Smile Politely

Champaign-Urbana’s Ballet Boys

Competitive, hierarchical, physically demanding, time-consuming and under-recognized by the masses, it is a “sport” unlike any other. The demands are great, and rewards often few and far-between: a mention on the third page of a newspaper’s arts section, an invitation to a summer residency half a continent away, the applause (no bouquet of flowers for you) as you bow, a moment of transcendence as you float above the stage during a grand jette.

Just ask Rahm Emanuel, President-Elect Obama’s chief of staff, who spent a good part of his life in ballet class. Or the thousands of boys who auditioned last year for the highly-acclaimed new musical Billy Elliot. They might tell you that the hard work never lets up: push-ups after class, endless stretches and lifts to build up the precision and strength needed to support female dancers, and then, finally, a solo, your brief moment to shine.

Such is the life of a male ballet dancer. You would think that these demands, combined with mainstream America’s obsession with traditional sports, would discourage boys from getting involved in ballet at an early age. And in some parts of the country, this is indeed true. But luckily here in Champaign-Urbana, boys’ ballet is alive and well, thanks in part to the Champaign Ballet Academy and the Champaign Urbana Ballet, and the opportunities and encouragement each provides.

The number of boys involved at the academy is steadily growing according to their fall newsletter, and there is no place better to witness this phenomenon than at one of the five upcoming performances of the Nutcracker at the Krannert Center on December 5–7. There, dozens of young men and boys will show off their talent and dedication to this art form as party boys, mice, soldiers, Russian dancers, the nutcracker, the prince, a wind-up doll, heralds and more.

What leads children towards this kind of pursuit? Well, for starters, being part of a professional dance and theater production is a seductive experience. The magic of fog machines, lighting design, elaborate costumes and the pile-up of props backstage: rat heads, swords, a grandfather clock, etc. All this reaffirms to children, and for that matter, adults, that their inner lives — their dreams as well as fears — are something to spotlight and celebrate. It reaffirms the role of art in our quality of life — that sacred and vulnerable space within that makes us human. And children, especially boys, need to hear that message.

But also, there is a feeling of community that exists backstage, an invisible bond between performers, stagehands, parent volunteers and musicians: children exchange small token gifts with each other at the last performance; they give high-fives and exchange “break a leg” good-luck wishes in the hallways; volunteers run from the green room to a dressing room to make an emergency costume repair; stage directors and party dads yell prompts outside dressing areas. And by some miracle, the huge productions just simply work.

Oh, yes, truth be told, as in any community there are always problems: illnesses and injuries, casting and audition disappointments, hurt feelings, a stumble on stage, a rebuke from a director. But the overall team spirit endures and offers something much more than the cheer at the end of a soccer game: the very important knowledge that in creating art, they are making the world a better place for us all.

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