A New Ballet Honors the Memory of Raffaella Stroik

June 25, 2024

In fall 2018, the ballet community lost a rising talent, Raffaella Stroik. According to her obituary, the St. Louis Ballet dancer drowned in a Missouri lake that November at the age of 23. Her tragic passing shook the dance world, inciting an outpouring of love and in memoriams online from fellow dancers, friends, and family.

Before joining St. Louis Ballet in 2017, Stroik attended the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University Bloomington, where she studied under Michael Vernon, Darla Hoover, Kyra Nichols, and, as stated in her obituary, her biggest inspiration: the late Violette Verdy. Prior to then, Stroik trained at Southold Dance Theater in her hometown of South Bend, Indiana. Today, the town continues to honor her memory. 

Raffaella Stroik in a rust-colored peasant costume in tendu derriere, smiling at the audience.
Raffaella Stroik. Photo by Kelly Pratt, courtesy Raffaella Ballet.

Her life has now inspired a brand-new fairy-tale ballet, Raffaella, commissioned by the Stroik family in her memory. “Beauty will save the world” had been her life motto, and her parents strove to honor that with this new production. It premieres this month at South Bend’s Morris Performing Arts Center. A community effort, the full-length story ballet includes performances by Southold Dance Theater students and original music performed live by the South Bend Symphony Orchestra. Running June 29–30, Raffaella includes a libretto written by Stroik’s parents, Duncan and Ruth, and set design by her sister, Gabrielle Stroik Johnson. The ballet also features a commissioned score by American composer Michael Kurek and original choreography by former New York City Ballet soloist and newly appointed Ballet Hartford artistic director Claire Kretzschmar. Colorado Ballet soloist Leah McFadden, who grew up training alongside Raffaella in South Bend, will dance the titular role.

New York City Ballet principal Isabella LaFreniere was originally slated to perform the ballet’s lead. However, LaFreniere, who also grew up dancing with Raffaella, suffered a foot injury in April and had to bow out of the production. She has since stayed on as an advisor to the team and has worked closely with Kretzschmar throughout the ballet’s development.

Pointe spoke with Kretzschmar and LaFreniere to learn more.

How did the idea for a ballet honoring Raffaella’s memory initially arise?

Isabella LaFreniere: Back in December of 2020, Duncan and Ruth reached out saying, “We have this crazy idea—let us know if you think it could happen.” I told them I thought it’d be fantastic, and I’d be ready and willing to help in every way I could. They weren’t as in touch with the ballet world any longer, so they wanted feedback on how challenging it would be to put something of this magnitude in place. In that initial call they asked, “Are we crazy? Can it happen?” I said yes to all of those things. From there, the ball started rolling.

Claire Kretzschmar: Isabella has been a part of the process since the beginning, but I was just tapped to be the choreographer in November. Prior to that, Duncan reached out to me seeing if I would dance in it. I wrote back explaining that I’m not really dancing anymore, but I’m doing other things like teaching and choreographing. It quickly became clear how excited I was, similar to Isabella and the Stroik family, about this dream, and its magnitude.

In many of the abstract works I’ve choreographed, I’ve used story to bring the ballets to life, but [I’d not yet worked with] such a literal narrative. It wasn’t an opportunity I’d actively sought out, but it was a no-brainer to me to say yes.

Claire Kretzschmar sits on a bench at the front of a ballet studio as she leads rehearsal, her legs crossed.
Claire Kretzschmar. Photo by Megan L.C. McNally, courtesy Raffaella Ballet.

This is a story ballet—with most of the storyline under wraps until opening night—with Kansas City Ballet’s Paul Zusi dancing the role of the Prince (Zusi also danced with Raffaella in South Bend). How much is the narrative derived from Raffaella’s life, and how much is inspired by her ethos?

CK:  It is a fairy tale, so it’s not a direct telling of her life. Much of it is derived from her character—who she was and what she believed in—captured in the ballet’s themes and narrative; however, some key moments in her life are illuminated in the ballet’s story. Duncan and Ruth wrote the original libretto, but they invited me to alter the story to serve the music or the choreography. I tried to uphold the essential elements and core moments they had written.

Isabella, you knew Raffaella personally, and, Claire, you did not but have spoken to people who were closely connected to her. How has that affected your relationship to the project?

IL: I’d known her since we were about 10 years old. We trained together at Southold Dance Theater and performed at the Morris Theater together. It’ll be special to come back and do this in her memory.

It’s certainly a unique role. In neoclassical work or story ballets you have this character you’re trying to portray, but it’s never been someone you’ve known personally. It’ll be emotional, trying to share who Raffe was with the audience.

CK:  That first time I met her parents, I got to know who Raffaella was as they shared stories about her. I’ll be pulling from those stories to inform how the ballet and the movement come to life. I’ve talked to a number of dancers, as well, including Isabella; I even asked her in rehearsal, “What kind of steps do you think Raffaella would like?” I’ve been fortunate enough to access some videos of her dancing and speaking about dance. Those were really powerful to see.

In "The Nutcracker" Snow Scene, Raffaella Stroik does a jubilant arabesque in a light blue romantic tutu.
Raffaella Stroik. Photo by Kelly Pratt, courtesy Raffaella Ballet.

This project both embraces the tight community of South Bend while bringing in artists nationwide. How has that worked?

CK:  We have been building something akin to a ballet company over the past few months. Besides Leah and Paul in the title roles, we have been hiring the majority of the rest of the dancer cast from all over the country to participate. It’s a little under 50 dancers, and that includes children from the local South Bend area.

I went to South Bend shortly after I received the opportunity to choreograph the ballet, and I met so many people within the community. I think it’s fitting to bring this ballet to Raffaella’s home. It taps into who she was—she wasn’t just a ballerina, she was a community-oriented young woman.

How do you expect it to feel when it all finally comes together?

IL:  Once everyone involved gets into the same room ultimately in South Bend, we all are going to be consumed, working really hard to put a beautiful final product out there. That final run-through will be very emotional and a huge reward after knowing how many years of work and care have gone into this. Once we touch down, it’ll be all hands on deck.

CK:  It’s amazing to me that it started from the hearts of two loving parents. As I said, to bring to life the essence of this young woman—who clearly, from every person I talked to, had such a positive impact on everyone she ever touched—stands out. Every person who is contributing is going way above and beyond. There’s something almost divine, or providential. It’s so much bigger than all of us, even combined.