By Pam Hersh
A birthday celebration on June 13 will have a particularly graceful, albeit virtual, demeanor, when the Princeton Ballet School (PBS) of the American Repertory Ballet performs its annual school show. In past years, the show has graced the stage of the Patriot’s Theater of the Trenton War Memorial in front of hundreds of audience members, but this year the audience members, including myself, will be sitting in front of personal screens in the comfort of their homes. And I will be jumping for joy over the accomplishments of the PBS administrators, faculty and students as they leap and twirl on their own personal stages.
The special video show, which is celebrating the 65th anniversary of the school, will feature 150 PBS students doing excerpts from four ballets originally staged by Princeton Ballet School founder Audrée Estey.
The performance video, made available after June 13, will feature new choreography plus small sections of ballets from Princeton Ballet School’s full-length original productions: Cinderella (1955); Nutcracker (1956); Sleeping Beauty (1957); Coppelia (1960).
“Because our dancers and families could not experience the annual spring performance in-person this year, we are creating a video montage to help celebrate their hard work, passion, and technical and artistic growth,” ARB Executive Director Julie Diana Hench said.
“More than ever, our families and dancers need the beauty and healing artistry of ballet. Our students and faculty did not let fear paralyze their creativity, discipline, commitment and courage to work everyday from living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms and backyards. Our video performance is a reflection of this reality and the strong message these children have sent us while staying at home, that they are determined to dance,” said Aydmara Cabrera, director of the PBS.
Highland Park resident Lily Solomon, who has been a PBS student for nine years and my granddaughter for 13 years, loves performing and is really pleased that the school figured out a way to have the show go forward.
“This might not be the same as performing live in a theater, but for me, the ballet rehearsals for the show are making quarantine so much better,” said Lily, who was impressed with how creative and adaptable the school has been.
The online format did not change the program choices. Many elements of the school show will remain the same as in past productions, starting with the announcement of merit scholarship recipients for the 2020-21 school year and a special segment honoring the graduating seniors. There have been challenges to doing this sort of production, but the producers think the final product, nevertheless, will be very rewarding.
The length of the production was shortened, and the program was designed to focus on specific dances. It was not possible for dancers to perform a pas de deux together, for example, or for the faculty to choreograph seamless scene transitions without having dancers physically in the same space.
“Choreography also had to be adapted for students to safely perform in their individual spaces, while giving them the chance to work together as a group and connect with their teachers and cohorts,” Hench said.
Classes and rehearsals are being conducted via Zoom, with individualized coaching and group instruction. The team coordinated a COVID-safe, drive-thru costume pickup outside of the Princeton Shopping Center studio, so that students are able to wear their costumes and retain that special part of the performance experience.
“Some of the older dancers are being entrusted with tutus from our wardrobe department, a privilege they have earned and are embracing during this unprecedented time away from the studio,” Cabrera said.
At this time, PBS plans to have the performance video distributed via email to current students and families, with excerpts posted on the website and social media. Although I know this is not an ideal performing venue for the young dancers, it happens to be rather ideal for parents and grandparents who will get to see their cherubs up close and be able to see their adorable faces as they do their dance routines. In other productions (The Nutcracker and school shows in years past) on the big stage, I was always poking my daughter, an alumna of PBS, and asking, “Which one is Lily?”
As far as summer programming, the ballet school is showing the same creativity and determination to bring the students a safe yet meaningful dance experience. The administration will monitor and follow all Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state and local mandates and recommendations. “Our goal is to continue bringing the joy, beauty, artistry and discipline of dance to all our students – safely,” Hench said.
• Summer programs will run July 13-Aug. 14.
• Most of the ballet programs and classes will be a hybrid of in-person (if New Jersey allows) and live-stream instruction. For the first time, the Summer Intensive Advanced (ages 13+) has a flexible option for students to do all five weeks, or split the program into two or three week sessions.
• The Intermediate program (ages 11-13) and Juniors (ages 9-11) offer families the option to sign up for one-week sessions, or all five weeks of the program.
• All summer programs will have small class sizes.
• Currently, the school is working on policies and procedures for a gradual reopening that will include strict safety measures both inside and outside the studios.
• In the event that the school is able to offer limited in-person instruction, students may still elect to take any of the classes online.
For more information, visit www.arballet.org.