In Department of Dance, Experiential Learning, Theatre Ballet

Theatre Ballet dancers receive experiential learning through hands-on rehearsals with an Arpino masterwork

Photo courtesy of Nathalie van Empel.

Cameron Basden, a world renowned expert in ballet, visited BYU to set a Gerald Arpino masterwork, “Viva Vivaldi,” on the BYU Theatre Ballet dancers. This dance number will be a part of their Carnival of the Animals show, opening in early February.

“Viva Vivaldi” is licensed as part of The Arpino and Joffrey Celebration of 2018-2019. Gerald Arpino was an American dancer and choreographer who co-founded the Joffrey Ballet Company with Robert Joffrey in 1956. Basden is on the board of directors for The Gerald Arpino Foundation. Having danced “Viva Vivaldi” many times during her performing career, Basden was the perfect repetiteur to come and set the choreography on the Theatre Ballet dancers.

The year 2018 marks the 10th anniversary of Gerald Arpino’s passing and the 30th anniversary of Robert Joffrey’s passing. The Foundation is honoring these two renowned innovators in American dance by having organizations nationally and internationally perform their works as part of The Joffrey/Arpino Celebration.

Rachel Cornell, a member of Theatre Ballet, is performing one of the demi-soloist roles in the number. She said, “Having the opportunity to perform an Arpino masterwork is truly a dancer’s dream come true. The history behind Arpino and his ballets are inspiring and truly humbling to be a part of as a dancer. Rehearsing for ‘Viva Vivaldi’ has been rigorous and tiring, yet very gratifying. It involves a great amount of stamina to run through the whole piece, but it is a great adventure as you take on this style of dancing within his ballet.”

Photo courtesy of Nathalie van Empel.

“Viva Vivaldi” is the second Arpino ballet Basden has staged for BYU. The first was “Birthday Variations,” which was staged last year. The Arpino Foundation assists in finding costumes, sending videos, discussing lighting and all of the elements that are necessary for bringing a ballet to life as Arpino would have wanted. After staging “Birthday Variations,” discussions were made for Basden to return and stage “Viva Vivaldi.”

“It requires the ‘Zah’ that Arpino ballets are known for,” said Basden. “‘Zah’ was a word that Mr. Arpino often used to describe the quality that he looked for. In Vivaldi, the large second movement for the women is fast and technical. There are many challenging counts and patterns while maintaining the exuberance, elegance and flavor of the Latin-infused Vivaldi music. From the moment it starts, you must have a high level of energy. It is explosive. I always tell the dancers to find moments to breathe.

“The third movement, ‘Pas de Deux,’ is a wonderful example of lush and romantic Arpino partnering. Arpino partnering is really difficult for the man. It is usually off balance and requires a lot of passion in its quality for both the man and woman. Arpino never wanted his choreography to look like steps.”

Sean Cooney is the male lead in “Viva Vivaldi.” He said he feels honored and lucky to have the opportunity to perform an Arpino masterwork. “I didn’t know much about Arpino beforehand but now, I really love his style and the taste of music in Vivaldi. This has been my favorite music to dance to. I love the guitar mixed with classical music. It has really brought me back to trying to put more emotion and character into my dancing. ‘Viva Vivaldi’ is very romantic. It has also got a little bit of mysteriousness to it. Cameron Basden talked about how she has her own interpretation of different pieces. There isn’t really a structured interpretation for the piece. It’s whatever the dancer feels. That is the way Arpino wanted it to be.”

Dancers Sean Cooney and Morgan Hastings are the leads in “Viva Vivaldi.” Photo courtesy of Nathalie van Empel.

Cooney said the Theatre Ballet dancers were able to add their own extension of the interpretation of “Viva Vivaldi” that Basden shared with them. Through this, Cooney said he has come to understand how choreographers and composers continue to live through their work even generations after they have passed on.

After observing Basden when she came to set “Birthday Variations,” Cooney was eager to see how much she could change and refine him during the short six days she was setting “Viva Vivaldi.”

“When people come to BYU to teach or set a piece on us, we might expect them to have a certain agenda of making the piece an exact way they want it to be or forcing things on us. It’s as if Cameron knew our dancing abilities forever, not just six days. She used our strengths and what was living inside of us as dancers to the piece’s advantage.

“She wasn’t forcing us to do something that would make it exactly like how “Viva Vivaldi” was when it was first set in its history. There could be a lot of Viva Vivaldi’s, but I like how Cameron set it on us. She not only allowed, but encouraged us to incorporate some of our own background and experience with emotions into the piece. I think that’s very trusting and very unique.”

Cornell said it is an honor and great opportunity to work with someone like Basden who has such extensive experience with and knowledge of the many greats of the ballet world. “Cameron has been great working with us here at BYU. She sees the potential we have as dancers and acknowledges our hard work and effort in retaining the information she gives us. She doesn’t go easy on us and expects the best, which I love. Recreating a ballet on anyone can be difficult, but the information relayed and how it is relayed is very helpful as students embodying each aspect of the choreography.”

Rachel Cornell receives instruction from Cameron Basden. Photo courtesy of Nathalie van Empel.

Through her training with Basden, Cornell said she learned a lot about pushing herself and believing that she could do more than what she thought was possible. She enjoyed working on something so challenging and feeling like she was coming closer and closer to perfection. Cornell’s favorite rehearsal was the first time the company put the whole ballet together. Though it wasn’t perfect, she said, it was gratifying to see their hard work pay off when they put it all together and the dance became something beautiful. 

During rehearsals, Cooney said Basden took the time to talk about the feeling behind the piece. “There’s a part where I’m walking on my knees. It’s kind of like treading through heavy sand and there is a lot of weight. I’m not actually in water or sand, but it has to look that way. It represents this pressure of being torn between the two love interests. There’s a lot of deepness there. There’s a lot of things to discover and Cameron helped me see that in the smallest steps, just like these knee walks, you can convey a lot of emotion to the audience by a simple step of the knee.”

Photo courtesy of Nathalie van Empel.

Basden said she loved the rehearsals when the dancers surprised themselves when something worked. “Sometimes you say more, more, more and the dancers don’t know what ‘more’ feels like. It was fun to see the dancers reach a new level of discovery. I mentioned how difficult Arpino partnering is. I could see Sean get stronger and stronger as the week went on, making lifts and finding ease in partnering. There were a couple of rather difficult partnering moments and I could see them evolve.”

She said when the dancers got to the point where the steps were not in their heads, but rather transferred to their body, was the moment when they started to dance. This occurred when they did the first run through of “Viva Vivaldi” and it suddenly became a ballet and not just steps.

“Some things continue to bless and benefit you after it’s over, and some things don’t, they kind of just stop,” said Cooney. “The experience we had with Cameron has continued to benefit us. With me, she really focused and worked with me on relaxing my hands and neck. That’s a big deal for me because I get very intense. I have gotten that correction before.

Photo courtesy of Nathalie van Empel.

“And with ‘Viva Vivaldi’ being so romantic, it has to be more organic, natural and believable. If I make it robotic at all then the audience will see through that. The time that Cameron spent reminding me and doing exercises with me that would help me to relax and take the tension away from my fingers and my neck has continued to bless me. This is something I can apply to all the other dances we do.” 

Cornell also expressed that Basden has helped her thrive as a dancer. “Cameron has helped me further develop my ability to pick up on choreography quickly and how to professionally and successfully work with a choreographer. You have to be ready to apply whatever the choreographer wants while also showing them your personal artistry and how you can combine that with your dancing.

“In preparation for ‘Viva Vivaldi,’ she has laid a foundation for the steps while also helping us incorporate specific heads and arms and being exact to what Arpino set for his ballets and envisioned them to be. She has given us the movement and pushed us to internalize it and bring that dance to life through our expressive abilities.”

Basden said she demanded a lot of brain work from the dancers. Each day she really pushed them and gave a lot of information that they had to come back and move forward with, but each day they delivered.

The Theatre Ballet dancers pose for a picture with Basden at the end of her visit to BYU. Photo courtesy of Nathalie van Empel.

“BYU dancers are very strong, technical and facile,” said Basden. “While I was only there for one week, I could tell where the ballet was going to go with more rehearsal time. I could see, even in the time I was there, that the dancers started becoming more comfortable with the movement, the speed was a little easier, and the technique was building. I also know that Ashley has a keen eye and will see that the ensemble and solo work will be meticulous and clean. I can imagine that they will dance the ballet quite beautifully.”

Recently, Cameron Basden published an article discussing staging an Arpino and she mentioned BYU’s Department of Dance. To read the article click here.

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