By Jewels Solheim Roe
Observer Staff Writer 

The Resilience of Westside Ballet / the arts in our backyard: Ballet Persists in Dancing Forward

A private workshop performance and summer intensives with special guest teachers.

 

Todd Lechtick.

SaMo Junior Daniella Zhou performs La Bayadere in the role of Nikiya.

Westside Ballet of Santa Monica announces plans to "dance forward" with an intimate new workshop performance slated for May 15 & 16. This private offering for friends and family of the local pre-professional performers will serve as a final bow for seniors moving on to collegiate and professional careers. The performance will be held-adhering to all COVID protocols-in its newly enhanced black box, 'Theater Studio Six,' at Southern California's most well-known and celebrated ballet school, Westside School of Ballet. A filmed version will be released early Summer.

Determined to never stop moving despite the challenges faced during the tragic COVID-19 pandemic, Westside Ballet has persevered. Online Zoom classes and limited, COVID-compliant, in-person classes continue to bring the joy of movement to dancers in the Santa Monica area and beyond.

During the Spring of 2020, when the studios would normally be abuzz with dancers of all ages, Westside-along with the rest of the world-was forced to shut down. Refusing to be derailed, instructors and students embraced these challenges and embarked on a journey together across miles and through computer screens. Using Zoom technology and the power of social media outlets such as Instagram, the gifted instructors of Westside conducted over 50 ballet and conditioning classes each week. As the Spring turned to Summer 2020, however, the hope of reopening to full capacity dwindled as a second course of lockdowns was put into place.


Recognizing the need to bring people together in-person but safely, the Westside Ballet Volunteer Guild stepped up. With the help of local contractor Morley Builders, an outdoor dance studio was constructed in early Fall 2020. Each week, classes are held for all to see and know that the beauty of dance and the arts would not be vanquished.


Westside will continue to provide dance instruction by any means necessary until everyone can again gather as they once did. Following LA County Covid Guidelines and the current orders from Governor Newsom, the school's indoor studios offer classes at 50% occupancy, with plans of 100% occupancy come June. Summer 2021 brings the excitement of new Summer Intensive programs. Building on a storied history of "Inspiration * Dedication * Excellence", the School of Ballet is committed to providing pre-professional career training to those poised to take their places as a part of the bright future of ballet. The school is also pleased to train those simply wishing to experience the sheer joy of ballet, the grace of movement, and the discipline it provides to students with varied ambitions participating at all training levels.

MAY 2021 WORKSHOP PERFORMANCE

This May, Westside Ballet will continue to honor world-renowned choreographer George Balanchine––alongside a wealth of other gifted classical musicians, choreographers, and dancers––with an exclusive Spring workshop black box performance in the upgraded Theater Studio Six. The workshop performances will be held exclusively for friends and family of the performance company. A handful of sponsors and donors will be invited to a VIP preview dress rehearsal experience. In addition, the performance will be professionally filmed and released for a public viewing in early Summer, at a date to be announced. Excerpts will also be shared through Westside Ballet's social media.

Spotlight selections will include solo pieces from beloved classics including Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and Don Quixote. Also included will be a Westside Ballet premiere of excerpts from Donizetti Variations with music by Gaetano Donizetti and original choreography by George Balanchine, to name a few.

Set to music from the opera Don Sebastien, the cheerful Donizetti series offers the opportunity for the most skilled dancers to perform several technically challenging yet thrilling parts. These include two bravura roles and three supporting trios composed of six girls and three boys. Graduating dancers Maya Zeevi and Zane Tahvildaran Jesswein are excited to be featured in these exhilarating excerpts staged by Sophie Monat and Melissa Barak with special coaching by Patricia Neary.

Then, twenty dancers are sure to delight with pieces from Sleeping Beauty and Giselle. Eight performers will grace the stage in the Dance of the Fairies from Sleeping Beauty. Far from sleepy, the Dance of the Fairies is based on Marius Pepita's choreography, staged by Aimée Gaudio, and supported by Tchaikovsky's melodic score. Twelve dancers then take to the stage to celebrate the harvest in the Peasant Dance from Giselle. Artistic Director Martine Harley stages this festive piece based on the choreography of Jean Corelli and Jules Perrot.

The delightfully romantic Sylvia Pas de Deux is also a Westside Ballet premiere. A traditional grand pas de deux, it is made all the more charming by fairy tale costumes and Léo Delibes' soothing strings. It originally premiered on December 1, 1950 with the New York City Ballet at The City Center of Music and Drama. It will be performed by senior dancer Stella Grynberg and guest artist Chasen Greenwood.

Three dancers will be featured in a charming trio piece originally choreographed by Westside Ballet founder, Yvonne Mounsey, titled Écossaises. Updated by Artistic Director Martine Harley, and Associate Francine Kessler Lavac, and set to the music of the same name by Beethoven, this piece will feature live piano accompaniment.

More of the company's advanced dancers will be highlighted in an assortment of classical ballet solos, including graduating senior dancers Samara Koseff and Natalia Burns, with fellow advanced dancers Jasmine Harrison, Daniella Zhou and Kalea Harrison.

Mozart's charming piano composition of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star will set the stage for a new piece titled, Les Petites Étoiles (The Little Stars), featuring Westside's younger dancers. Choreographed by Associate Artistic Director Caprice Walker, this ballet will also be accompanied by live piano.

Classic meets contemporary with a clever combination of musical styles. The uplifting program will close with Michele Bachar Mendicelli's lively and fun jazz piece Swing featuring the effervescent stylings of The Glenn Miller Orchestra, Tony Bennett, Lady Gaga, Bette Midler, and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.

COMMUNITY OUTREACH STRENGTHENS BALLET SCHOOL

Programs such as the Spring Workshop Performance, Summer Sessions & Intensives, the online and outdoor classes, and many other valuable offerings would not be possible without the backing of Westside's generous supporters. Founded in 1967 by Yvonne Mounsey and Rosemary Valaire, the school is the cornerstone of the arts in the Santa Monica region.

As a non-audition school, all are welcome to learn the art of ballet and train to the highest standard of pre-professional preparation. Almost all of the artistic staff are products of Westside, ensuring a uniform and consistent approach to classical ballet training. Westside Ballet of Santa Monica is the sister entity – a pre-professional performance company composed of dancers from the school. Ms. Mounsey and Ms. Valaire formed the non-profit organization six years after the school opened, in 1973, and have developed many of classical ballet's most luminary performing artists known worldwide.

Now, Ms. Mounsey's daughter, Allegra Clegg, and a staff of dedicated professionals led by Artistic Director Martine Harley, strive to continue moving forward amid utter uncertainty and unavoidable change.

In the Spring of 2020 on the heels of the first shutdown, Westside Ballet began an ambitious campaign to raise $150,000. Donations were needed to help keep the ballet school and the dance studios open as the pandemic took hold of the country. Operating with only a skeleton staff, the funds helped secure the latest technology in order to provide virtual instruction and maintain the connection between instructor and pupil.

Thanks to the efforts of the "1500 Angels" Crisis Relief Campaign, almost $215,000 has been raised to date. The initial goal was set in anticipation of a three-month shutdown. As the pandemic enters its second, devastating year, the challenge has been reset to $350,000. The Board of Directors raised the goal so that the school will be able to operate and surpass its 54th year and persevere beyond these unpredictable times.

ADULT & YOUTH DANCE CLASSES CONTINUE

Even amidst such upheaval, the staff, faculty, and students "dance forward." Being ever vigilant in adherence to local, state, and federal COVID guidelines, Westside continues to offer classes for children and adults. With programs for all ages, from pre-ballet to adult students, the summer classes are catered to suit every level of study.

SUMMER SESSIONS

Summer Sessions provide students from Pre-Ballet to Level 7 with a continuation of their exemplary year-round ballet training, along with exposure to other dance disciplines, including jazz, contemporary, and character. There will be two 3-week sessions offered from June 14-July 2 and July 12-July 30. In addition to the regular Summer Sessions, Westside School of Ballet is offering several supplementary week-long intensives to complement their training.

CHILDREN'S INTERMEDIATE INTENSIVE

The Intermediate Intensive for Levels 3 to 4+ is intended to give an all-encompassing education through the creation of a dance project, from conception to actualization. Beginning with a vision that evolves with music, movement, and design, each phase of production supplies students with important tools to facilitate their creative and personal development. In addition to a daily ballet class, the dancers will each choreograph a short work to music of their own selection and further expand their insight into the creative process by sketching set designs and mocking up miniature fabric models of costumes that complement their pieces. Their work is ultimately presented at an in-class performance on the final day of the intensive.

ADVANCED INTENSIVES

For Upper Division students Level 5-7, three exceptional intensives are offered: Sleeping Beauty (June 7-11); West Side Story (July 5-9); and Raymonda Variations (Aug 9-13). Guest faculty for these advanced Summer Intensives include three soloists from New York City Ballet – Indiana Woodward, Harrison Coll, and Georgina Pazcoguin – as well as Westside Ballet's celebrated alumna Abigail Simon (who danced with American Ballet Theater and the Joffrey Ballet – as well as recently being featured in the Broadway production of An American In Paris). These acclaimed guest artists will give ballet students the rare privilege to work under their guidance and tutelage. During these weeklong advanced intensives, the day will begin with a technique class followed by comprehensive coaching.

A COMMUNITY TREASURE

For forty-eight years, Westside Ballet of Santa Monica's Spring Performances and Nutcracker Seasons have delighted Los Angeles audiences and served as a premier pre-professional performance outlet for young aspiring dancers. Westside Ballet's yearly production of The Nutcracker is a Los Angeles tradition dating all the way back to 1973 – the longest-running Nutcracker production in Los Angeles.

The performance company's storied history starts with its first-generation direct legacy descent from the prestigious New York City Ballet and the Royal Ballet. New York City Ballet's founding artistic director, George Balanchine, choreographed the breathtaking ballets Serenade and Concerto Barocco. Ms. Mounsey was a principal ballerina in the original production of New York City Ballet's Serenade.

The biannual productions of The Nutcracker and Spring Performances are made possible in part by a grant from the City of Santa Monica, grants from The Rotary Club and Pacific Palisades Woman's Club,  and sponsorships from local Santa Monica individuals, organizations, and businesses such as The Huntley Hotel, Ovation, Lyft Scooters, Urth Caffe, Audi of Santa Monica, and more.

OUTREACH CLASSES

During the 2019-2020 school year and prior to the pandemic, Westside Ballet partnered with the Santa Monica Boys and Girls club and St. Anne's School satellite program to offer a weekly after-school ballet class. Due to the closure of schools for this academic year, a Sunday afternoon introductory ballet class is now offered to children ages 6 to 11 years old at Westside Ballet's outdoor dance studio. The goal is to bring the joy of movement and the magic of performing arts to a diverse community that has a curiosity for classical ballet.

SCHOLARSHIPS

Pre-COVID, Westside Ballet provided approximately $100,000 in scholarships annually. Westside Ballet established an Endowment Fund to expand both merit and need-based scholarships. The Chow Family Scholarship Fund was established in 2018 and over $150,000 has been raised to date; major donors of this fund requested the funds be used to actively recruit People of Color. In Summer 2020, a new scholarship was established by a new nonprofit, Dance in Color, and named for Westside Alumnus Adrian Blake Mitchell. Two young dancers are receiving this scholarship for the current 2020-21 school year.

ALUMNI

Many professional dancers have made their stage debuts in Westside's Nutcracker. A few of them include: Monique Meunier (NYCB, ABT); Anna Liceica (ABT); Joy Womack (Bolshoi Ballet and Kremlin Ballet Theater); Martine Harley (Houston Ballet); Melissa Barak (NYCB, Los Angeles Ballet, Barak Ballet); Stayce Camparo (Kansas City Ballet); Andrew Veyette (NYCB); and Francis Veyette (Pennsylvania Ballet). Among the newest are: Adrian Blake Mitchell (Mikhailovsky Theatre); Shelby Tzung (National Ballet of Canada); Lucia Connolly (Joffrey Ballet); Molly Novak (Semperoper Ballett, Boston Ballet); Severina Wong (Ballet West); Giorgia Martelloni-Zabriskie (Dance Theater of Harlem); and Lyrica Brielle Blankfein who dances on Broadway in Anastasia the Musical.

Todd Lechtick

'Donizetti Dancing Boys' – Jesse Peterson, Dylan Weinstein, and Sawyer Jordan dance in dress rehearsal excerpts of George Balanchine's cheerful Donizetti Variations, set to music from the opera Don Sebastien.  

 

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