A Conversation with Sofia Hirsch, Solo violinist & Ballet Vermont Music Director
After four years with Farm to Ballet (F2B), I still thought that the impetus for live music had come from Chatch. It didn’t? It came from Sofia? I’d better talk with her and get the story, so I met with Sofia in her lovely Burlington home.
By way of background, Sofia started studying the violin at age four and played with the Vermont Youth Orchestra in the 1980s. Her string quartet competed nationally at the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition, Junior Division. After college and various life diversions, Sofia returned to her violin and in 2000 joined the Vermont Symphony Orchestra. In 2008 she started playing with the Burlington Chamber Orchestra as a founding member. She’s performed with the Darmouth Handel Society and the Dartmouth Symphony, the Middlebury Opera and the Middlebury Bach Festival, and the Northern Third Piano Quartet.
Sofia is a multifaceted artist. She studied jazz and modern dance in high school, and West African/Cuban in college. She danced with the Lyric Theatre Company’s West Side Story in 2009 and A Chorus Line in 2011. But something was missing in her dance world, so she started ballet seven years ago, first in Middlebury where she lived, and continued at Spotlight with Chatch for the last five years, taking classes with dancers who comprised the company, year by year.
Sofia had noticed that Chatch liked violin music, that he would play a Mendelssohn violin concerto or Vivaldi’s concerto The Four Seasons before class. So they got to talking. She loved Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. “Why use a recording for The Four Seasons when I could play it live at each show? And I was super excited to play for my classmates,” said Sofia.
That first season live music was played for The Four Seasons only with Sofia on violin and Jacob Oblak on keyboard.
Sofia had run her own chamber music group and was used to contacting musicians for gigs, so for F2B’s second season in 2016 she asked her musician friends about joining the show as a string sextet and “they all said yes!” So a string sextet played the Vivaldi music the second and third F2B seasons.
The sextet is comprised of Sofia on solo violin, first violin, second violin, viola, cello, and bass. Each instrument is wired with a microphone for sound and a seventh person handles the sound board. In other words, the music comes through six cords into the sound board, where it is mixed for balance and clarity as it is played to the audience from that mixed source.
Sofia commented, “Vivaldi’s concerto The Four Seasons is one of the top ten in the repertoire of violin concertos. It’s virtuosic music at the highest level.”
For the first three seasons, the musicians played only the Vivaldi music, which dancers used for about half the performance. Recorded, full orchestral music by Tchaikovsky, Minkus, Prokofiev, and other composers was used for the other dances.
The fourth season saw the transition to all live music. F2B made a major commitment when it had all the non-Vivaldi music transcribed from full symphony down to just six stringed instruments. “This was a tremendous task to reduce full symphonic scoring to scoring for a string sextet,” said Sofia, “and we were blessed to have Michael Close nearby in Montpelier for the job. He is a cellist and a composer, and he transcribed the music for six strings and preserved the characterization. What resulted was very virtuosic scoring, especially for the viola.”
Sofia explained that characterization is central to ballet music and is represented by themes or instruments, and that Michael captured this quality. She also mentioned that Chatch has a great ear for music and has captured its beauty, drama, playfulness, and grandeur in his choreography.
And what is Sofia’s favorite piece of music? “Literally every piece is my favorite. Chatch chose the best of the best from each ballet score.”
Looking back over her life, Sofia noted, “It was always dance versus violin, either/or. I had to be devoted to either one or the other. Never did the two co-exist. Now they co-exist comfortably with F2B. Now I can have both integrated as a major focus.”
In the last three seasons, musicians have come from all over the northeast and they are all professionals, ranging from young to seasoned. Each season there are new musicians as well as returning musicians from previous seasons, but all of them understand what’s so special about this production.
Live music is an important draw for audiences. A brief survey done in 2017 indicated that 81.8% of audience members found the live music to be an important part of the F2B experience. Even though live music is expensive––a major part of the budget––it is valuable to attendees and has been a major commitment and priority on the part of F2B from the beginning.
Incidentally, very seldom does a dance company start with live music. This is standard that most dance companies work towards, sometimes for years, before achieving. But Farm to Ballet started its first season with half the music live and reached the point of fully live music its fourth season.
Greenbacks, bucks, clams, benjamins, pots of gold, plastic, c-notes, moolah, dough, wad, scratch, bankrolls, cash, stash...
Spring will come (eventually!) and green grass will grow for Farm to Ballet (F2B) to dance on. Rehearsals have begun for the 2019 season at six farms.
Ballet Vermont is the only classical ballet company in Vermont. And F2B, a project of Ballet Vermont, has perhaps the most unique social mission in the ballet world––promoting sustainable agriculture!
Let’s look at the other ways F2B is unique not only in Vermont but in the country.
And now the beautiful budget for this fifth season of F2B is coming together, and all fans of ballet have an opportunity to participate in it.
The public sees the beautiful costumes, brilliant choreography and dancing, and props, and hears live music played by a string ensemble of six or seven musicians, all in a beautiful rural setting. And smiles galore!
Now consider the behind-the-scenes costs for growing the company and its mission.
Yes. F2B is now set up to accept monthly pledges in amounts of your choice to be processed through PayPal, a credit card, or a bank account. (Just click on Monthly Pledges above.)
A vibrant monthly pledge program will enable F2B to not only meet the budget but to also provide a measure of financial security that is necessary to confidently make future plans to increase its commitment of service to Vermont.
The Monthly Pledge program will be in addition to the current sources of support for the F2B budgets.
Armies march on their stomachs and dancers pirouette on––money!
By Eileen Maddocks
Open-call auditions for the fifth season of Farm to Ballet were held on Sunday, February 10, at Spotlight Vermont from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Your intrepid blogger lurked among the dancers.
So many new faces! There was a tremendous response to the publicity that was given to this audition. Over twenty dancers auditioned, and others who could not be present sent dancer videos. A number was assigned to each dancer to pin on his/her clothes. Not quite an ABT audition, but numbers gave it the feel.
So many levels in dance ability from beginner to soloist quality. And one dancer had never studied ballet but she kept up just fine.
About one-third were returning dancers from previous seasons and for them it was like old-home week. Some of the newbies looked stiff and uncertain but previous F2B dancers made them feel welcome. By the time dancers took the floor after the barre, it was one big mixed group of young and old(er), new and veterans!
Twelve-year old Kian of Middlebury was auditioning for his fourth season! He’s trained with Chatch at Spotlight and in classes at the dance department at Middlebury College. How does it feel, Kian? “Yes, I do feel!”
And ten-year old Rowan came from Footworks Studio of Dance in Milton. Welcome, Rowan! Might there possibly be two kid goats this year?
Chatch welcomed everyone with their wide range of dance abilities and said he wanted to offer ballet outside on the grass for everyone. He was looking for joyfulness beyond uniformity and technique. For the beginners, can you hang in there through the tough? Can you persevere even though you don’t understand what’s going on? At the higher level of dancing, he was looking for consistency.
Chatch moved through the rows of barres checking on the dancers. Best to just ignore him!
Ah, the judges. Avi Waring, the Ballet Mistress for Ballet Vermont, and Amy Overstreet, the Media Liaison for Ballet Vermont, sat at a table in front to watch. Sometimes they whispered with each other and rattled papers. Hmmm, will have to find out later what was going on there!
Chatch explained and demonstrated everything carefully for the barre work and floor combos so that no one would be handicapped by not grasping the steps and combinations. The playing field was made level.
How did the dancers feel when the two hours were over? Three of the new dancers said:
The returning dancers were excited, too.
It seems that a good time was had by all.
Now. Dancers. Wait. For. The. Email.
Our first Adult Dance Experience (ADE)
By Eileen Maddocks
The Adult Dance Experience was designed to bring together dancers from all areas of the art and to celebrate adult dancers from all backgrounds.
Pilates was the quietest class. The students looked serene and relaxed, but don’t be fooled! Even though lying on the floor, the group led by Laura Savard was working hard. Pilates conditions, stretches, and balances the whole body. Dance, like any other physical activity, can take a toll on the adult body. Pilates works to correct imbalances created in the dance studio and allows dancers the space to reconnect and release, and to avoid future stresses, strains and injuries. Pilates is an essential part of the dance experience, a vital tool in every dancer’s toolkit.
Beating, pounding hip hop music came from the next studio. Rose Bedard was teaching hip hop with a jazz emphasis. Legs moved right and left, front and back, with hip and shoulder movements and arms made swooping around. Even the fingers had specialized roles––straight and splayed for upward thrusts and clutched for inward body bends. Music pounded and bodies writhed and swirled. Dancers moved in amazing beauty and unity. What fun!
Back to quiet and controlled hard work. Chatch taught the beginning ballet class with everything carefully explained, starting with standing up straight from feet to head––stand back on the feet (for first position) or out in other positions and pull up from the ankles through the legs. The core starts with the tailbone and continues the lifting process up to the rib cage, and ribs and chest continue the upward momentum but with shoulders rolled back and the neck reaching high. Lift the ears! Wide arm stretches “are not us,” he explained, because joints should not be forced to be what they aren’t. Pliés and tendus, battement jetés, and grand battements. Leaving the barres behind, floorwork began with basic tendus, followed by real dancing with balancés! An adagio with passé developé croisé devant, a la second, and croisé derriére was executed with everyone standing straight and balanced on one foot. Brush up on your high school French! There were undoubtedly some sore bodies the next day!
Shelley Ismail taught the intermediate ballet class with the elegance of a former professional dancer, twenty years with Les Grand Ballets of Montreal. The students were all trained ballet dancers and they moved through the barre and floor work with strength, grace, and confidence.
And what’s that racket coming from the next studio? Intermediate tap class with Elisa Van Duyne! Incredible combinations were taught using both traditional tap styles and contemporary rhythm tap. Did you know that a group can create a crescending sound and then switch to quiet mode, at least for tap relatively speaking? The group danced with unison, arms moving in balance with the feet. You know tap dancers are in unison when the tap sounds are well synchronized. Exciting.
Elisa also taught the class on musical theater jazz, which filled the largest studio with a maximum number of students. Warmup exercises were balletic in motion, and soon she was demonstrating basic jazz steps––step forward and back, step right and left, with “rock.” The music “On Broadway” filled the air as arms and feet moved with gusto. Then struts across the floor. Watch them go! Step-step-pose-hold, then alternate, with that jazz hip and arm thrusts. This easy combo looks even jazzier when done on a diagonal. Done on a diagonal. The highlight was the teaching of modified choreography of Robert Ashford’s dance segment “Show People” from the 2007 Broadway show “Curtains.” Within 15 or 20 minutes, 20 dancers not only mastered the dance steps but assumed many different placements and final poses. Just like on Broadway!
Avi Waring led the class on contemporary dance. After going through basic warmup exercises designed to ground dancer bodies to the floor, the dancers found out why. The ensuing choreography was half done on the floor! Up and down from standing positions to floor ones. Mix and match the body rolls with legs splayed, up on a knee for an arm-shoulder pose, roll back down into fetal crouches followed by full stretches with arms and legs going diagonal, up to standing for a quick kick and spin, back to the floor for a spin ending with both legs up to ceiling supported by the chest, and up again for an arabesque turn, quick foot work, and a landing pose. Just watching was exhausting! But the dancers moved with surprising fluidity, keeping to the musical beats like pros.
And if you like the floor, you would have loved the floor dancing with Alison Mathes. She uses the floor like an apparatus for incredible dance and fitness. It takes a lot of strength to dance on the floor. It’s difficult. But there’s an almost infinite variety of floorwork movements to be found there. And at least the dancer doesn’t have to worry about falling! Alison choreographed a dance piece for the floor that everyone enjoyed, and the class was over far too soon.
Chatch, the artistic director for Farm to Ballet and Bees & Friends, both productions of Ballet Vermont, presented ballet variations for the barn cat, a new character to be introduced during the forthcoming fifth season of Farm to Ballet. Based on the dance of the Queen of the Dryads from Don Quixote, the movements are long, stretchy, and sinuous. We’ll see what the barn cat does with that! Just when life seems cozy with the sun shining warmly on his fur, the cat sees something. A mouse or that rude goat? The cat leaps into quick jumps and turns, changing directions. No rest for you, dear cat, until the nuisance is taken care of and you can return to your lithe, twisty motions. The students had a lot of fun with this.
Dancers praised the ADE.
Here’s a great article on Ballet Vermont.
And here are the online URLs where you can learn more about the teachers and where they teach.
Elisa Van Duyne
No online information could be found. She danced with the Les Grand Ballets of Montreal, Canada, as a soloist for twenty years and has been teaching ballet for about thirty years. She teaches several classes per week for teenagers and adults at the Spotlight Vermont studio in South Burlington.
Harvest season and Thanksgiving are my favorite times of year. The trees hanging onto those few yellow brown leaves, the dramatic cloudy skies. It is the end of the season of growth and a time of transition. At this time, my mind turns to contemplation and reflection. In this contemplation, my feelings turn to gratitude as is traditional during the time of Thanksgiving.
Through the process of developing and performing the Farm to Ballet Project I have met so many amazing Farmers and visited so many beautiful farms. Epic farms like Shelburne, Billings and Sandiwood, whose acres seem to have no end. To farms that are nestled in the Vermont hills like Moonrise, Heartwood and Vermont Grand View Farm. We have seen it all from farms that grow organically, to regeneratively, to conventionally. They grow for all sorts of reasons. There are the family farms that grow for the farmers market, some that grow for the CSA, and some for the grocery store shelves. There are even non-profit farms that do wonderful things to support youth education, farming best practices education, tourism and the local economy. It is safe to say we have so much to thank our farmers for.
Besides what they do for our home in Vermont, I have also been overwhelmed by the generosity of the farmers who have welcomed our ragtag group of dancers often literally into their homes. It is not easy to open up your home and livelihood to a bunch of strangers but these farms have treated us like family.
I have so much gratitude for Farmers who not only steward the land preparing food for our Thanksgivings, but also provide a stage for our performance and open their hearts and homes. They welcome in their neighbors and community and help to bring our mission to life. We are so thankful that we can show our appreciation through our ballet meant to honor them.
While the local food movement here in Vermont is active it requires us to continually re-engage in eating food from farms right here at home. So while I'm cutting Billings Farm Butter Cheddar for my family’s cheese plate or cracking eggs from Studio Hill's chickens- I'll be thinking about the people who spend their days tending to the earth to make it all happen. While shopping for your thanksgiving dinner this year take a moment at your CSA pick up or the grocery store to give thanks the people who make it happen.
Thank you farmers. For all you do for me, for Farm to Ballet, and for our state.
Do you want to eat more local food? Check out this graphic of amazing Farm to Ballet past venues who also sell farm fresh food!
Want to share a fresh local turkey with your family this year? Check this out
These are only the beginning! Check out NOFA for more farm stand, farmers markets, and CSA information.
Eileen Maddocks returned to ballet when she retired and studies with Chatch Pregger. She performed with Farm to Ballet for four seasons. She is also a writer with her own publishing company that specializes in religious history.