The Accused, the character based on Lizzie Borden, dons a frilly jacket hiding evidence on her dress of the bloody deed she’s just committed, and, in a chilling, silent moment, she makes her way past the crime scene, careful not to wake the dead. The Accused emerges from her home with a slam of the door and faces the audience. The music blares as she emits a silent, yet blood-curdling, scream. Through dance, she wrestles her inner demons in a manic frenzy, standing firm in denial, then trembling in horror, fleeing in frantic fear, then shaking with sobs of remorse. Every nuanced motion, from lightning-quick pirouettes to graceful moments of beauty, is executed with perfect technique as tears stream down the dancer’s face.
“As a storyteller, I had to explore and share such deep emotions, which made me feel vulnerable, but also was exhilarating and meaningful,” says Birmingham native and Alabama Ballet company member Catherine Garrat of playing the Accused in Agnes de Mille’s ballet, “Fall River Legend.” “Any moment you can enjoy performing, whether in the studio or onstage, is rewarding. Whether it’s properly conveying a story or successfully accomplishing a step or a certain style of movement, the process is as important to me as the stage time, because that is where we evolve.”
Tracey Alvey, the artistic director of the Alabama Ballet, also has a rich background in dance. Hailing from Kent, England, she has performed before Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Diana in Europe, as well as numerous other ballets in Asia and America. “The company is so gifted and versatile. Whether it’s classical story ballets to more contemporary pieces, they always rise to the challenge and deliver. I am always proud of them,” says Tracey of the ballet company she’s been with for 12 years. And one of Tracey’s dance partners, who appeared on the London stage with her in 1989, Roger Van Fleteren, now works alongside Tracey as the associate artistic director at the Alabama Ballet, where he wears multiple hats, sometimes teaching, staging, choreographing and even dancing. “We’ve been able to bring a diverse group of dancers to Birmingham that are happy here, and there’s a real feeling of team spirit,” says Tracey.
The company’s 40 dancers are from all over the United States and the world, as far away as China, Russia, Brazil, the Philippines and Canada. Each year, Tracey reviews as many as 200 submitted DVDs of dancers, inviting only 30 to attend a company class, in addition to holding one formal open audition each year. “If a young lady is above 5 feet, 6 1/2 inches, I gently discourage them from coming to Birmingham, because we simply don’t have the boys to accommodate that height,” says Tracey of the physical realities of being a dancer. Tracey has an open-door policy with the dancers. “I am very honest with them. As a dancer myself, I appreciate someone who is going to be up front with me about my career,” she says. She recently helped a dancer plan her retirement exit, after 11 years with the company, by giving her the opportunity to conclude with an electric performance of “Transfigured Night.” “I wanted her to end on a high note. I do get close with them, I have to say. It’s always emotional and hard to let go.”
A Normal Day
Each day, the dancers gather in the large studio, where they set down their bulky bags, filled with numerous pairs of shoes, sewing kits, snacks, hair accessories and extra dance clothes. They set up the barres in the center of the studio and begin to stretch and softly chat. A mellow, early-morning vibe fills the room. Then, Roger enters and flicks on the lights, and it’s time for the morning warmup, a two-hour class beginning with barre. Partway through barre, Roger reminds some of the girls to remove their funky, bulky, warmup clothing. Sweat begins to appear on leotards, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the serene faces and fluid movements of the dancers. The male dancers remove the barres from the center of the room for the floor portion of class and the sleepy vibe is replaced by the palpable energy of the dancers’ artistic focus.
A short break is followed by five hours of rehearsal, when Tracey usually pops in and sits beside Roger, sizing up the performance as a whole, as well as refining elements of the dancers’ technical expression. “I love and adore Roger,” says Tracey of her partner in artistic creation. “He knows what I’m thinking before I even start to think it.” Depending on one’s casting, a dancer could have a single hour of rehearsal on a light day or a full five hours. “On rehearsal weekends, we basically live at the theater,” says Catherine. “The mental and physical exhaustion is the biggest challenge. You have to balance pushing yourself to the limit and maintaining a strong, reliable presence.”
The female dancers who are not onstage are clustered around the edges of the rehearsal space, not only hyper-aware of every development of the dance being rehearsed, as they are often double cast, but they are also busy fine-tuning the tools of their trade — the pointe shoe. Professional dancers order custom-made shoes that not only fit the exact curvature of their foot, but also support their musculature. Catherine says that she has worn more than 10 types of shoes over the years. “As my feet got stronger, what I needed changed,” she says. “About five years ago, I found a shoe that allows me to work to my fullest capacity, and I have been loyal to that exact style and size of shoe ever since. A good shoe makes a difference.”
Dancers have an intimate relationship with their shoes, and when they receive them, they take them out of the box and let them know who is boss. “I absolutely have a technique for breaking them in! I stand on the box of the shoe with my heel to flatten the profile. I separate the base of the shoe from the shank (or insole) for extra pliability. I bend the shank at my arch. I manually massage the wings (or sides) to soften them, and I put a little water on the top to break down the glue,” says Catherine. “Then, I wear them for a few classes before I use them in rehearsal. I usually haul around about 10 pairs of shoes at different stages of softness, choosing what I need for each specific rehearsal. This allows them to last longer since I rotate many pairs a day. I tend to wear softer shoes for most ballets, so that I have more control over my footwork and a better connection to the floor.”
The Alabama Ballet’s Legacy
“My favorite thing about the Alabama Ballet is the repertoire,” says Michael Fothergill, a company dancer who was a freelance guest artist in Japan, prior to joining the Alabama Ballet six years ago. “We dance notable ballets, which many ballet companies around the country are not afforded these days, repertoire that few dancers of our generation are able to say they have tackled.”
Tracey says that she wants to present ballets that challenge and inspire the dancers, as well as entertain and educate the public, which is why she flies in experts to stage certain ballets. For “Fall River Legend,” the Alabama Ballet invited Agnes de Mille’s personally anointed repétiteur of her ballets, Paul Sutherland. He has staged her ballet “Rodeo” more than 50 times, and he recently staged “Fall River Legend” at the Paris Opera House. “He is so meticulous about the reasons that the characters are doing this step or looking in that certain direction,” says Tracey. “Also, people like Paul broaden the dancers’ experience. Working with other people makes them better artists and better performers.”
“Paul is a fantastic repétiteur and one of the funniest people I have ever met,” says Michael, who has worked with Sutherland in Alabama Ballet’s productions of “Rodeo” and “Fall River Legend.” “Paul lends a helping hand artistically, while allowing the dancers to find their own voice in their roles. He has firsthand experience working with Agnes, so he knows specifically what she would or would not want to see in a character portrayal. I hold my experiences working with him as a high mark in my career.”
“We are custodians of these pieces. It is important that they are handed down from dancer to dancer,” says Tracey, who is also bringing in Darla Hoover to stage the company’s production of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker.” A highly distinguished répétiteur, Darla stages works for the George Balanchine Trust and for Peter Martins, ballet master-in-chief of New York City Ballet, all over the world. The Alabama Ballet is one of only seven companies in the world to be granted the right to perform Balanchine’s version of this classic by the Balanchine Trust. Even the costumes are exact replicas of pieces designed by Balanchine’s costumer, Barbara Karinska. The Alabama Ballet worked to create the exact replicas from notes, pictures and videos sent from the New York City Ballet, because there were no patterns.
For the Love of Dance
“At a young age, I was given a VHS copy of the movie White Nights by one of my male dance instructors,” says 15-year professional dancer Michael Fothergill. “The leading role was played by virtuoso dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, and I remember watching scenes over and over again, rewinding and fast-forwarding the film to his dance portions to try to figure out the incredible tricks he executed. To this day, it is still one of my favorite films. I also passed it along to one of my male students in the hopes of inspiring him in the same way.”
Catherine Garrat recalls getting upset at a young age when other students were not serious in class. “Ballet was always my first priority,” says the Birmingham native who is in her 10th year as a professional dancer. “I have always made decisions that put ballet first. For instance, I left home at 16 to finish my training at the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, returning home many years later to dance with the Alabama Ballet as a professional.”
Catherine and Michael, now engaged to one another and frequent partners on the Alabama Ballet stage, both express a love not only of dance, but of a well-told story, a unique experience that offers depth of emotions and artistic expression and, most importantly, brings joy to the audience.
Tracey echoes the couple, adding, “You should come to “The Nutcracker,” just to see the audience of children at our student outreach matinees. The theater is filled with children, and when the curtain closes at intermission and that snow starts falling in the theater,” Tracey pauses, searching for the words to describe their absolute shock, wonderment and joy at the unexpected in-theater surprise … “I’ve never seen anything like it. They go crazy. They are my favorite part of “The Nutcracker.””
The Alabama Ballet studios are located at 2726 First Ave. S. in Birmingham. For more information, visit alabamaballet.org or call (205) 322-4300.
And don’t miss Alabama Ballet’s performance of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker!” Get your tickets online or call (205) 202-8142.
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