The high school prom. A rite of passage freighted with memories, good and bad. Some people wax poetic about slow-dancing in the gym, others rue the day they ever wasted money on a tux. Many blow off the party as a tired cliché. And others really want to go but are never asked, can’t afford it or feel unwelcome escorting their preferred date of the same sex.

Times — and proms — are changing, but they still play a role in growing up. For Minneapolis-based choreographer Maggie Bergeron these influential events are an irresistible source of material for the evening-length dance work “Leaver’s Ball,” premiering this weekend at Red Eye Theater. So dust off your tiara, spike the punch, cue the DJ and embrace the nostalgia trip.

Thanks to a Jerome Foundation Travel and Study Grant, Bergeron visited seven proms in five states (Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire and New Mexico). She acted as chaperone, while wearing a magenta gown and taking notes.

“It was fun to be a fly on the wall,” Bergeron said by phone. “We tend to look back at prom with a level of irony, sarcasm and judgment, but what I saw was really sincere, heartfelt excitement. I didn’t expect it to be so emotional.”

St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists, where she serves as Dance Department Chair, was one of her research sites.

Bergeron’s observations varied among locales. Prada shoes littered the floor at an elite private school. Metal detectors, breathalyzers and rules against provocative dance-floor “grinding” were in place at a city public school. In small-town Hallock, Minn., students began their grand procession at a nursing home, reinforcing, said Bergeron, “connection to the community.”

Dress codes were common, she added. “No cutouts, how low can the back go, how much cleavage. There is a perceived danger of teen sexuality and how all that is moderated.”

“Leaver’s Ball” has its own procession, as well as a chance to mingle with the promgoers. A king and queen will be crowned — and there will be tearful losers. Bergeron also plans a “same dress duet,” the ultimate prom faux pas. Expect group dancing, too — the “Cha Cha Slide” is a dependable favorite. Composer Nicholas Gaudette (Bergeron’s husband) created the score, with contributions from musicians Dan Choma, Eric Mayson and Linnea Mohn.

The cast is multi-generational, enhancing the scope of Bergeron’s material. Mary Easter, for example, is in her 70s and attended prom as a young black woman in the segregated South. Jordan Naegele, on the other hand, is currently in high school, so prom is part of his immediate life experience.

According to Bergeron, the work ends in a “chaotic heap,” which is appropriate given that everyone starts out prom looking great but hours later all the drama and high expectations exact their toll. “It’s a juxtaposition between childhood and adulthood,” she said, one that occurs literally overnight. “It’s like stepping through a portal. Who are you the next day? Are you different? The same?”

Only time will tell.


Caroline Palmer writes about dance.