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'Ballet to Broadway' showcases JDU's strengths

Posted: May 24, 2012 - 12:02am
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Juneau Dance Unlimited dancers Marissa Truitt, left, Natalie Millay, Maire New, Eliza Sutch, Anouk Otsea and Sierra Baker practice for the Spring Performance.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Juneau Dance Unlimited dancers Marissa Truitt, left, Natalie Millay, Maire New, Eliza Sutch, Anouk Otsea and Sierra Baker practice for the Spring Performance.

Some serious synergy has been building out at Juneau Dance Unlimited this past year, fed by multiple sources, each with its own distinctive spark.

To name three: There’s Philip Krauter, the relatively new artistic director, who draws on decades of classical ballet training as a dancer and a teacher. There’s Ricci Adan, who arrived from New York City in June of last year with an enormous store of knowledge about American Theatre Dance – something Juneau had not yet had the opportunity to learn. And of course there are the students themselves, the most advanced of whom have been studying at JDU for more than a decade, working to channel their passion for dance into an art form.

These three energy sources -- and others -- are currently working together to feed some exciting new possibilities at JDU.

Juneau audiences will get the chance to absorb some of this energy themselves this weekend, when JDU presents its spring show, “From Ballet to Broadway.” Three performances are scheduled: at 7 p.m. Friday, and at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday at the Thunder Mountain High school auditorium.

Part one of the program will showcase the “ballet” half of the event’s title, and will feature performances by some of JDU’s most accomplished dancers — Misha Culver, Gabrielle Duvernay, Natalie Millay, Maire New, Anouk Otsea, Marissa Truitt, Eliza Sutch and Sierra Baker — who range in age from 13 to 16.

Part two of the program, the “Broadway” focused half, highlights Adan’s work at JDU — and also features the advanced dancers listed above.

Both part one and part two are interspersed with modern, hip-hop, and other dance styles taught by JDU instructors Leslie Wagner, Julie Tran, and Alex Brown; student Misha Culver, 16, also teaches.

Though ballet and Broadway dance styles may seem distinct disciplines, they actually work in tandem, much like Krauter and Adan themselves. Together they provide a firm base from which these students can take the leap into all kinds of professional dance, if they so choose.

Ballet rests at the foundation of all the dance being taught at JDU, Krauter said. If you look closely at most professional dance, including theater dance — such as “West Side Story,” or the “King and I” — you can see the ballet underneath, Krauter said.

“If you go to New York right now and watch a Broadway show — a lot of (the dancers) are not necessarily professional ballet dancers, but most of them have had ballet, they’re trained as ballet dancers.”

”That’s where the strength is,” Adan said.

Krauter, who teaches the top level ballet classes, said a serious study of the form is the only real approach.

“I feel like since I’ve taken over the reins at JDU, I’ve been trying to train the students here in pure advanced ballet, classic ballet technique, that’s my goal,” Krauter said.

“We see everything here as a performing art. With everything we’re doing, we’re trying instill the sense that this is a fine art, it’s a performing art, it needs to be on stage, it’s theater, in all its aspects — what real dance is and should be.”

The advanced ballet students have already built up this foundation at JDU over the past decade or so, so these students were well prepared to take some risks and try some new things with Adan.

In Adan’s classes, the students have been learning what amounts to a comprehensive history of American dance styles. Although it’s a wide-ranging field, it involves very specific knowledge of language, of dance steps, and of history. It also involves other art forms at times, such as singing.

“Theater dance is everything,” Adan said. “It’s American jazz, and I’m trying to preserve that so that the kids know what that American heritage is. If they don’t keep it, it’s going to be like a dinosaur, it’s going to be extinct. That’s my legacy.”

Both Krauter and Adan try to provide the basic syllabus of dance for their students -- Krauter through the foundation and study of ballet and Adan through the history and variety of theater dance -- one the dancers will need if they plan to dance professionally. Adan pointed out that many of JDU’s advanced students are already in a position where they might need this knowledge — at least five of the girls will be attending prestigious summer intensive programs this summer, including Misha Culver (Boston Ballet), Maire New (New York’s Bolshoi Ballet), Anouk Otsea (Houston Ballet) and Marissa Truitt and Gabrielle Duvernay (Pittsburgh Ballet).

Adan, who has been to Juneau several times before, said the fact that the JDU students take their art so seriously is part of what solidified her decision to come teach them, especially because she knew she could offer them something they would not otherwise get in Juneau.

“These kids are so talented, I’m so proud of them, I want to expose them to everything,” she said.

The work that Krauter and Adan are doing with the students also has the potential to influence the arts scene in Juneau on a community level; dancers trained in musical theater could open up a whole new range of performance options for JDU and for Perseverance Theatre and other venues.

“I could see if Ricci stays here and we try to do more collaborations, as we keep training dancers, as they grow up and we train them, we might start being able to actually offer really high quality musical theater productions,” Krauter said.

This coming fall, Adan will be working on Perseverance’s production of “Oklahoma!” reconstructing original choreography by Agnes de Mille, a production that will include JDU dancers.

“‘Oklahoma!’ is a special thing because they have a secret now, which is myself, “Adan said with a smile.

The theater is able to produce the show through Adan, who is the director of Dance Machine International, a nonprofit that has the rights to stage most productions provided that Adan continues directing her knowledge back to the next generation through workshops and classes.

Filipina-born Adan is also in demand as a performer and theater artist; she is a “triple threat” performer, meaning she can act, sing and dance. She recently had a leading role in “Flipzoids,” a joint production of Generator Theater Company and the Filipino Community, Inc., and she also choreographed Perseverance Theatre’s current production, “Bigfoot and Other Lost Souls.” She also has plans to teach a university course this fall.

Adan said making connections between arts groups is part of what she sees as her role.

“I’m doing everything I can,” she said. “Next year I’m going to be teaching musical theater at the university, I’m doing ‘Oklahoma,’ I’m trying to get actors and singers to come to JDU, or I go to them and give them the vocabulary so we all have a language that we (can use).”

Krauter said Adan has been in high demand.

“When Ricci hit town, all of the sudden people started grabbing her up because she has all that knowledge,” Krauter said.

Adan and Krauter, who have known each other for more than 10 years, have a personal relationship as well as a professional one. Adan said her presence here was initiated in part by this relationship, but also by her awareness that she could make a real difference in Juneau by sharing what she knew.

“The reason I really came, I came to be with him, but I was also motived, very motivated — and I told this to my mother before she died — (I said) ‘I have to go to Juneau because there are all these kids that are hungry for me.’ And she said, ‘OK, let me die and then you go,’” Adan said, adding that her mom passed away last year.

“I’d rather be here than in New York, because there’s a ton of us over there that can teach (theater dance) but nobody here,” she said. “It’s such a privilege and what an opportunity, so I had to grab it.”

Adan trained with the American Dance Machine, a curriculum begun by Lee Theodore in the mid-1970s that worked to reconstruct and preserve theater dance styles — from Charleston to swing to rumba to the Broadway-meets-ballet style of West Side Story. Her company, Dance Machine International, continues this goal.

In applying her knowledge at JDU, she’s helping the students open themselves up to other arts and other possibilities — for example, singing; JDU dancer Madison Truitt will be taking lead vocals for “Blackbird,” one of the pieces in part two of this weekend’s performances.

Both Krauter and Adan stressed that versatility — with a firm foundation — helps open up the JDU students to alternative careers based on their dance training — careers in theater, in music — or whatever they want.

“(I tell them) you can be an actor, you can sing you can dance you can be a choreographer, you can be a director, you can be a producer, you can be whatever you want to be. But you’ve got to have that oomph. You’ve got to have the passion,” Adan said.

Students’ versatility is also apparent in this weekend’s production in the choreography of the show. Two pieces were choreographed by the dancers themselves: Misha Culver’s “River Flows in You” and Maire New’s “The Merry Go Round of Life.”

Krauter and Adan share a goal of giving JDU students this broad base on which to build, a base that rests on the foundation of ballet and stretches out in many directions.

Krauter said that even if his students didn’t choose a career in dance, he is confident of its value in their lives.

“I’d say 99 percent of the people who take dance or get involved in it benefit from it greatly,” Krauter said. “They carry that discipline and the hard work involved in it, the intellectual ability it creates where you have to figure things out, from what to do with your body to listening to music, to learning choreography to understanding what the theater is.”

Adan agreed.

“My mother told me this: arts makes you a better person,” Adan said. “ A better eater, a better lawyer, a better anything. The arts does.”

For more information on JDU’s performances this weekend, or for ticket information, visit www.juneaudance.org.

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