June 26, 2024 // Diocese

‘Raffaella’ Ballet Honors Memory of South Bend Dancer

Tell me about your daughter Raffaella.

It was the first question I posed to Duncan and Ruth Stroik. The sun was beaming through the high ceilings in the beautifully designed space that houses Duncan Stroik’s architecture firm. In this room filled with light and warmth, I listened to a story about a young woman who reflected Christ’s light to the world.

Raffaella was conceived on the feast of the Annunciation. Ruth, who had experienced fertility issues, named her daughter after the archangel Raphael and credited the angel for healing her infertility. Raffaella was the second of the Stroiks’ six children.

Born on a rainy day in December, Raffaella was dancing at the young age of 3. Duncan, an architect dedicated to classically designed sacred buildings, and Ruth, a visual artist, raised their children to appreciate all things art – sculpture, painting, music, dance, and more. Raffaella blossomed in her dancing, studying in her hometown of South Bend and then at Indiana University in Bloomington. After graduation, she joined the St. Louis Ballet. In November of 2018, she died in a tragic drowning accident at a lake in Missouri.

I expected my conversation with the Stroiks to be tinged with sadness regarding the death of their young daughter, but instead, I found it filled with hope.

The idea of telling the story of Raffaella’s life through ballet came to Ruth in a dream.

“I was just laying in bed thinking about Raffaella’s life, these little snippets of moments in her life,” Ruth said. “And I said, ‘Her life is like a ballet.’ She has a little bit from ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ a little bit from ‘Giselle,’ a little bit from ‘Nutcracker,’ a little bit from ‘Swan Lake,’ and a little bit from ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ I was seeing her life as a totality.”

As I listened to how the Stroiks initiated discussions on how to write a ballet and how they found support and encouragement from composers, producers, ballet teachers, and dancers, I imagined a tapestry of people being brought together to tell the story of a beautiful young woman.

The ballet, “Raffaella,” will premiere on Saturday, June 29, and Sunday, June 30, at the Morris Performing Arts Center in South Bend. According to the Stroiks, the ballet will include the Eucharist, holy men, and a battle between archangels and demons – content not often seen in a ballet. But this is not an ordinary ballet, and Raffaella was not an ordinary person.

Her parents painted a picture of a young girl who was very talented but who intentionally made an effort to encourage and support the young dancers in her company – uncommon behavior of a young woman vying for lead roles in what can be a cutthroat world.

Raised in the Catholic faith, Raffaella continued to find inspiration and strength in the sacraments, prayer, and adoration throughout college and during her time with the St. Louis Ballet.

Raffaella’s confirmation saint was St. Adelaide, a real-life empress once imprisoned at Lake Como in Italy – one of the locations in the upcoming ballet. It seems no coincidence that this saint’s life resembled a fairytale where good vs. evil was at play.

As I talked with the Stroiks about Raffaella’s life and the upcoming ballet, I got the sense of a young woman who reflected the exquisiteness of God’s creation and was using her talent to bring beauty into the world.

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” wrote poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Raffaella firmly believed that to be true, and did her part to manifest such beauty into the world.

Often, in our culture, we are unsure how to talk about death, especially the tragic death of a young person. We don’t know what to say, so we tip-toe around the subject.

But the heartbreaking result of this behavior is that the deceased person can seem forgotten. We don’t mention their name or bring up memories because it can seem too hard or sad in the moment.

The Stroiks, by commissioning this ballet, are ensuring that Raffaella’s story will not be forgotten. Her short, beautiful, faith-filled life will be told through this ballet many times.

Out of the darkest circumstances, there is still love and wonder – and beauty – to be found.

For more information about the ballet, including how to purchase tickets, visit raffaellaballet.org.


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