With Thanksgiving right around the corner, area dance companies are putting the finishing touches on their annual holiday productions. Looking to get an early start, the State Ballet of Rhode Island kicks things off on November 20 with their annual presentation of Coppelia.
Set to Leo Delibes’ festive score, this charming and witty ballet tells the heartwarming story of a young village boy who falls in love with a beautiful doll – much to the bemusement of his girlfriend. But, after teaching him an embarrassing lesson, the two are wed during a snow-filled ceremony and “live happily ever after.”
Now in its amazing 56th season, SBRI has been performing Coppelia for decades in lieu of the more traditional holiday offering featuring another type of doll. It is this sense of tradition that motivates and inspires assistant director Ana Marsden Fox.
Noting that the current trend in dance seems intent on “modernizing” ballets, Ms. Fox emphasizes the need to “maintain the tradition and history of classical ballet.” In this vein, she views the company’s role as that of an educator: “We strive to create, present and preserve,” a function that benefits both its dancers and its audience.
Over the years, anybody familiar with RI dance understands that SBRI’s greatest contribution has been in molding young dancers and instilling in them a love, passion and respect for ballet. Thousands of dancers have passed through their doors and nostalgically recall their days at SBRI while countless others have gone on to well-respected careers in dance.
At a recent rehearsal, I observed SBRI’s efforts to continue with this tradition. Before the dancing begins, Ms. Fox addresses the troupe reminding them to have fun and to get ready to “go into fantasyland. You can do things here that you can’t do at the mall without people looking at you funny,” laughter fills the studio.
The company looks very young, younger than it has looked in years. Ms. Fox makes a sweeping hand gesture and proclaims, “All these dancers know and dance a variety of different roles. We want them to be passionate about what they are doing.” The music begins and the fantasy begins to unfold.
While much remains the same at SBRI, there is lots of change afoot at the company’s wooded Lincoln retreat. Due to some ice and water damage from last year’s brutal winter, the studio is currently undergoing some major renovations. It was disarming at first to walk in and see the walls bare, stripped of years and years of framed memories.
Yet, despite the absence of the company’s rich visual history, the heart and soul of SBRI remains intact, with there being no better indicator of that than seeing the “First Lady of Rhode Island ballet” artistic director Herci Marsden once again sitting in the director’s chair. An injury forced her to miss some of last season.
Sitting atop a chair that allows her to look out over the entire studio, Ms. Marsden watches as the dancers recreate her original choreography, never stopping the music, but making occasional verbal corrections. She possesses that rare ability to sound positive and encouraging even while being critical. In return, the dancers project a distinct passion and reverence for her and ballet; young children, the type who are probably far more reserved and shy in public, rush to fill-in for absent dancers without even being told to do so.
It is no coincidence that dancers representing multiple generations have called SBRI home. Ms. Marsden and her daughter, Ms. Fox, have made all dancers, past and present, feel like members of one big extended family. And speaking of family, there are four generations of Marsdens on-hand during rehearsal! In addition to Ms. Marsden and Ms. Fox, Shana Fox Marceau, Ms. Fox’s daughter, and her 1-year-old daughter Anika are in the studio.
During a break in the action, Anika, wearing a frilly pink tu-tu, excitedly begins dancing – an early audition for the part of “wheat girl” perhaps? – a role that has served as the debut for many SBRI dancers. Beaming with pride, Ms. Marsden explains how to Shana she is “her baka” (grandmother) and to Anika she is “her prabaka” (great-grandmother). Such a special moment as the past, present and future converge, a tribute to SBRI’s remarkable legacy and what lies ahead.
SBRI’s production of Coppelia runs November 20 – 21 at Robert’s Hall on the Rhode Island College campus. For tickets or more information about SBRI visit stateballet.com.