Stamina and style: Iconic masterwork comes to UMKC

Clarate Heckler

The music stops and suddenly you can hear them breathing. You can see the sweat beading down their foreheads and necks. You can feel the emotions in their faces as they hold the final pose: self-satisfaction mingled with pain.

At a nod from the professor, they break form and their humanity rushes back. Some bend over with their hands on their knees, others stand up straight with their hands on their hips. All are trying to regain their breath. It is hard to believe that just moments before, these UMKC Conservatory dancers were making their rehearsal of “Concerto Barocco” look effortless.

“It feels like when I would finish a race back in high school,” says junior Alexandra Smith. “You feel like you might throw up, pass out, or pee and you don’t really know which of those is gonna happen.”

“Concerto Barocco” is a famous piece choreographed by George Balanchine that typifies American ballet. The Conservatory is one of only three college dance divisions in the country to have been granted permission by the New York City Ballet to perform this piece.

Associate professor of dance David Justin says this puts UMKC at the top of the heap, making the Conservatory nationally competitive when it comes time for recruitment. It is an honor for the program, as well as the 32 dancers getting to learn the piece. As they dance, they are connected to a pivotal moment in history.

When “Concerto Barocco: was first performed in 1941, audiences had never seen anything like it. The movement was very modern, and the way Balanchine connected it to almost every single note in the music made it fun to watch.

UMKC Conservatory dancers rehearse Concerto Barocco

The costumes too were different. Instead of sizable tutus, the girls wore a simple leotard and tights with a short skirt. The UMKC dancers will be wearing the same kind of costumes when they perform.

“It’s really one of the first examples of the style that became identified with not only George Balanchine, but ballet in America. It was very pared down,” says Justin. “It was very much about the athleticism, the musicality, the technique, and nothing else.”

The opportunity to do this piece came about by Justin’s friendship with former New York City Ballet principle dancer Nilas Martins. With the piece protected under copyright laws, Martins is among a select group of people allowed to teach “Concerto Barocco”. Martins came to the Conservatory for five days this semester and rehearsed with the students for five to six hours a day.

Although the dancers make it look easy, this piece is anything but. Fast-paced and lasting about 20 minutes, it is a test for stamina and the brain. The dancers are constantly counting the phrases in their heads and have to memorize which moves are on which counts. There’s also the challenge of dancing as a group.

As Justin puts it, “When a musician works in an orchestra and there’s a pulse and a beat, it’s very clear. You make a sound and there’s a beginning and an ending. Well what’s the beginning and the ending of a movement? How do you negotiate the space around you with nine other women so that it looks like one voice?”

Through all the challenges, the dancers are still excited to perform this piece.

“It was such a privilege to be cast in ‘Concerto Barocco’ and being able to perform a Balanchine masterwork feels surreal,” said junior Katie Johnson.

You can see “Concerto Barocco”, along with other works by the faculty, performed in the dance division’s Spring Concert, April 26-28 at 7:30 p.m. in White Recital Hall. Admission is free with a student ID. There is an additional free informal performance April 28 at 2:30 p.m.



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