The Beautiful Legacy Of The Lake Charles Civic Ballet Is Poetry In Motion
By Brad Goins
As the Lake Charles Civic Ballet moves into its 45th year, it keeps “a very clear vision of creativity …” says longtime supporter Kelley Saucier. “What is most interesting about the Civic Ballet is that they create their own work from the ground up.”
From the beginning, such creation required a variety of art forms — dance (of course), but also new choreography, costumes and settings, lighting schemes, photography and, at times, original musical scores.
And because the work was indeed done from scratch, it was necessary for local artists to be the creative forces and to collaborate as they created.
This vision of local artists collaborating to create entirely new ballets that use a variety of art forms was called “total theater” by Lady Leah Hathaway when she brought the ballet to life 45 years ago.
The idea of a total theater that seamlessly blended a number of the arts was one that was in vogue in the U.S. and Europe at the time. Lady Leah, who was Lake Charles theater pioneer Rosa Hart’s last student, may have inherited notions of the concept from her teacher. It’s said that Hathaway used to sit for hours, just listening to Hart talk about theater.
The total theater approach of collaboration on the part of a diverse group of artists in behalf of a public performance was still an innovative idea in 1968 — especially for a mid-sized city deep in the South. The insistence on working with and appealing to local talent was also innovative.
All these elements are still crucial to the mission of the Ballet 45 years on. The Ballet remains “a platform for Louisiana artists, choreographers and dancers, and a medium for building dance in the area,” says Saucier.
“As an arts organization, you really need to work with others to survive these days. It makes it more interesting. By bringing multiple artists to the stage, you broaden your reach.”
Saucier talks about using this firmly established but flexible approach to take the Ballet to “the next level.” This level would, she thinks, be one of “more collaboration, diversifying, but also remaining true to those classical roots.” (Later in the story, we’ll see how the Lake Charles Civic Ballet company continues to use its thorough training in classical ballet and thorough ongoing reliance on classical music to create new and intriguing ballet works.)
The Local Angle
Trying to organize a full-scale ballet strictly by local means in a place like Lake Charles must have been an invigorating prospect 45 years ago. Then, as today, the approach also happens to coincide with fundamental values of the Lake Area’s culture. Lake Charles, and surrounding areas, like to keep things local. They like to see the local boys and girls make good.
So it pleases local audiences that at Civic Ballet productions, it’s a matter of “Southwest Louisiana creating things right here,” as Saucier puts it. “The only place you can see it is right here.”
“It is local dancers,” says Saucier. Even when the Ballet performs the most established works from the repertoire, it doesn’t call in ballet troupes from Houston or Atlanta. The dancers you’ll see in this Christmas season’s Rudolph will be locals — 200 of them, in fact. The youngest local ballet dancer on stage will be just 3 years old.
To see school children of 3 — or of any age — perform ballet with a symphony “is not common for a town this size,” says Saucier.
Lady Holly Hathaway, the Ballet’s artistic director and creator of much of its choreography, finds her own artistic drive enhanced by the efforts of young, local dancers to stay the course. “They’re dedicated athletes,” she says. “They work through blisters and sore muscles.”
Lady Holly’s vision of the sort of creative work taking place at the Ballet is in sync with that of her mother Lady Leah, who was, of course, the Ballet’s first artistic director and also did extensive choreography. “The Ballet was created to enhance the creative ability of people in the Lake Area,” says Lady Holly. There is, she says, “a wealth of talent in Southwest Louisiana … To use that is so much fun. It fuels my creativity.”
She hopes that young people in the audience who see what their peers can accomplish will be inspired to become active in artistic endeavors themselves, whether as a dancer or as some other artisan.
Both in its name and its content, the Civic Ballet work Assemblé is an ideal example of the collaborative, multi-genre approach that makes up “total theater.”
Of course, “assemblé” is a ballet step in which the feet come together. But it also signifies an “assemblage” of art forms. In the Civic Ballet productions titled Assemblé, local creative figures from a variety of artistic backgrounds come together to make what Saucier says is “truly a multi-faceted creative project.”
A perfect example is “The Fable” episode from last year’s Assemblé. The score was written by late local composer Keith Gates. The three instrumentalists of the small musical ensemble were seated on stage. This minimal musical accompaniment was mirrored by “sparse, beautiful light” by longtime Ballet lighting supervisor Denver Kaufman. Just in case all this wasn’t striking and quirky enough, a large scale papier mache elephant (designed by Fred Stark) moved here and there on stage. Lady Holly created the original choreography.
Other new, multi-genre approaches to ballet will come together in the next assemblage of works that will make up the Ballet’s second “Assemblé,” which will be performed in March, 2014, at the Rosa Hart Theater.
Entirely new will be a ballet based on the upcoming children’s book The Tortoise and His Hair by local author Eloise Huber. The score was composed by Sulphur native, and current Loyola student, Theresa Romero (whose father, Danley, is photographer for the Ballet).
Although Lady Holly will create the choreography for this piece, she has “just gotten started,” she says.
What she’s waiting for is Romero’s completed score. “I’ve got ideas about where I’d like it to go,” says Lady Holly. “Part of the fun of it is to see what the musician is going to do with this.”
There will also be a novel approach to a ballet standard. While one of the traditional classical scores for Cinderella will be used, the version will be an hour-long selection, rather than one that consumes an entire evening. Lady Holly will do some of the choreography for this segment.
Ensuring that the assemblage will be plenty eclectic, there will be a selection of dances by Bob Fosse, whose choreography Saucier describes as “very, very stylish and cool.”
The new Assemblé program is still very much a work in progress. An Assemblé show takes an entire year to prepare. Lady Holly spent some of her summer watching guest choreographers do staging for the Fosse numbers.
She seems to be especially excited about a portion of the show titled “Louisiana Saturday Night” in which Chris Miller and Bayou Roots play roots (pardon the redundancy) music from the area.
“It’s all original choreography,” says Lady Holly. “It’s fun for the musicians and the audience alike.” Given the nature of the music, she anticipates such audience interactions as humming and clapping along.
Part of the 45th anniversary celebration is the performance of the ballet’s popular Rudolph ballet — a work that premiered in Lake Charles in 1968.
That first-year production was a good instance of local artists collaborating towards an end. Denver Kaufman, who is in now in charge of Rosa Hart Theater, worked with Tommy Johnson, Jimmy Dupuis and Lady Leah to build the original set for Rudolph in 1968. Hathaway even did some of the construction herself. Kaufman recalls this early ballet as a work that was entirely Lady Leah’s.
Of course, she did the choreography for the ballet. Kaufman and Johnson did the original lighting.
Although the Ballet doesn’t perform Rudolph every year, because of its seasonal nature; its popularity; and its family-friendly content, the ballet is performed often. “It’s such a fun Christmas event,” says Saucier. “Kids love it. It’s just very Christmassy.”
The Lake Charles Civic Ballet works to continue to make the work new and relevant. For instance, the Ballet’s board now sees Rudolph as an opportunity for the Ballet’s educational outreach effort to convey a lesson about bullying to local students, who are often treated to performances by the Ballet.
The board, which now numbers almost 40, has prepared lesson plans about the aspects of bullying in the Rudolph story and about ways to prevent and stop bullying. These plans can be found at the ballet’s Web site, as can a list of reading materials about bullying compiled by a local teacher.
Performances of Rudolph won’t begin until December 14. But if you’d like information about tickets, or more information about the troupe’s history, the ballet’s web site — lakecharlescivicballet.com — is full of information. Note in particular the Ballet’s extensive blog.
An ‘Unbelievable’ Accomplishment
Because Saucier has been so enthusiastic about the Lake Charles Civic Ballet for so long, she’s perfectly serious and calm when she says, almost nonchalantly, “All it takes is time, money and more volunteers.” There isn’t even a hint of a joking tone.
Still, she’s aware of the scope of what’s been done. Saucier thinks it’s “unbelievable” for a ballet with such a broad artistic agenda “to still be here.”
Forty-five years is enough time for a group to build a legacy. Saucier notes that the Ballet has had two generations of artistic directors with the same family roots.
Remaining faithful to the original artistic goals, and continuing to keep everything local, are other features of the legacy that all those affiliated with the Ballet can be proud of.