Ballet U.

Pointe shoes find a home at Columbia.

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 STUDIO SESSION Walker, foreground, rehearses Moon Roses.

STUDIO SESSION Walker, foreground, rehearses Moon Roses. Photograph: Wen Huang

In the world of ballet, Lydia Walker isn’t exactly atypical. She trained at the School of American Ballet for more than ten years, was a member of Pennsylvania Ballet II for three seasons and toured extensively with Suzanne Farrell’s company—notably performing in the splendid revival of George Balanchine’s Don Quixote. During the past three years, she has also been enrolled in Columbia University’s School of General Studies as a part-time student.

Impeccable training and experience notwithstanding, there just aren’t many outlets for ballet dancers to dance. At Barnard, where Mary Cochran, a former Paul Taylor dancer, runs the dance department, ballet is still offered in the curriculum, but it has been substantially eased out of the performance arena. So Walker and four others have initiated the Columbia Ballet Collaborative, which presents its debut at Streng Studio this weekend.

“I think it’s a response to a number of things: First of all, there were very few performance opportunities here for ballet dancers,” Walker, 24, says. “There are lots of ballet classes with really good teachers and they’re full, but there weren’t so many other performance opportunities that I was terribly interested in. It seemed rather odd—and too bad—that all the professional ballet dancers on campus had nothing to do. Also, we all love ballet and we all want to share it with a wider audience.”

There are several dance organizations at Columbia, but CBC, which is awaiting approval from the university’s Activities Board to become a university-recognized club, marks Columbia’s first ballet group, advised by Barnard professor and dance historian and critic Lynn Garafola. For Walker—who formed CBC with fellow dancers and Columbia students Ashley Flood, Emily Hayden, Larissa Higgins and Victoria North—the group provides not just an opportunity to dance, but a way to expand the art form’s potential. For the members, who have had their share of professional disappointments, it’s also a way to remember why they wanted to dance in the first place.

“There’s so much going on on campus, and ballet and dance tend to be very separate from everything else,” Walker says. “We want to be able to integrate ourselves more and work with people from other media. There’s just so much talent here, and hopefully we can start accessing more of it. That’s our dream.” CBC offers a weekly ballet class to anyone with training, taught by Ashlee Knapp, a former member of New York City Ballet. “I wanted to test out my teaching skills to see if I was good at it and if I could do it as a job, and this was kind of a no-stress environment,” Knapp explains. “The ballet world can be so stressful and horrible at times—I felt like everyone was so burnt out. I just want to be really positive and try to bring the joy back. That’s something I’m going through as well.”

Walker calls the class “one of the best-kept secrets in New York,” crediting Knapp with improving her technique more than anyone else at the moment. “She has a good eye,” Walker says. “She’s tremendously musical. She has a lot of enthusiasm, and she gives a lot and it comes very naturally to her. She’s into no judgment—of course, there’s good and there’s bad, but we’re doing this because we love to do it, and it’s not terribly more complicated than that.”

Knapp has choreographed a new solo for the group’s first concert, which also includes an excerpt from Bonnie Scheibman’s Moon Roses—a work originally created for the Boston Ballet in 1990—as well as dances by Hayden and a yoga-ballet experiment between Walker and Philip Askew. Next spring, CBC plans to offer workshops focusing on partnering and repertory, as well as an expanded season.

Walker is intrigued by the possibility of unveiling a new production of an excerpt from La Bayadère in collaboration with Taal, Columbia’s Indian classical dance group. “I think it would be really cool to get the Indian mannerisms right,” she says. “And this is even more sketchy, but we would love to do a production of Rite of Spring with the Columbia Orchestra.”

At the moment, 14 performers are scheduled for the upcoming showcase, but as Walker notes, “There are so many ballet dancers on campus who were too busy this term and also wanted to see if we were viable before they commit. The joke about the General Studies honor society is that they call it ‘tutus and Uzis’ because everybody in it is either a ballet dancer or former Israeli army.” Under her breath, she adds with a laugh, “I guess there are some similarities in there.”

The Columbia Ballet Collaborative performs at Barnard College’s Streng Studio Fri 14 and Sat 15.

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