Westside Ballet's Spring Performance & Soiree to Honor Patricia Neary Postponed Indefinitely
For forty-seven years, Westside Ballet of Santa Monica's Biannual Spring Performances and Nutcracker Seasons have delighted Los Angeles audiences and served as a premier pre-professional performance outlet for young ballerinas. This will be the first season, due to the Covid-19, that the company's five decade legacy of performances--as well as all future performances--are under threat.
The Westside Ballet's storied history starts with its first-generation direct legacy descent from the prestigious New York City Ballet and the Royal Ballet. Founded in 1973 by Yvonne Mounsey and Rosemary Valaire, Westside Ballet of Santa Monica is a training company that has produced many of classical ballet's luminary performers known worldwide. New York City Ballet's founding artistic director, George Balanchine, choreographed the breathtaking ballets Serenade and Concerto Barocco. Yvonne Mounsey, was a principal ballerina in the original production of New York City Ballet's Serenade.
Due to this special relationship, The George Balanchine Trust grants permission to Westside Ballet to perform Balanchine's ballets and also arranged for the legendary NYCB ballerina Patricia Neary to stage and coach the Westside Ballet advanced pre-professional dancers in the ballet's demanding choreography. Ms. Neary staged Serenade for Westside's Centennial Gala Celebration & Spring Performance, honouring Yvonne Mounsey in June of 2019.
This Spring, Ms. Neary was not only going to stage Balanchine's brilliant contemporary classic Concerto Barocco for Westside's 2020 Spring Performance - but was going to be honoured for the 2020 Spring Performance Fundraiser. Rehearsals began in early February 2020. Concerto Barocco is considered a perfect marriage of pure choreography and the exquisite music of Bach's Concerto for Two Violins in D minor.
The program, "Mix It Up! Classics Old and New," was to feature iconic ballets from George Balanchine's Concerto Barocco, to excerpts from ballets most recognizable classics, Giselle, Coppélia and Sleeping Beauty. Also highlighting the program was the return of Balanchine's signature Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, to feature principal dancer Mirabelle Weinbach and guest artist Chasen Greenwood––and the Who Cares? Pas de Deux, set to the music of Gershwin, and featuring Westside's own principal male dancer Zane Tahvildaran Jesswein.
The 2020 Spring Performance also included a rare experience for the youngest members with the Westside Ballet premiere of Jerome Robbins' delightful Circus Polka, set to the music of Stravinsky.
Current Artistic Director, and Westside Ballet alumna, Martine Harley (succeeding Mounsey since 2013) explains that this year's Spring Performance had dancers that had trained since early childhood for these coveted roles in some of classical ballet's most cherished works. "Our dancers this season were more readily prepared for this repertoire than in previous seasons" says Harley. "Their strength and achievements in the first weeks of the rehearsal process is what makes this situation even more heartbreaking. Their early mastery may have been due to the rigorous nature of the preparations for our 2019 Centennial Gala and Spring Performance, when most of our advanced and intermediate company dancers trained tirelessly under Patricia Neary for four months, preparing for Serenade which was reviewed as one of the best Serenade performances they had ever seen. Many Los Angeles patrons of the arts have told us that watching our pre-professional dancers is like watching the Olympics. Although they are not professionals technically, they train just as hard, and many are in their prime, refining their raw talent through the expert training that Westside Ballet provides."
An example of such 'Olympian level dancing,' would be Brentwood School Senior Mirabelle Weinbach, who has been a principal dancer with the nonprofit company since her Freshman Year, and has trained with Westside since the age of five. This year, Ms. Harley had cast Mirabelle in Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, as her 'swan song' - both figuratively and literally. Having performed leading roles in the Nutcracker (Sugar Plum Fairy, Dew Drop Fairy, Snow Queen, Clara) and Spring Performances; Mirabelle was featured in Westside's Centennial Gala last spring as the Russian Girl in George Balanchine's Serenade, as well as the principal role in the 4th Movement of Yvonne Mounseys Classical Symphony.
A Pacific Palisades resident, Mirabelle was given early acceptance to Princeton last December. "This is a very scary time for everyone, and I try to stay positive and be grateful for all that Westside has given me through the years," states Mirabelle. "I try to keep up my conditioning and stamina by taking online classes daily, and just try to accept 'What Is' in all of this. I was so thrilled to be cast in my dream role, and felt so lucky to be honored in this way by my teachers and mentors, as my parting performance. But I then think about all the artists around the world in similar situations, and I feel a sense of solidarity in this devastating time for the classical arts."
Westside Ballet of Santa Monica's non-profit company is comprised of dancers from Westside School of Ballet, Los Angeles' oldest and most successful public ballet school, now celebrating its 53rd anniversary. In their 9th week of offering over 50 online ballet and conditioning classes a week via Zoom and Instagram Livestream, as well as their weekly "Dance Talks" series, the ballet school is operating at an expense budget of a third of their normal operating costs, yet is not in a financial position to stay closed through July (hinted at by LA County's Board of Supervisors this week).
The volunteer Guild and the nonprofit company's Board of Directors has since launched a Crisis Relief Campaign, '1500 Angels.' An appeal video presents notable alumni now dancing professionally and asking for contributions to keep the studio afloat during this unprecedented time. The video has been placed on their homepage, social media, and a GoFundMe Campaign has been launched.
Westside's owner and Executive Director, Allegra Clegg (daughter of Yvonne Mounsey) and the administrators at the school on Stewart Street, have been reaching out to city and government officials about the clear path for opening. Although they have received positive feedback from officials such as State Senator Ben Allen's office, there is still no direct determination for the date they can reopen the studio.
Ms. Clegg states, "We are a career training facility that is essential for future job growth. The health and safety of our faculty and students is of the utmost importance to us, and we are committed to making it a priority. We are evaluating every aspect of our existing operation to incorporate operational safeguards for all participants. While the exact reopening date remains uncertain, we wish to work closely with the city, county and state representatives to recognize Westside School of Ballet as a career training facility that produces professional dancers. Westside is far more than fitness; it is a career training academy for young pre-professional dancers and therefore an essential part of the students' career trajectory."
Ms. Harley further explains the importance of the school's Crisis Relief Fund in keeping the arts alive in the greater Santa Monica community:
"What does all this mean to residents and business leaders of the greater community? Clearly, a better educated and more successful Santa Monica means better business for the society at large. Hundreds of ballet students, trained to the highest caliber, have the opportunity to perform, not only as an outlet to their training, but in preparation for professional careers in the arts and beyond. These students practice every day after school and weekends to rehearse and perfect their skills. These dedicated young dancers maintain the highest standards in their academic world and meet the demands of classical ballet training with devotion and commitment. Their hard work exemplifies Westside Ballet's commitment to the communities of Santa Monica and Los Angeles.
"Individual and corporate giving would solidify Westside Ballet's place as the artistic crown jewel of this special city, its residents and the businesses who also call it home. Generations of students will continue to thrive without the threat of losing their place in their resident theater in Santa Monica, their ability to produce numerous quality performances for their audiences, and to offer community outreach opportunities for the children who might otherwise not have the chance to experience the great art of ballet in person.
"Westside Ballet has always kept ticket prices low in order to make ballet accessible for all. In a society frequently defined by stress, it is the arts that provide a reprieve, an escape into the beauty which still exists in the world. Westside Ballet of Santa Monica's longevity provides this reprieve from the ordinary for the young and the old, the affluent and the underprivileged, the community of Santa Monica and its patrons."
Online Ballet Classes:
Adult ballet and fitness classes are open to the public at a nominal fee of $10 - and there are several free Instagram Livestream classes weekly. The school accepts contributions towards the cost of a skeleton staff. Ms. Clegg wrote in her March 16th letter to the Children's Division/ Pre-professional Dance Academy Division: "While classes are suspended, our costs and investment in the arts continues. As a small business, with little to no profit margins, we operate on a month to month basis, so please consider this when asking for refunds as I want to do everything I can to pay the teachers, staff and pianists. As a small business owner, it is stressful for me to keep the doors open in normal times let alone during this time so I appreciate all your support."
Other notable alumni have stepped forward to join the fold, including: international guest star Joy Womack, recently with Boston Ballet and the first American to be accepted to the Bolshoi Ballet; Joffrey Ballet's Lucia Connolly; and the Spotlight Music Center winner and noted protégé, Shelby Tzung, recently accepted to the National Ballet of Canada, deferring her acceptance to Harvard. Special guest teachers also included current New York City Ballet soloist Georgina Pazcoguin. The regular Westside staff of teaching faculty are all mostly teaching from home situations, but some are filming from the studio with a skeleton crew, including Master Ballet teacher to the pros, Nader Hamed, whose studio classes drew 30-50 per class several times a week. Westside faculty, Aimée Gaudo, is offering a "Anti-Anxiety/ Anti-Stress Stretching" Zoom class for the whole family, Mondays at 3pm.
Westside's "Dance Talk" series also moved online with various esteemed alumni-such as Melissa Barak, Nicole Haskins (Smuin Contemporary Ballet), Giorgia Martelloni-Zabriskie (Dance Theatre of Harlem, Balletto di Roma), Molly Novak (Boston Ballet)-giving talks about choreography and professional dance experiences. Associate Artistic Director, Francine Kessler Lavac, has invited several esteemed ballet influencers to the mix, such as: Jeri Gaile, the Director of The Music Center Spotlight Program; Victoria Morgan, artistic director of the Cincinnati Ballet; and physicist and ballerina, Dr. Merritt Moore. The "Dance Talk" series first kicked off at the school's studios in November, 2014, with alumna Jenna Elfman. Ms. Clegg says: "We created the Dance Talks series to spread the message about the value of dance and other classical arts, and what that can bring to the community and especially our children."
Westside School of Ballet announced closure for children's classes on Saturday March 14, and two days later on Monday March 16 - following government mandates as pertained to fitness centers - the studio on Stewart Street closed its doors to the public. That same day, Ms. Clegg announced to it's tight-knit community of adult and children's dance academy dancers, to stay tuned to social media for online classes. Starting Thursday March 19, Westside began offering online classes from their esteemed teachers via their make-shift home studios, or some studio classes that were recorded with only 3-4 people using social distancing at their then-empty studios. On the same day, Westside alumni and faculty member, Melissa Barak (former dancer with New York City Ballet and Artistic Director Barak Ballet) - taught her first class on Instagram Livestream to over 300 online viewers. On Saturday March 21st, less than 5 employees set up a filming studio to tape instructors giving live classes on Zoom.
Live Zoom classes for paying clients are made available to dance students in both the children's & adult divisions. After live classes, they are saved in archival lists of links, for students to watch again and practice the same class on one's own. All enrolled children in the dance academy are able to access these as part of their tuition. Adults can sign up for Zoom classes through MindBody. After signing up, clients are sent the Zoom meeting code 15 minutes before the class starts. Also a Vimeo Library of Classes Being Built: Westside is also professionally recording children's and adult teachers for all levels, including special stretch and isolated technique classes, over the past two weeks. All these videos will be made available on their private Vimeo Channel and made available to clients who will be able to buy these classes via Mind Body if you are an adult dancer. If a child is in the dance academy, many of these links will be made available at no charge.
LiveStream Instagram Classes are saved to Westside's IGTV channel and the links available in the Instagram 'Story' to watch again for 24 hours and then archived. The livestreams are a free service to Westside's students and the public to "offer some stability and familiarity when the world we know is suddenly unpredictable, and to create solidarity in the dance and arts community during these extraordinary times," wrote Ms. Harley. "Many of our peers in the ballet world such as Tiler Peck have been successfully offering these make-shift, yet charming, virtual classes, and we encourage you to try those - as well as Westside's - in order to support your local ballet community and stay connected to your fellow dancers. Thank you for your continued support and patience with us. We hope Westside is bringing you some joy in this difficult time."
Photo Credit: Anne Slattery; Patricia Neary receives standing ovation at Westside Ballet's Centennial Gala, June 2019.