On October 9th and 10th  at 7:30 & 10pm Westside Ballet of Santa Monica presented  Grace and Grit/Dance in the Time of Covid, a unique drive-in film event in conjunction with Santa Monica College’s Public Policy Institute’s Annual Arts Forum and the SMC Dance Department.  This important event took place at  SMC’s Bundy Campus in the East Parking Lot

As the audience finds their way by car to their spaces, waved on by young SMC parking attendants, they are given directions on Covid safety precautions.  The audience delighted in being together, if only in their autos, and prepared for a clear view of  11 new and former works by both Westside Ballet Alums, dedicated pro friends of Westside, along with professors and students of Santa Monica Dance Department.

When the audience gets settled, the evening began with a special remembrance of the marvelous Yvonne Mounsey, Co-Founder and Director of Westside Ballet who produced so many remarkable and successful professional adults, both in dance and life.  Yvonne devoted her life to ballet and teaching children of the community not only technique, but how to love each other.   One of the students so eloquently expressed it, “Westside does not only encompass technique, but its dedicated faculty focuses on “growing the person.”  Even the great Margaret Hill admitted Westside was the closest thing to the Royal Ballet in the U.S.   It is so clear; such an institution requires support from the community during one of the most difficult times in our history with  Covid-19.  A pandemic that attempts to leave what we need most, art and beauty, nearly voiceless.   Through this intro it became truly clear, we all need to fight to preserve Westside together.   And this evening was a true representation of that Mission.

Molly Novak, partnered by Nations Wilkes-Davis in 'This Bitter Earth' by Christopher Wheeldon. Photo by Igor Burlak.

Molly Novak, partnered by Nations Wilkes-Davis in ‘This Bitter Earth’ by Christopher Wheeldon. Photo by Igor Burlak.

Sheila Kuehl then speaks of the resiliency of artists.  Assurances that their grace and grit will get them through.

Slowly, the screen goes to black.  Grace and Grit A Dance in the Time of Covid fades to students gathered together in formation to the strains of Tchaikovsky’s Polonaise…A stunning reminder of the past, with sections of The Grand Défilé performance of 2019 ‘s Centennial Gala with the entire ballet company from the youngest to “most experienced.”  All together they move into a réverénce (bow).  And just as graciously, we’re moved to an overlay of video frames with young dancers in rooms and backyards.  The videos are singular and tiered, revealing female student curtsying, young men bowing …and back to the stage, the entire corps raise their arms slowly to a triumphant final pose as if to acknowledge this new challenge and heroics of their fellow dancers.  A moving metaphor of memories placed against the isolation of our times.

Westside Ballet alumna, Lucia Connolly (Joffrey Ballet) in solo ‘Water,’ by Sophie Monat

Westside Ballet alumna, Lucia Connolly (Joffrey Ballet) in solo ‘Water,’ by Sophie Monat

At that point, the video bridges to the offerings of 11 choreographers and dancers.   The first is Melissa Barak’s, Breathe In.  This outstanding piece emotionally represents, “movement as an expression of freedom and a longing for better days.”  This work  originally was intended for stage in a production called Memoryhouse, but, because of the pandemic, was refashioned for Video.  The intelligent and playful choreography, the emotional pulling off of the masks certainly represented freedom.  My only concern was the use of dance without masks and the 6 foot rule.  However, her staging for the camera, with its many angles, and her beautiful use of the environment, assisted by the excellent camera work of Selena Moshell and music by David Lawrence, helped bring Barak’s fascinating staging for camera to fruition.  Her powerful choice of dance performers, Peter Chursin, (Broadway, Flesh and Bones), Andrew Brader (Complexions, Houston Ballet), Lucia Connolly (Joffrey Ballet), Jessica Gadzinski (Inland Pacific, Barak Ballet, Freelance), Chasen Greenwood (State Street Ballet, Newsies, Lady Gaga), Stephanie Kim (Luminario Ballet, Inland Ballet) reflected their exciting facility, lyricism and vigor.

The next piece Love is the Love, by Sri Susilowati, dancer, choreographer, storyteller, Associate professor and co-director of Global Motion.  She teaches Asian Pacific Dance at SMC.  Her unique fusion of Zapin (Malay Dance Art genre) with Anglo-American Pop Music is rhythmically infectious, although the story tends to be dense with symbolism, ceremony, prayer, words “You do not heed your feet, love is the love that cares for all.” And because of that the intention is not always clear and a bit muddled, tending to be confusing since it deals with love without boundaries, including forbidden love.   It is however, clearly resolved in its ending.  It is fascinating, however, because of all the unique elements.

Jackie Lopez’ Internal Vibrations is a cross between Hip Hop and Brazilian style movement, with 15 performers and toggling zoom shots, body parts and touching then vibrating hands, done to music by Sons of Africa “Arising” and DJ Nascent Brubeck Quartet.  Certainly, an effort in the time of Covid to find meaning.

Sophie Monat - Photo by Gregory R.R. Crosby

Sophie Monat – Photo by Gregory R.R. Crosby

In a tribute to our precious environment, the enchanting choreography of Sophie Monat presented WATER AND AIR to inspiring music of George Frideric Handel.  Lucia Connolly of Joffrey Ballet does an astonishing solo piece at water’s edge that hold us breathless for its beauty, strength and aesthetics.  Coupled with the wondrous abandon of Molly Novak of Boston Ballet racing the wind and air with her gorgeous, spirited movement.  Truly a stunning piece!

One of the true highlights of the evening was by Jae Young Lee’s “A-15510 Remember Me…”  It is a stark abstract portrayal of concentration camp of WWII.  This piece explodes on screen, reminiscence of Aszure Barton’s BUSK.  A-15510 braids amoeba-like frenetic movement of monk-like creatures with a kind of prayer, and with brilliance, couples the music of Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” with its exquisite vocal filagree.   The dance and music are stunning and intriguing.  This piece was presented at the American College Dance Association in Spring 2018.  It was first alternate choice for National Festival held at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, DC.  And is well deserved to be recognized by all.  A must see!

MISCONCEPTION was Samara Koseff’s self-choreographed contribution to the evening.  It was done to the beautiful and meaningful meditation of Chet Baker’s version of Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine”.   Her choreography took us over sofa and enclosed room.  Obviously in this nascent piece, the title is indicative of the piece and needs flushing out to find a more meaningful interpretation of the piece.

As we moved through the evening LA BRUJA was a lovely contribution by Ballet Folklorico Flor De Mao Dance Company by Raquel Ramirez, with approximately 15 performers.  It told a tale of kidnapping,   witchery and resolution.  The gorgeous traditional costumes of Veracruz aptly exposed the audience to myth and movement of tradition.

DAY BREAKER created by Mac Paminella and Zane Tahvildaran-Jesswein to the music of “Pendulum-no one’s perfect” by Kanisan and performed by Tahvildaran-Jesswein. Was a tribute to Lochlan Brooks and Joseph Lopez.

Joy Womack former Westside Ballet student, now International Ballet Star, in this time of pandemic began her Fiery Don Q, Kitri solo in an open field.  Then just as unconstrained we see the bravura of her work as we cut to her exciting performance at the 2019 Centennial Gala.  In both instances her strength and beauty shines through to remind us of her artistry and resilience.

Westside Alumna & International Ballet Star, Joy Womack, courtesy of Stephanie Blair.

Westside Alumna & International Ballet Star, Joy Womack, courtesy of Stephanie Blair.

America, Westside story’s exciting work, originally choreographed by the brilliant Jerome Robbins is, restaged by Amira Murphy and Jackie Riedel, and performed by Synapse contemporary Dance Theater, Santa Monica College.  The wonderful rainbow of ethnic diversity was a definite statement in this piece.  It had humor, charm and a sense of fun throughout.  There was a “punching” sequence that delighted the audience and was cleverly done virtually.  This was a wonderful entertaining tribute, with an ebullience that certainly raised the spirits of the evening.

And lastly, the ever brilliant SERENADE by George Balanchine performed so superbly by Westside Ballet at the Centennial Gala in 2019.  Patricia Neary, New York City Ballet’s legend, staged it for the company and Sophie Monat rehearsed the students to a point of perfection.  With the soaring music of Tchaikovsky, in their time honored diaphanous blue classic tutus, the dancers arm raise almost unrecognizably, as if in prayer.  It moved the audience to tears, making us all wonder when the moment would arrive when we can all gather together again to feel this magnificent art, the feeling that can only be shared person to person through the soul, the spirit, and the freedom of movement and art.   Thank you Westside and SMC for reaching out.  Now it is our turn to make sure with our support, that this art continues, both virtually…and in person.

To visit the Westside School of Ballet and the Westside Ballet website, click HERE.

Written by Joanne DiVito for LA Dance Festival.

Featured image: Breath In by Melissa Barak – Photo by Melissa Barak.