In its 25 years of existence, the ballet program at Friends University has become known for its high-level en pointe performances, for its always sold-out “Nutcracker” productions, and for its graduates, who populate professional ballet companies and fill ballet instructor positions across the country.
This weekend, the program and its founders will mark the 25th anniversary by bringing back two of the most popular (aside from “Nutcracker”) dances that have been offered through the years: The dramatic and colorful “The Firebird,” last performed in 2010, and a difficult yet simply staged dance performed to Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings.”
Stan Rogers, who started the ballet program with Sharon Rogers in January 1988, choreographed both pieces. Based on Russian lore and set to music by Stravinsky, “The Firebird” follows the story of a prince who is lost in the woods and encounters the mystical Firebird. Audiences love the romantic story, said Stan Rogers, who’s presented it four times during his Friends career. It’s a 45-minute-long, one-act ballet.
“‘Firebird’ everyone enjoys because it’s a story,” he said. “People love a story.”
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Dancing the coveted role of “Firebird” will be Sophie Meyers, a junior ballet major from New Jersey. The prince will be portrayed by Christian Chermak, a junior from Minneapolis, Minn..
Though Meyers and Chermak will be recognizable to regular Friends ballet attendees, other familiar faces will be fewer.
In May, nine of the school’s 20 ballet majors graduated, and the ranks now are filled with 14 new dancers, many of them freshmen.
Most will be showcased in the fall ballet’s other dance, set to the Tchaikovsky piece.
That dance, which highlights Chermak and longtime Friends dancer Andrea Dimmen, features 15 women and three men. The women wear simple light blue leotards and skirts and perform a series of intricate movements that mirror the music. Rogers last presented the dance in 2005.
“The Tchaikovsky music is so specific melodically that I try to follow that so you see the music,” he said.
Natives of Arkansas, Stan Rogers and Sharon Rogers were married when they started the program and had lived in Wichita since 1978, moving briefly to New York City so Stan Rogers could get his master’s degree at Columbia University.
The program now offers the only four-year ballet degree program in Kansas. The state’s other major universities offer dance degrees, but none are specifically in ballet.
The Rogerses, who still run the school together, are known for their high-quality, professional productions. Stan Rogers is the director of ballet. Sharon, who also runs a ballet school for children, is Friends’ ballet mistress.
The fall ballet is one of three performances the school offers each year. There’s also a spring ballet, and the dance majors — along with young dancers from Sharon’s school — present one of Wichita’s most popular and long-running productions of “The Nutcracker” during two weekends in December.