Event Preview: Wings

by Amy Groh

Part of the mission of the arts in general is to reflect and challenge audiences and inspire them to become more attentive to their surroundings. Erich Yetter, artistic director of the Peoria Ballet, wanted to create a piece of art which spoke to this mission. He wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before—and more than that, he wanted to do it for Peoria.

To this end, Yetter conceptualized the Wings project, a contemporary ballet in five movements featuring an eclectic mix of jazz, dancing and sculpture, nearly three years ago. He met with Preston Jackson, an internationally acclaimed artist and sculptor from our great city, to discuss collaboration and the creation of a score and set designs. While he was Yetter’s original choice to be both set designer and score composer, Jackson suggested bringing Greg Ward II, graduate of Peoria Woodruff High School and an accomplished jazz musician currently working in Chicago, into the picture. It is this collaboration among these three distinctive artists which makes the program such a unique endeavor.

Wings is a very abstract ballet about Peoria, spanning from primeval times to the present day. Its five movements—Waiting, Water, Wages, Wanderings and Windows—take viewers through the pronounced changes which have made Peoria what it is today. Yetter wanted to showcase the city’s rich history, and what better way to do this than to involve two of the region’s finest artists in its creation!

This is a completely new experience for all three of the artists involved—none of them have worked on anything quite like this before. Peoria’s size, mind you, does not reflect its significance— our city has a lot to offer which no other city in America can match. To reflect this concept, Wings will impart “the greatness of [Peoria’s] natural history and the importance of its locale. There will also be an emphasis on its rich Native American and French roots,” said Jackson.

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Will it play in Peoria?” Beginning in the vaudeville era and continuing through the 1970s, Peoria was a “test” stop for the arts. Shows of all sorts went through this quintessential Midwestern city to see if what they had to offer could “make it big” in mainstream America. This idea plays an integral part in the Wings program.

Getting things started

At their initial meeting, Yetter explained the feeling and story of each movement to Jackson and Ward, and from there, creative license was given to each artist to work on his respective section.

Greg Ward II set out to compose the music for the show based on the notes he was given by Yetter. “He created a picture of words for me,” said Ward. The musical score was to act as the springboard for the other two components of the show—the choreography and set design. Therefore, Ward set right to work, translating Yetter’s “story” into music to be played by Ward and his five-man band during the performance of Wings.

Waiting, the first movement, tells of the land that would become Peoria before any people arrived. Ward’s music creates the sound of something new, something massive and unexplored.

In Water, people leave their homes—something familiar—and go to a new place through the water. This movement represents the tension associated with going into the unknown. “The music gives the feeling of rough water. It’s a good thing you’re doing, but trying something new—being an explorer—can also bring the pain and struggle of leaving the familiar,” Ward said.

Yetter also wanted this movement to showcase the fact that water, in the form of the Illinois River, is the superhighway of the Midwest. It brought trading, the rise of industry and an increase in population to Peoria, a notion that leads into the third movement very nicely.

Wages deals with the rise of industry, showing lots of construction. “The music sounds like machines working and the working class mentality of people doing whatever they’re doing at midnight. There’s call girls and late-night clubs. They work really hard, but hang out after working,” Ward said. “The good and bad happenings after work and the night life of the Midwest” flesh out this movement.

The fourth movement, Wandering, “is a dance about two people who really want to be together but are being torn apart,” Ward noted. He said that what tears these people apart are ideals, economic levels, race or forces of life which act against them. The music for this movement is full of the torment and pain which these two people feel.

Windows, the fifth movement, ushers in a joyful tone of celebration. In this movement, there is a sense of looking toward the future with an understanding of the past. Celebration arises from the fact that so much has been learned, and Peoria has come so far. “We won’t forget the things we went through to get here, however.” Ward described this movement as “very positive. It’s the remembrance of our struggle and trying not to go back. We continue in a positive manner so we don’t make the same mistakes twice.”

The substance of each movement, described here in mere words, will be seen, heard and felt by audience members on March 1st. To convey such an abstract message about dance, and Wings in particular, is a difficult task, and Yetter expressed his hope that he had described the project well enough to be written about. “If I could have said it, I wouldn’t have to dance it,” he noted. And it’s true—simply reading about this unique program could never be sufficient. Art needs to be seen, heard and felt. Yetter also stressed the idea that art is cross-cultural. “It’s for humans. It touches the human element in all of us. Art brings us all together.”

A community affair

The title of the program has several different, yet related, meanings. In ballet, the vast draperies which line either side of the stage are called “wings,” from which the phrase “waiting in the wings” is derived. Just as dancers “wait in the wings” for the right time to take the stage, Peoria, Yetter believes, is currently “waiting in the wings” to come out.

Because this piece is about a city loved by its inhabitants, Yetter felt the need to include artists whose hearts and roots go deep into Peoria. For this reason, Yetter said, “There’s a newness to it—no one else in the world will have this ballet. It’s a big thing to have something this large be created in your community, for your community.” He wanted to incorporate dancers not only from the Peoria Ballet, but also from the community. One such individual is Natalie Young, a dance teacher at Peoria Central High School. Young and several of her students will dance in the Wings program.

Because Wings is only a 25- to 30-minute piece, the evening will have a mixed repertoire. The remainder of the program, six or seven other numbers, will showcase traditional ballet. Yetter said these pieces will give an overview of what ballet is really about and help to achieve the overall feeling of diversity, inclusivity and collaboration. Famous dancers, such as Patricia Barker, Karel Cruz, Katherine Lawrence and Aaron Orlowski, will be brought in to perform famous pieces choreographed by masters of the art. Barker is a principal dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet, and her partner, Cruz, trained in Cuba. Lawrence is first soloist with Ballet West, and will dance with her husband and partner, Aaron Orlowski. Classical costumes and music will be used for these elements of the show.

Creating Wings “is like trying to make a new recipe. You have good ingredients, so it should still taste fine, even if it doesn’t come out exactly as planned,” Yetter said. And he’s right! When you put Preston Jackson, Greg Ward II and Erich Yetter together on a project, how could you go wrong? With such extraordinary artists working together, Wings is sure to be one of the most noteworthy shows to play in Peoria in 2008. a&s