Ballet a New Way
What does it look like when everyone in Vermont has access to the arts and creativity in their life, education, and community? Think big. Everyone means residents and visitors. Education includes preschoolers and lifelong learners. Community is not only about the location of your home, it also has to do with your heart. A vision this big takes a lot of pieces. One of those pieces could be the Farm to Ballet Project.
The project began last year with ballet dance teacher Chatch Pregger and his students. The dancers ran into a familiar roadblock—art with no audience. They approached Chatch and said they wanted to perform. He recalls telling them, “OK we can do a mixed rep show. Your family will come and say ‘great job!’ and that will be it.” He described that kind of event as “a show for the performers more than the audience.” He wanted something different. He wanted the audience to leave excited. His question back to them was, “How can we put ourselves out there in a way that is unique?” A season full of happy surprises followed.
Vermont is rich with art and outdoor recreation. Farms. Nonprofits. The troupe’s first idea was to dance on Mount Philo, creating a performance for passers-by. This wasn’t quite right. They wanted to dance outside, but with a more intentional audience. The idea of dancing at a farm resonated with Chatch for this reason: “I’m excited about farming and the food culture we have in Vermont. I wanted to encourage and honor that.” When the idea of partnering with agricultural nonprofits came up, it all began to make sense.
Not starting small, he took the idea to Shelburne Farms. They surprised him with a yes. “This was huge for us. When you’re doing something new, working with a reputable organization gives you some credibility.”
There were seven well-attended shows last summer. The dance is a mash-up of classic repertoire that tells a new story. Goats, cows, lettuce, and a bee danced to live music (keyboard and violin) at venues including the Marble House Project in Dorset, the Von Gal Farm in Essex, and the Philo Ridge Farm in Charlotte.
It’s not easy to dance ballet on grass and uneven terrain. Chatch says it is “definitely harder in certain situations than others. As long as it was mowed that day…not so bad! But, we definitely had to adapt the choreography. In a studio you are sometimes working against the floor. But outside, you can’t expect to slide in the same way.” Chatch had to get rid of something he called “those in-between steps,” using more “up and over movements where you’re not expecting so much from the ground.”
At one farm, mowing began a month ahead of the performance, but the ground was still “a little bit treacherous.” Before the rehearsals, dancers were clearing brush, pulling weeds, breaking up clumps, and finding holes. “Also, there was a little hill built into it.” He gives the dancers credit. “It was very brave, not of me, but of the dancers. We had women in their 60s; they had been training and working really hard. They negotiated it!”
And Challenges for Chatch
In addition to teaching, Chatch now had to manage a staff and working group while looking for sponsorship and venues. He says he’s learning a lot about how to be in charge. As it turns out, he’s got some training in this. “I was a member of FolKids and my mom took on directing InterFolk (an international festival in Burlington) for several years. Being home schooled, I took that on too! In that case, we weren’t developing a show, but it feels very familiar touring around. I was learning how you set up performing, housing, and meals.”
Chatch is candid when he says the biggest surprise of the season was “the fact it went really well! People wanted to see us.” New audiences warmly received the work and the project raised $12,000 for nonprofits.
“By making our show about farming, holding the show at farms, and partnering with agricultural organizations we are able to access an audience that ballet might not otherwise reach: foodies who are excited to eat locally raised food prepared at the farm and watch a show, families who might not bring their kids to a theater but are very happy to bring them to a farm, and farmers who hear about our performance through their community nonprofit and media directed at farmers.”
And the dancers were gratified. Many had performed very little, or not at all. Chatch described watching the cast bow for the first time. “It was thrilling to see these adult women who never imagined this for themselves being appreciated for what they’ve done.”
Rehearsals Under Way
On Saturday, the Farm to Ballet Project will begin to prepare their second season. Auditions are complete and most of the performers are returning from last season. In 2016, the show has more choreography by Chatch. “It’s still classical in feel, but there are more of my own compositions.” There will be new costumes for those sections, and a different arc. This gives us all one more reason to look forward to summer in this beautiful community we call Vermont.
All photos on this page by Tim Barden