SBRI, Rooted in the Past, Reaches Toward the Future

In RI we are fortunate to be surrounded by many wonderful arts organizations. Whether you prefer equity or non-equity performances, theatergoers have many viable options. Yet, it is always refreshing to visit a place where many of the state’s talented artists – literally — took their first steps toward stardom.

For a remarkable 55 years, the State Ballet of Rhode Island (SBRI), the state’s first established classical ballet company, co-founded by Artistic Director Herci Marsden, has been the training ground for many area dancers: past, present and future. In fact, if one were to view the resume of any number of dancers from the region who have made dance a career, SBRI would undoubtedly be listed someplace.

And while thousands of dancers have walked through the doors of the small studio nestled in the woods of Lincoln, it was truly special, at a recent Friday night rehearsal, when the fourth generation of Marsdens entered the studio for the first time. What a sight to see Ms. Marsden holding the one-month-old daughter of her granddaughter, Shana, just as the warm-up ended.

Surrounded by decades of framed memories, it is easy to get lost in the past at this intimate studio. And, with Ms. Marsden holding her great-granddaughter, bending her hands and feet and observing aloud, “Look, she already has a dancer’s hands and feet,” one easily considers the future. But, on this night, the focus is clearly on the present.

SBRI Executive Director Ana Marsden-Fox, Ms. Marsden’s daughter, gets things underway, announcing to the dancers that they will be running through Acts I, II and III twice: “You dancers need to build stamina; we will have two shows in one day. So this will help see if you have the stamina to do it!” And that it will; by night’s end they will have competed three straight hours of dancing!

Looking around the studio at the dancers sitting along the floor with their backs against the mirrored walls, I am struck by how young they are. In years past, SBRI had a healthy core of older dancers to mentor the younger ones. But now it seems the next generation of dancers are ready to take their place in the company’s storied history, a history that includes a very non-traditional December ballet.

In an effort to differentiate themselves from countless Nutcrackers, SBRI opts for Coppelia, the heartwarming story about a doll with beautiful enamel eyes who captures the heart of an unwitting young man named Frantz. Comedy and festive dance prevail as Swanhilda, Frantz’s girlfriend, teaches him a few lessons about love. Like The Nutcracker, this is a fun, family-oriented ballet that SBRI makes appropriate for the season.

As the music from Act I begins to swell, the dancers spring into action. And, as is the norm for most SBRI productions, the corps appears to be very well-drilled. But, during this rehearsal, it is 17-year-old Emily O’Heir who shines; she will perform as one of three Swanhildas. Over the course of two days, Coppelia will be performed three times.

I first noticed Ms. O’Heir several years ago when she was barely a teenager. With an amazing presence and poise, I felt that if she could just reign in her long arms and legs, she would be a special performer. Last season she danced her first lead role, Giselle, one of the most coveted roles of all ballerinas.

Watching her rehearse as Swanhilda, I am captivated as she leans back into port de bras with both arms gracefully tracing the air. Later, dancing on pointe, she alternately kicks both legs well over her head. During a beautiful supported arabesque, she holds her back perfectly while the tip of her foot, with her back leg in attitude, rises high above her partner’s head.

Just as impressive, perhaps, is Ms. O’Heir’s acting, still well beyond her years. She is a pure joy to watch with her smile radiating throughout the studio. Then, when she suspects Frantz of being unfaithful, watch out. Even when not receiving as much as she is giving, her ability to pantomime keeps one transfixed.

As the rehearsal proceeds, young dancers come and go perfectly on queue. Ms. Marsden-Fox explains that in addition to the company dancers, there are dancers from four area dance schools in the production. It is wonderful to see so many young smiling faces fulfilling one of the biggest dreams of their young lives. Meanwhile, out in the small sitting area, aspiring little ballerinas practice their steps just in case they are called upon.

SBRI’s Coppelia will be presented at Rhode Island College’s Robert’s Hall on Dec 12 and 13. For tickets or additional information, visit stateballet.com.

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