Nineteen years ago, American Repertory Ballet (ARB) debuted the ballet Our Town, based on the play by Thornton Wilder that won the playwright a Pulitzer Prize in 1938. Choreographed by Philip Jerry, who was ballet master of the company while earning his undergraduate degree at Princeton University, the affecting drama was made all the more poignant by Mr. Jerry’s death from AIDS not long after the premiere. He was 41.
The fact that the ballet company has continued to perform Our Town over the ensuing two decades is testament to its dramatic power. This weekend, it is one of four works on a program ARB is presenting at Rider University’s Bart Luedeke Center. Coaching the dancers are artistic director Douglas Martin and the company’s ballet mistress Mary Barton, who starred in “Our Town” at its premiere. The two, who celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary last week, knew Mr. Jerry from when they were all members of The Joffrey Ballet in the 1980s.
“He was very clear about what he wanted,” Ms. Barton said, recalling Mr. Jerry before a rehearsal of Our Town last week. “We only had a week to learn the ballet. But he was so articulate and such a good actor that he got me to fully understand what he wanted. And I relay that today, almost word for word.”
Ms. Barton played Emily Webb, a central character in the story of Grover’s Corners, an average, early 20th century New England town as depicted through the simplicity of everyday life. Emily’s childhood, her romance with George Gibbs (played by Mr. Martin), her death giving birth to her second child, and her wrenching return to Earth for just one day are the crux of the three-act play, which Mr. Jerry condensed into one act.
“Philip had done a first draft of it elsewhere, but not on professional dancers,” Ms. Barton continued. “When he set it on us, a professional company, it felt like it was real to him, I think. This was his first drama. He had done some ballets for Joffrey 2 [the Joffrey Ballet’s second company] that were strictly just movement. But this was what he was really great at, in my opinion. The music, by Aaron Copland, really sweeps you along. Philip arranged it beautifully and set it in such a way that it just flowed from your body.”
Mr. Jerry was first accepted at Princeton University in 1972, but he deferred to pursue a dance career in New York. He was a member of the Joffrey Ballet until 1991, when he left to enroll at the University. He graduated with honors in art history and a certificate in French.
“Philip was very well read and very intelligent,” said Mr. Martin, during a rehearsal break last week. “He understood what artists of the early 20th century did, and he was so smart at understanding character.” As a younger dancer with the Joffrey, Mr. Martin remembers following Mr. Jerry into several roles. “I spent a lot of time with him in the rehearsal hall,” he recalled. “I mean, he had learned the role of the Chinese Conjurer (in the revival of the historic 1917 ballet Parade by Leonide Massine) from Massine himself. He was my role model.”
The local connections with Our Town go back to Mr. Wilder’s day. He taught French at The Lawrenceville School between 1921 and 1928. While there, he earned a master’s degree in French from Princeton University. Mr. Wilder won his first Pulitzer, for the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, before resigning from Lawrenceville in 1928. When Our Town premiered a decade later, it was at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre.
The ballet Our Town was also given its first viewing at McCarter. “We performed it with the scrim up, as the play had been done,” said Ms. Barton. “Then we did it again during Douglas’s first year as artistic director.”
Monica Giragosian and Cameron Auble Branigan play Emily and George in the current version of Our Town. Jumping up during rehearsal to demonstrate Emily and George’s loving glances at each other and the baby in Emily’s arms, Ms. Barton and Mr. Martin look completely believable as the young couple. “After I learned the ballet, I felt like I had become Emily,” Ms. Barton said. “It was very powerful.”
It’s all about simplicity, Mr. Martin tells the dancers. “When you do it right, you feel the righteousness of this New England town. It’s about community. It’s almost like a Capra film. It’s a day in the life of everybody, and people are doing so much. If the people in the background aren’t doing their job, it doesn’t work.”
The ballet “is more about the story than the steps,” Ms. Barton said. “The way Philip felt about it — and I’m sure he knew his situation — imbued you with how important a piece it was. You felt entrusted with something very precious.”
American Repertory Ballet performs Our Town, Confetti, Fantasy Baroque, and Dreams Interrupted Friday and Saturday, September 19 and 20, at 7:30 p.m. at Rider University’s Bart Luedeke Center. Tickets are $20; $10 for students and seniors. Call (609) 896-7775.