Where do you find a lost ballet? Sometimes video footage can be found, sometimes notes. But your best bet -- and the way that dance has been handed down for thousands of years is to find it within the minds and bodies of the dancers who performed it.
In the case of Agnes De Mille's "A Rose for Miss Emily," based on a short story by William Faulkner, you ask Miss Emily herself: dancer Gemze de Lappe, to whom De Mille appointed the role when she created the ballet almost 40 years ago.
"I think it appealed to her as a story and it's quite a story," de Lappe says of de Mille's inspiration. Faulkner's Miss Emily is an obstinate, decaying spinster with a secret that her small town cracks open only after her death.
De Mille created the ballet in 1970 at the North Carolina School of the Arts using students and members of her company, including de Lappe, and she commissioned the score from composer Alan Hovhaness. American Ballet Theater premiered the piece later that year, with de Lappe as a guest performer. Audience response to the work was enthusiastic; Saturday Review dance critic Walter Terry commented on "rafter-shaking ovations."
Despite its success, the work fell out of ABT's repertory and languished, unperformed, until de Lappe began to reconstruct it last year. She worked from scraps of film "in terrible condition" (De Mille, who died in 1993, would sometimes record performances from the back of the theater) and her own memory, as well as that of Marcos Paredes, who had partnered her in the original ballet. She assembled a group of professional dancers who were off for the summer, assigned roles to them, and slowly, "we were able to piece it together."
A video of the reconstructed work allowed de Lappe to test the interest of various ballet companies, among them the Richmond Ballet and the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago.
"I knew the Richmond Ballet very well because I'd been down there for various projects," de Lappe says, "and I knew Stoner [Winslett] from Smith College," where she worked as a guest artist in residence. "I knew that she had a very good company. And this piece requires acting from everybody, and a different kind of acting."
"It's really one of the meatiest, most satisfying roles," RB dancer Dana‰ Carter says. She'll perform the role of Miss Emily in the Studio 2 show this week. "It's really dark," she says. "You start the ballet, and you're already an old woman who's out of her mind. As a dancer, as an actor, it's really challenging. I love it."
Carter, now in her 10th and last season with the company, was thrilled to work with de Lappe. "There was no faking it," Carter says. "If she doubts for one second your belief in what you're doing, she has no hesitation saying, That's not right what are you doing?'
"There were days when it was really hard. And I'd tell myself, 'Well, Dana‰, pretend like you're being coached by Robert De Niro or Jack Nicholson or somebody.' You just have to take what she says, and it makes you a much richer artist and person and dancer. Nothing that's worth it is really ever easy." S
The Richmond Ballet's Studio 2 featuring "A Rose for Miss Emily" and Jessica Lang's "To Familiar Spaces in Dream" runs Nov. 6-11 at the Richmond Ballet Studio Theater. Tickets are $15-$28. Call 262-8003 or visit www.richmondballet.com.