the diverse span of their research topics and creative talents.
Junior dance pedagogy major Ryan Norman said that working with Professor Reid was both a culturally and artistically gratifying experience.
“[This] process has been really, really amazing … it’s been a learning moment for all of us to tap into the character of [the Gullah Geechee people] and to portray them,” Norman said. “[The piece] made me feel very important, just because of the simple fact that I feel like the story is something that needed to be seen and shared. I felt honored to be one of the people who got to participate in doing so, and I did feel an obligation to put my full self out there, to really commit and really be present in all the rehearsals so I could fully give all of myself to the role and the piece.”
Norman’s experience is that of many Butler students who devote themselves to a unique collegiate experience that blends academics with art. From innovative contemporary pieces to reimaginations of classical roots, Butler Ballet strives to provide a spotlight to all.
For a complete schedule of Butler Ballet’s performances and events, visit their Instagram.