For most high school students, the word "ballet" conjures up an image of a ballerina in a tutu leaping across a stage. "Mime" may have a similar effect -- a man in whiteface trying to escape from a mysterious glass box comes to mind.
Many teens do not understand these art forms or even care too much about them. However, the Swing Choir at St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute this fall was privileged to get a firsthand look at mime and ballet from the very best professionals this area has to offer: Vincent O'Neill and Joseph Cipolla.
"We are exposing the students to the very best professionals," says Swing Choir director James Deiotte. "This allows the students to respect the discipline, as well as their own contribution to the arts as a part of the Swing Choir."
The 41-member Swing Choir, with students from St. Joe's and women from nine area girls schools and public schools, performs Christmas concerts around the area and does several big concerts and shows throughout the year, singing and dancing all types of music from Broadway show tunes to pop songs, to classical pieces and religious music.
While one aspect of the group is the performing, an even bigger aspect is learning about the arts and the hard work and dedication required to hone one's skills in any artistic field.
Through the performing arts department's Artists in Residence program this fall, students took workshops in mime techniques from O'Neill and ballet from Cipolla AND HOW TO INCORPORATE.
Originally from Ireland, O'Neill learned and perfected his mime techniques in France under the great Marcel Marceau. O'Neill teaches at the University at Buffalo and is co-founder and artistic director of the Irish Classical Theatre Company. He conducted two workshops with the Swing Choir, one dealing with the basic principles of mime, and one about acting using mime. The students put together small one-act plays of a scene from "Hamlet" using mime techniques.
Senior Rob Neiss, also a member of the recent Monsignor Martin League Championship varsity football team, remarked: "It (mime) really allows you to do stuff you aren't used to doing. You can just think outside of the box and have fun." Senior Justin Graber seconds that statement: "You are able to open up and broaden your horizons."
Cipolla is a 1977 graduate of St. Joe's, where he participated in Swing Choir, Glee Club and the spring musical. He started ballet at age 17. He has danced with the Dance Theater of Harlem, been a principal dancer in the Sadler Well's Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet of England, was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award, and has taught at UB and the Dance Theater of Harlem. He also is the co-founder of Configuration Dance, a modern ballet company that has made several appearances in the area, including a visit to St. Joe's in October.
Cipolla ran two ballet workshops for the Swing Choir. The students learned basic ballet steps and principles in the first, and in the second, began learning what was to be dubbed the "Chair Dance." Each student learned steps to a dance combination that centered on a chair. Cipolla gave the first few steps, then students thought of what they could do to further the dance. The choreography went on in this way, with a master of the craft listening to students, and helping them think of different steps that would work to actually make this exercise into a performable number. "It pleases me beyond belief to see their reactions," he said.
Students came away with a newfound respect for ballet. "I have learned that ballet takes a lot of discipline, and a lot of determination to get to where Joe Cipolla is," said junior T.J. Wilcox. "I have a lot of respect for him and what he does."
Cipolla also was happy at the results. "I feel as though I may have changed someone, and if I can bring the ballet to others, and they like it, then it is worth it."
Cipolla says he is happy to give back to the place that gave him so much. "St. Joe's was where the seeds were planted, and I feel that I was given my career to share my experiences and knowledge and turn others on to dance." He plans to return in the future. "The culture of excellence in the arts here blows me away," he said. "The openness and willingness to explore new ideas is there."
Deiotte underscores the value of the Artists in Residence program. "We are too satisfied with what is just 'good enough,'" says Deiotte. "If we are really going to teach, we owe it to our students to work with the very best people we have available. When students learn to respect their gifts, they feel important, and then they are able to pass their gifts on to others through their music."
Catherine Ward, the school's arts department chairwoman, says the Artists in Residence program "allows the students to have experiences in different artistic areas that the teachers we have aren't experts in. To have a professional in the area come in and work with the students totally expands the possibilities, and makes it much more realistic than someone just talking about it."
Frontier senior Devan Corcoran has been dancing for 15 years. She says, "The workshops bring the group closer together and really bring people out of their shells." Sophomore Tyler Sperazza, who also studies dance, says, "The workshops are great because, as a dancer, people like Mr. Cipolla really open up your view of ballet and show you new techniques." Perhaps Holy Angels Academy junior Alexandra Gugino sums it up best: "Our workshops are fun, unique, and top of the line!"
Alex Eadie is a senior at St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute.