Reported by Rebecca J. Ritzel
Photos by Billie Weiss
It’s a dreary Sunday afternoon at Goucher College, and in the dance studio eerie music is coursing through the speakers. As the dancers run through chaînés turns and tendus, the drone is occasionally punctuated by loud, erratic booms.
“That’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’” explains choreographer Christopher Fleming. He’s joking. It’s the weightlifters upstairs. But a week before the world premiere of his ballet The Myth and Madness of Edgar Allan Poe, Fleming could use a little levity. The October 9 performance will be the debut of his professional company, BalletFleming. It’s also the first time in at least 17 years that Goucher College students have performed in a full-length ballet.
Why the rarity? For several reasons, first and foremost the footwear. While it’s not unusual for college students to perform alongside professional dancers, it is rare for them to do so wearing toe shoes. In The Myth and Madness, an abstract retelling of Poe’s life and descent into insanity, seven principals play Poe, his relatives, various spirits and his literary love, Annabelle Lee. (Alex-Crozier Jackson, a senior at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, plays Poe, and Keenan McLaren, recently of Dayton Ballet, is the head raven.) Ten Goucher students fill out the corps of Ravens, taunting Poe as they crisscross the stage.
“They function like a Greek chorus,” Fleming says.
Goucher hired Fleming last year to teach advanced ballet technique and partnering classes. Now the school offers six levels of ballet and six levels of modern every semester.
“We pride ourselves on having a program that actually balances the two,” says Elizabeth Ahearn, chair of the dance department at this liberal arts college just north of Baltimore.
Fleming, a nine-year veteran of the New York City Ballet, has become a recruiting magnet for Goucher. Alexandra Keever, a freshman from Boca Raton, heard about the college when Fleming set a work on students at her ballet school in Florida. Gretchen Funk, a sophomore from Vancouver, Wash., chose Goucher specifically for its intensive ballet program.
“I wanted to keep dancing at my level,” she says. “Goucher was pretty much the only place in the country where I could study ballet and biology.”
Not all Goucher students share her enthusiasm. Some go away to college, and after a decade of dancing in community Nutcracker performances are tempted to retire their toe shoes.
“There’s some resistance,” Fleming says. “But I tell them, ‘You worked so hard for so long, don’t give up this skill now. In this job market, dancers need to be versatile. If an opera company calls and needs someone who can dance on pointe, you want to be able to put your hand up and say, ‘Me. I can do it.’”
Keever, Funk, and the 11 other students dancing in Fleming’s Poe ballet come to the studio on their own volition, choosing to add yet more rehearsals to crazy schedules combining arts and academic classwork. The first no-mirrors run-through is plagued with synchronicity challenges. Without reflections to follow, the students struggle to remember the steps. “Keep up, Lydia. Emily, you’re off,” Fleming hollers from the sidelines.
But whereas some choreographers earn reputations as tyrants, Fleming is a more benevolent dictator. He waits until the music stops, takes a breath, and asks, “What happened?” Nine times out of 10, the dancers tripped up mentally first, then physically, losing track when they should have been counting beats in their heads.
“You have to count, ladies. You have to count,” Fleming said.
Fleming tells his dancers to take a 10-minute break. Most take a swig of Gatorade but stay in the studio. Then they are back on the floor, practicing their toasts to Poe in a bacchanal-like scene featuring papier-mâché wine bottles.
Goucher scheduled the Poe ballet on top of its normal dance offerings, including a department-wide fall concert and a performance by Chorégraphie Antique, the college’s lauded historical dance troupe. Last year marked the 200th anniversary of Poe’s birth, and Baltimore celebrated with a plethora of events, including a grand faux funeral for the writer who received a pauper’s burial in 1849.
“It’s a big undertaking,” Ahearn says of Fleming’s work, “But the students have handled it really well. It’s been hard work, but they’re having fun, and so far, injury free.”
If in the end, the auditorium isn’t full or the corps dancers don’t pull perfectly together, they’ll still have the experience of performing a full-length ballet—one moment, theirs to seize. Or, as Poe put it in “The Raven”: “This it is, and nothing more.”
Rebecca J. Ritzel is a freelance writer in Washington who contributes regularly to The Washington Post and other publications. She also teaches in the Professional Writing Program at the University of Maryland. Billie Weiss is editor in chief of The Quindecim, Goucher’s independent student newspaper.