Not your everyday ballet
Moulin d’Paris, an original work, is also a departure from the norm
Ballet has a certain reputation. The Nutcracker. Swan Lake. Cinderella. Tutus, top knots, tights.
Each November, Rochesterians pour into Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre to sit in velvet chairs and watch the Sugar Plum Fairy dance across a glittering holiday stage. But there’s a lot more to the Rochester City Ballet than just pliés and pointe shoes, and this February’s production of Moulin d’Paris, an original adaptation of Moulin Rouge, will showcase the edgier side of the company.
The Rochester City Ballet is housed at the Draper Center for Dance Education, tucked away inside an unassuming warehouse just off University Avenue. The fact that a city the size of Rochester has a resident ballet company is impressive, even if the dancers are considered part-time employees and most have second jobs as dance instructors and hospitality workers.
In her five years with RCB, executive director Nichole Gantshar has taken RCB from twelve to twenty-seven performances per year, including original works every season. In early 2019, RCB received its first-ever gift from the National Endowment for the Arts, which made it possible to commission an original work. Gantshar immediately called the Chautauqua Institution’s associate artistic director and resident choreographer, Mark Diamond, who was a professional dancer in the United States and Europe and has been a prolific choreographer since 1988, building many shows.
“I was very interested, so I changed my schedule to make this work,” says Diamond. “It’s great if I can get away and do something with another company.”
During the rest of the year, Diamond is based at Charlotte Ballet, where he has choreographed more than thirty productions and is program director for Charlotte Ballet II. Because of his broad skill set, Diamond built most of the production in addition to the choreography, including costume design, adapting the narrative, and curating the music (none of which is original). From his colorful sketches, wardrobe mistress Paige Waldron created the racy, turn-of-the-century–inspired garments at RCB’s onsite costume shop (think lots of corsets).
The story is adapted from La Dame aux Camélias, an 1848 French novel by Alexander Dumas which was eventually adapted for the stage. It also takes inspiration from the legendary Paris cabaret Moulin Rouge. The plot follows Armand, who has moved to Paris to study poetry in 1900. He is staying with his old friend Francois, a connoisseur of Paris nightlife, and the two make their way to an infamous club in the Pigalle district of Paris. There, Armand meets Lisette, the beautiful headline entertainer of the club. He immediately falls deeply in love with her but does not understand the dark club rules and the life of servitude she lives.
Jessie Tretter, who has been dancing with RCB since 2009, plays the role of Lisette. It’s not her first time developing a role—she was Aurora in Sleeping Beauty during the 2018-19 season—but she treats every experience differently.
“I have my own ideas about the character, as does Mark, so there’s a give and take,” says Tretter. “You see how something works that day and how it gels with everyone around, but some days it’s scary to go out of your comfort zone with so many people watching and a new choreographer.”
Diamond spent a total of about six weeks in Rochester rehearsing with the cast, and during those times he was shadowed by ballet master Beth Bartholomew, who took notes on each piece and rehearsed with the company while Diamond was back in Charlotte.
The choreography encompasses many styles of dance to mirror the eclectic nature of Paris nightclubs, from hip hop and musical theater-esque character dancing to traditional ballet and even a drag queen number.
“It will appeal to people who hate to go to the ballet or someone who gets dragged to the ballet and has to watch something with serious classical music and a confusing story line,” says Diamond. “A story ballet, for an average person, is kind of a confusing thing because songs and lyrics are there, but no one’s speaking.”
Diamond has worked to recreate a feeling of time travel for audience members; a period in turn-of-the-century France that was racy and edgy, filled with unusual personalities from all social classes.
“There’s not a boring moment in this show,” says Tretter. “It’s more family friendly [than Moulin Rouge], but there are still jokes for all ages, and there’s always something to look at because the company is filled with incredible storytellers, even in a moment of transition.”
“These are wonderful entertainers and dancers, who, the minute they start dancing, become something else, another creature,” says Diamond. “It shows the diversity of the styles they can take on. Rochester needs to know that this company is here.”
Moulin d’Paris will be performed at Nazareth College Arts Center February 28, 29 and March 1. rochestercityballet.org