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Dance Company Performs Civil War Ballet to Benefit Cemetery

by on June 16, 2014 6:40 AM

In front of the Boal Museum on Sunday evening, a southern plantation burned.

Dancers from the Central Pennsylvania Dance Workshop staged a “Save the Graves” ballet to benefit the Boalsburg Cemetery Association.

The Boalsburg Cemetery was the scene of a heartless vandalism spree in May that saw more than 50 gravestones toppled over. Some were snapped in half.

The non-profit dance company performed excerpts from the Amelia Hunter’s Civil War ballet “The Vacant Chair.”

The performance consisted of a series of vignettes depicting scenes of slaves and southern women as the Civil War rages around them. In one, the dancers – draped in pale colored period dress – thrash in fits of fluid motion as their plantation burns to the ground behind them.

In another, dance instructor Karen Stoner danced alone as her husband – portrayed still as stone by Chris Rosenblum – wrote her a letter, describing the deep and longing ache of war’s brutal separations. The breath of wind she may feel on her cheek, he writes, will be his breath, should he die in battle.

In a poignant and historically accurate moment, the audience is informed he died a week after writing this letter.

Though the dances portrayed scenes of loss and pain, the dancers themselves were happy for the beautiful evening and the successful performance.

Dance instructor Daria Oller, tired but smiling, says that after preforming a physically demanding art like dance “you can really just feel if your performance was good."

The dance workshop arranged the performance after learning of May’s vandalism, which caused extensive damage to gravestones dating back to the Civil War.  Dancer Morgan Harris says the company had already been learning the ballet, and was “practicing every weekend – Friday, Saturday and Sunday” for a performance in New Jersey a few days ago.

Stoner, who learned “The Vacant Chair” with the original choreographer in Connecticut, says it “seemed like a shame to only perform it once.” After learning of the cemetery vandalism and seeing it’s connection to the themes of the ballet, they arranged the event to support the local community. 

For Harris Township Manager Amy Farkas, the response from the community has been touching and overwhelming. Sunday’s “Save the Graves” performance is the latest of a series of successful community fundraisers.

“A lot of people were horrified, shocked and saddened by the vandalism,” Farkas says. “”What’s great is that people took that anger and turned it into action, bringing the community together.”

The event also featured performances by banjo player Jim Kerhin, who played a mix of Civil War-era pieces, and singer Ashley Moore, who sang spirituals and contemporary songs.

Moore, whose selections included tunes from Les Miserables and the Wizard of Oz, says she wanted to sing songs that would resonate with their cause, but still reflect her personality. Moore says that music, much like dance, can move an audience, even if people don’t understand all its intricacies. 

“You think, ‘this person obviously feels something in these movements,’” Moore says. “And you feel the emotions through what they’re doing.”

Stoner says “The Vacant Chair” combines two different dance styles: more traditionally ballet-inspired moves for the plantation women, and a more frantic modern style for the slaves. This gave the workshop’s students “an opportunity to do something they haven’t done before and really elevate them as dancers.” 

Stoner hopes that learning both the dance and the history behind it has moved her students as it moved her when she learned it.

Morgan Higgins, though exhausted from traveling from their performance in New Jersey the day before, says she feels confident in her performance in Sunday's dance. She "feels as if she'd been on a national tour," and looks forward to a rest.

“I’ve got a group of students here that are so dedicated that it blows my mind,” Stoner says.

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Photo Gallery - Save the Graves, June 15 2014

Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for who covers local government, the courts, the arts and writes the Keeping the Faith column. He's a Penn State alumnus, a published poet and the bassist in a local indie rock band.
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