Dance is not usually a requirement in high school English classes, but it is at Laguna Blanca, where a collaboration with State Street Ballet puts students on stage with professionals in a show that’s based on a great work of literature. This year’s Library Dances performance will take place on Thursday, October 13 in Laguna’s Spaulding Auditorium at 7PM.
The Library Dances project first came to Laguna Blanca three years ago when English Teacher Charles Donelan, Ph.D. and Drama Teacher Kate Bergstrom invited State Street Ballet dancer and choreographer Cecily Stewart to bring the program to the school. During the summer, Charles and Cecily select a classic work of literature from the eleventh and twelfth grade English curriculum, dividing up the action into dances and dramatic scenes. Together they create a hybrid of dance and theater that students then learn as part of the Library Dances performance. “Students gain a greater depth and understanding of the characters through acting and dance,” Charles says. “It allows for a much more personal engagement with the book, and a greater sense of trust and camaraderie for every student who participates.”
When students arrive at school in September, they are greeted by the participating teachers—a group that this year include Charles, Jillian Honorof, Dana Caldwell, and a team of four professional ballet dancers from State Street’s roster, including Cecily. In less than a month, the students learn their lines and their dance moves, and perform the literature live for family and friends.
State Street Ballet has long made dance education a part of its mission, hoping to inspire a lifelong participation in the arts from a young age. Library Dances is one of its public outreach programs, and Laguna is the only high school in Santa Barbara currently offering this experience. Past performances have included such classics as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Scarlet Letter.
Throughout the Library Dances unit, Donelan pushes the limits of traditional literary analysis to script for his students. During last year’s performance of The Scarlet Letter, for instance, he asked his students to conduct research in a variety of secondary literature about public shaming to make the topic—and the emotions surrounding it—more real to them. This fall, students are tackling high school favorite The Great Gatsby from Daisy’s perspective. Through this approach, Charles hopes his students will be able to uncover new layers of complexity in the novel’s treatment of love and money.
During the three-week Library Dances unit, students spend approximately 50 percent of their time on stage rehearsing for the performance. In that sense, the class is more than just a new way to teach classic literature—it also guarantees that every student in the Upper School participates in live theater at least once before they graduate. More than 100 Laguna students have already gone through the program successfully.
The dance styles that students perform are influenced by the type of dance State Street Ballet is studying at any given time. The four professional dancers who are present throughout the rehearsals then join students onstage for the final performance.
Charles feels passionately that this collaboration between Laguna students and professional artists in the Santa Barbara community represents an important and distinctive feature of the school’s experiential education program. “Having access to these professional artists is priceless,” Charles says. “When the dancers compliment students on their work, it’s a kind of praise and recognition that I can’t give them.”
Library Dances at Laguna has already gained significant recognition. The audience for last season’s production of The Scarlet Letter included nationally known choreographer William Soleau, as well as the directors of the State Street Ballet, Rodney Gustafson and Leila Drake Fossek.
“This is a real opportunity for our school—for our students.” Charles says. “It gives a whole new meaning to the term ‘literary arts.”
HOW IT WORKS
· Charles Donelan, Ph.D. adapts the chosen piece of literature into scripts for his students to perform.
· State Street Ballet choreographer Cecily Stewart brings the script to life by interspersing a variety of dances throughout the piece.
· Each section of Charles’ classes performs a different scene or scenes from the book they are studying.
· Because different portions of the book are performed by different sections of his classes, numerous students have the chance to play the main characters over the course of the evening.
· Sections rehearse separately as part of regularly scheduled class meetings. This means that the whole piece only comes together in dress rehearsal on the night before the public performance.
Laguna Blanca School is a not-for-profit EK-12 co-educational, college preparatory day school. Building upon its 80-year tradition of academic excellence with new and innovative teaching methods and programs, Laguna Blanca provides students with a supportive community that promotes deeper learning, and values student balance and well-being. With its thriving experiential learning, LEGO, STEM, and arts programs, competitive athletics, and state-of-the-art athletic facilities, the school offers a variety of ways that students can succeed. For more information, please visit www.lagunablanca.org.