UBallet joins forces with Hubbard Street

By Jessica Hester

In their two annual performances, the ballerinas of the University Ballet (UBallet) manage to both appease classical ballet purists and dance dilettantes who don’t know the difference between a frappé and a frappuccino.

In February, UBallet staged a full-length production of Marcus Petipa’s classical ballet The Sleeping Beauty. Complete with pantomime acting and yards of tulle, Sleeping Beauty was a showcase of technical precision and refined artistry. Similar classicism is also present in UBallet’s upcoming spring show, in which dancers will be performing excerpts from the oft-neglected classic Esmerelda. In addition to these classical pieces, the company will be performing original student choreography, set to contemporary music and imbued with modern dance technique and pedestrian movements. Student choreographers such as Angelina Liang and Ilana Tabby will be debuting their new works alongside another, more established figure in the dance world—Hubbard Street Dance Company (HSDC) dancer Terry Marling, whose new choreography, performed by six UBallet dancers, will also premiere at the spring show.

This collaboration between HSDC and UBallet is a result of networking. Olivia Sabee, a third-year in the College and Artistic Director of UBallet, became acquainted with Marling when they both danced in Chicago Civic Ballet’s 2006 production of The Nutcracker. Sabee says that she was impressed by a piece Marling choreographed last spring for the dancers of the Chicago Civic Ballet because “he really had the ability to make the girls look good doing movement I never would have thought they could do.”

The piece that UBallet commissioned from Marling (sponsored by the Chicago Student Fine Arts Fund) is another testament to Marling’s ability to choreograph unexpected movements that are accessible to and aesthetically pleasing on classically trained ballet dancers. Sabee says that much of the modern dance that U of C students are familiar with is actually “contemporary ballet, jazz, or something else.” She suggests that Marling’s piece, on the other hand, is truly modern dance.

According to Sabee, many of the student pieces that will be featured in the upcoming show were choreographed before the dancers were cast. Auditions for the show included ballet pieces and excerpts from preexisting choreography so student choreographers could determine which dancers were best suited for each piece. In contrast, Sabee says that Marling “actually choreographed almost the entire dance on [the dancers], in the studio.” The auditions held for Marling’s piece consisted more of an evaluation of the dancers’ natural faculties and style of movement. The dance was then designed around the cast. U of C fourth-years Betsy England, Sara Nies, and Blair Winter-Rosenberg, third-years Robyn Gee and Olivia Sabee, and second-year Kristen Schutt were hand-picked by Marling and his rehearsal assistant, Taryn Kashock.

The collaboration with Marling is not the only connection between the U of C and HSDC. UBallet also has a working relationship with Molly Diemer, a graduate of the prestigious dance program at Indiana University and a current faculty member at DePaul University and Lou Conte Dance Center, which is the home of HSDC. Diemer teaches master classes for UBallet at the beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels, and has also been commissioned as a coach. As the show draws nearer, Diemer comes in to “clean” the pieces, or make them performance-ready. This process often involves repeating sections of a dance many times in order to make sure that all dancers are executing the same movements at the same time—uniformity is one of the most difficult tasks to master when dancing in a corps de ballet. Diemer helps dancers with technique and stage presence, both of which are integral components of a great performance. Through her careful note-taking and meticulous corrections, Diemer helps the UBallet dancers look professional and polished.

This invaluable relationship with HSDC has afforded UBallet unique opportunities to perform original choreography by talented dancers like Marling, and Diemer’s expertise has improved the quality of UBallet’s performances. Sabee hopes that these connections will be preserved in upcoming years, and I would bet that after seeing the upcoming show, dance aficionados in the U of C community will agree.