With three mainstage productions at the Arts United Center plus three Family Series shows in their home studios, Fort Wayne Ballet has long had a busy and ambitious season of beautiful offerings.

But with the arrival of the ArtsLab black box in the Auer Center, just a floor below Fort Wayne Ballet’s home, the ballet’s growing company of artists and students have been able to present more intimately staged pieces to coincide with Valentine’s Day.

“This is something a bit different than we’ve done previously,” said Karen Gibbons-Brown, the artistic director of Fort Wayne Ballet. “In the last few years, we’ve had little vignettes and different kinds of programs in the spirit of love for Valentine’s Day.

“This year, our ballet master, Darren McIntyre, mentioned that he had done a version of Phantom of the Opera a few years back and suggested we try that. It’s very different from the musical and very different from the kinds of things we’ve done for our Love Notes performance up to now. And it isn’t the music that we associate with the musical. It’s more electronic than orchestral.”

The story begins in Alabama

Originally from Australia, McIntyre first conceived of the piece in the studios at Montgomery Ballet in Alabama, where he served as artistic director/resident choreographer of the professional company. Its first performance took place in October 2013.

“I had always loved the musical when I was a little boy, especially as it was one of my mother’s favorites,” McIntyre said. “She would always listen to the music at home. When I grew a little older, I saw the movies and read the book, and something just spoke to me about the characters.”

The company in Montgomery asked McIntyre to present a new full-length original ballet, something not from the traditional repertory. Phantom was one of his first ideas.

“The dancers who were in the company at the time were such great inspiration, and it all just seemed to just flow,” he said. “They loved the characters they were taking on board. You could just tell by the investment they were putting into their roles. It was such a great and memorable experience and I believe we came up with a unique and fun production, something for everyone, both the cast and audience members.”

Expanding the opportunities

Providing those kinds of creative expressions is important to Gibbons-Brown and is one of the reasons she appreciates opportunities like the annual Love Notes performances to give her company members and students new ways to explore their talents.

“I’ve really enjoyed it,” she said. “My gift isn’t choreography. Rather I restage many of the classics that we perform, like The Nutcracker or this spring’s Cinderella. But I would love to provide the world the next great choreographer, and part of what we do at Fort Wayne Ballet is help to discover that new talent. I would never want to squelch anyone who might want to try to put together something, someone who has an idea and wants to see what they can do with it.”

Although the piece was first developed elsewhere, McIntyre has enjoyed putting his Fort Wayne Ballet colleagues to work on it. He has appreciated not only the hours of effort they’ve already put into it but their complete support of his artistic vision in staging the piece for this new venue.

Tremendous Dedication

With two different casts performing different duties in each performance, it has required a tremendous dedication to learning multiple parts, which McIntyre has appreciated.

“The dancers in Fort Wayne Ballet this season are quite a remarkable group,” he said. “Not only is there a fantastic array of talent present, but the morale of the group and teamwork amongst them is very apparent.

“Both casts are doing a remarkable job, and I am enjoying the differences they both bring to their roles and the production, Not only have all the lead roles been completely invested, but the corps de ballet and small children’s cast is looking stunning and their energy is inspiring.”

One key difference has been the venue itself. With the intimacy of the ArtsLab part of the appeal of the Love Notes concept, it has posed a few problems for this particular production.

“The biggest challenge this time has definitely been making the production adapted for a black box theater space as it is normally done on a main stage with more space and with sets,” McIntyre said. “But I believe that this restaging has turned out really well, and I am liking a lot of the new ideas evolved into the production due to the space.”

“The theater has been a bit of a challenge,” Gibbons-Brown said. “There isn’t the distance between the performers and the audience that you’d normally have. There’s no fourth wall. But we have an amazing technological team working with us to overcome those challenges. It’s been wonderful to watch this show evolve.”