Water Ballet: Pioneer Valley Ballet goes under the sea with ‘The Little Mermaid’

  • Stacey Hazen performs as the little mermaid during a rehearsal for Pioneer Valley Ballet’s production of “The Little Mermaid.” GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Emily DiBartolo, who plays both Lion Fish and Sea Monster, performs during rehearsal. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Stacey Hazen, left, performs as the little mermaid, with other mermaids; from left, Remy Gutterman, Erin Diggins, Brynn Goggins, Zofia Roberts and Maria Dean. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Erin Diggins, front, and other dancers perform during a rehearsal for Pioneer Valley Ballet’s production of “The Little Mermaid.” Diggins is an understudy for the role of the little mermaid. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Cast members of Pioneer Valley Ballet’s production of “The Little Mermaid” perform during a rehearsal. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lillian Stern, front, and other dancers perform during a rehearsal for Pioneer Valley Ballet’s production of “The Little Mermaid.” GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Noah McAuslin, as Prince, and Melanie Ostiguy, who plays Fiance. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Cast members of Pioneer Valley Ballet’s production of “The Little Mermaid.” GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Stephanie Kellogg, who plays the Sea Witch, performs during a rehearsal for Pioneer Valley Ballet’s production of “The Little Mermaid.” GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Stephanie Kellogg, who plays the Sea Witch, performs during rehearsal. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Cast members of Pioneer Valley Ballet’s production of “The Little Mermaid” perform during a rehearsal. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Melanie Ostiguy, who plays Fiance, performs during a rehearsal for Pioneer Valley Ballet’s production of “The Little Mermaid.” GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Edward Dvorchak, as King Triton, Stephanie Kellogg, as the Sea Witch, and other cast members rehearse for Pioneer Valley Ballet’s production of “The Little Mermaid.”

  • The Little Mermaid (2013). Samuel Anthony Masinter—Courtesy Pioneer Valley Ballet

  • The Little Mermaid (2013). Samuel Anthony Masinter—Courtesy Pioneer Valley Ballet

  • The Little Mermaid (2013). —Courtesy Pioneer Valley Ballet

  • The Little Mermaid (2013). Samuel Anthony Masinter—Courtesy Pioneer Valley Ballet

For the Gazette
Published: 4/5/2018 11:08:15 AM

Two weeks before showtime, the Pioneer Valley Ballet ensemble was deep in rehearsal for their production of “The Little Mermaid” at the Eastworks building in Easthampton. The Sea Witch was just about to lure the unassuming little mermaid into exchanging her identity for a chance to be with her true love, the prince, a dramatic turning point in the story.

The sea monsters danced with focused, exacting faces. Toes were pointed, arms fluid, movements synced up — that’s when Martha Potyrala, the company’s managing director, fast-walked into the scene and squatted down on stage left.

“Cauldron!” Potyrala said, waving her arms above her head. She was talking about her role as the stand-in cauldron bearer who stirs up poison onstage, all part of the Sea Witch’s evil plot to take the little mermaid’s voice. The dancers let out a collective laugh before slipping back into character.

Since January, the lead and advanced dancers have gathered for around eight hours a week to prepare for their production of “The Little Mermaid,” which is based on the eponymous 1837 fairy tale by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. A darker story than the Disney version, the ballet will unfold to a musical score by Camille Saint Saens. 

Pioneer Valley Ballet (PVB) last staged “The Little Mermaid” in 2013. This year, Stacey Hazen, a senior dance major at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, makes her as debut with the company as the titular character, while longtime company dancer and faculty member Stephanie Kellogg plays the Sea Witch. 

But there are plenty of other roles filled by dancers from around the region, including both company dancers and professional guests. Many of the dancers are PVB students, who range from five years old to seniors in high school. Potyrala describes the group of 110 ballet dancers as “general overachievers,” with many of them taking up multiple hobbies outside of the studio.

“It’s always a scary proposition when you have a cast of over 100,” said Thomas Vacanti, one half of the artistic directing/choreography team, along with Maryanne Kodzis. “It’s nerve-wracking. It’s stressful juggling all these girls and making sure everyone knows what they’re doing by showtime.”

Vacanti and Kodzis have been directing together for PVB for the past 15 years, having completed their MFAs at Smith College together. Kodzis was raised in Northampton and started out as a dancer at the studio, starring in “The Nutcracker,” which is still performed by the studio today.

Vacanti, Kodzis and Potyrala agree that out of all of their productions, “The Little Mermaid” is their favorite.

“It’s our chance to tell a family-friendly story that is not so traditional,” Kodzis said. “We can take a spin on it that lets kids do work that is more challenging, that doesn’t just say, ‘OK, here is our costume ballet!’ ” Of all the productions, “It’s the least humanlike,” with fewer legs and more water.

PVB’s telling is less gruesome than the original, Vacanti added. In the fairy tale, the mermaid’s feet are bleeding, “and she ultimately dies and turns into sea foam.”

“In our version,” added Kodzis, “the mermaid returns to the ocean, returns to her family, she gets her voice back, and she doesn’t die off. The Sea Witch does get killed, defeated. We try to make it not too scary, but it’s a little bit scary.”

Despite this PG retelling, they’ve kept the bigger, existential questions, Vacanti said: “How would someone feel if [she] were just able to start walking, having legs? How would someone feel if you traded everything in your life to be with someone, and it was just not meant to be? If the person belongs somewhere else and to someone else? So, there are a lot of very human situations in the story itself that we try to translate into the stage production.”

Translating “The Little Mermaid” into a ballet also raises unique challenges when it comes to the dancing itself. Characters such as King Triton and the Sea Witch don’t have legs, and the physical experience of being underwater is much different than of being on land. 

“When you’re underwater, you don’t move the same way that you would on land,” said Vacanti, “so how does that affect what you do? A lot of the time-consuming process of rehearsal is ‘OK, yes, you do that step; you do this one. But how do you imbue [those steps] with the story? That’s our challenge, every year.”

Figuring out how to tell this story in a new way has been Hazen’s challenge, too. “I grew up watching the Disney version of ‘The Little Mermaid,’ but was not that familiar with the Hans Christian Andersen version,” said Hazen, who’s been dancing since the age of 3. “The little mermaid is a very carefree character. I have to channel a childish, playful side of myself in order to embody her. I really try to picture how [she] would react to various scenarios as a sea creature who has never walked on ground before and has never interacted with humans. It’s a fun challenge.”

Another notable guest artist is Ed Dvorchak, who will be playing King Triton, the little mermaid’s father. A lover of ballet, he has played the part three times and is on PVB’s advisory board.

Plus, with his white beard and mustache, he truly looks the part — with or without the aquamarine scepter.  

Pioneer Valley Ballet will perform “The Little Mermaid” at Northampton’s Academy of Music Theatre at 274 Main St. on Saturday, April 7, at 1 p.m and at 4:30 p.m. Ticket prices range from $20 to $43. For more information, visit the theater in person or online at aomtheatre.org, or call 584-9032, ext. 105.

To learn more about Pioneer Valley Ballet, visit pioneervalleyballet.org.

   

 

 




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