City Ballet of San Diego returns to the stage with trio of dances spanning 145 years
Through creativity, Pacific Beach company kept its dancers employed during pandemic
From a traditional classic masterpiece to a contemporary, jazz-inspired piece about relationships, City Ballet of San Diego is returning to the stage this month with new and rarely-seen works spanning 145 years of ballet history.
The professional ballet company — based in Pacific Beach for all of its 29 years — will perform “Rhapsody in Blue” by resident choreographer Geoffrey Gonzalez, “Danses Concertantes” by George Balanchine and “Kingdom of the Shades” from Marius Petipa’s “La Bayadere” on March 25 and 26 at the historic Balboa Theatre in downtown San Diego.
This is the company’s 29th season, one all the more meaningful in light of the struggles of the past two years due to the pandemic.
Adapting to COVID restrictions
City Ballet was among a few companies to continue paying its dancers throughout the pandemic, constantly adapting to the changing health restrictions in order to present performances in new ways, according to artistic director Steven Wistrich. This varied from virtual shows where dancers were filmed individually and then the clips were combined for a video, to dancing outdoors in masks at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
“I remember stepping onto the stage with a huge smile,” said 15-year company member Megan Jacobs about the fairgrounds show that had the audience in parked vehicles. “Instead of clapping they honked horns,” she recalled.
“For all of us dancers, there is an additional level of energy (during an in-person show) that you do not get during a virtual performance,” Jacobs said.
“We are thrilled to be back on the stage again,” Wistrich said, adding, “We are one of the few ballet companies in the whole world to keep our dancers employed.
“We would not give up ... we had no idea how long it would take, but we would do it our own way,” he said. “We have an incredibly inventive staff.”
When the shut-down began in March 2020, City Ballet’s dancers and staff at first thought they would be on a brief hiatus. But after it became clear COVID-19 restrictions on in-person gatherings were going to continue for many months, Jacobs said the dancers turned their homes into dance studios as they rehearsed via Zoom.
When COVID testing became available, they tested weekly and when once again allowed to gather, danced while wearing masks in the studio. As they became eligible for vaccinations, all got their shots, according to Wistrich. “Nobody got sick,” he added.
Their first virtual performance, choreographed by Gonzalez, had the dancers portraying astronauts who land on a strange planet, Wistrich said. It was inspired by the real-life isolation everyone was feeling during the shut-down.
City Ballet turned to the virtual realm not only to find an audience, but fundraise.
“It was extremely successful; people were so generous to us,” Wistrich said. “They saw what we were trying to do ... a lot were impressed and inspired ... our donors came behind us (to provide support in the endeavor).”
City Ballet of San Diego is a smaller company than many others — it has 23 dancers — which made keeping all employed easier compared to companies with 100 or more dancers, Wistrich said. “We had to be very creative in finding ways of moving forward,” he said.
By going virtual, City Ballet was able to gain a worldwide audience, with viewers in Russia and the Middle East, for example, expressing their gratitude for the virtual shows and requesting more videos. “It was incredible feedback,” Wistrich said.
Some of the filming techniques, such as having two handheld cameras following and moving between the dancers on stage in a carefully-choreographed pattern, meant the audience had views they would never experience in person.
“The cameras were so close up you could hear their breath, see their sweat and see the bobby pins in their hair,” Wistrich said. “What the people loved was seeing their expressions and filming from behind, from the side and above. The filming was extremely creative. I am proud to think of that film work and the response was so tremendous.”
Even though the company has resumed in-person performances, Wistrich said he can see City Ballet continuing some of its virtual presentations due to the positive response.
Back on the stage
City Ballet of San Diego’s upcoming performance in the Balboa Theatre is due to its traditional venue — the nearby Spreckels Theatre — not being available because of renovations, Wistrich said.
Just as the company made the best of its situation and adapted during the pandemic, Wistrich said positives have come about from having to find new venues. This last holiday season it presented “The Nutcracker” at the California Center for the Arts Escondido — where it will return in May for “Don Quixote.”
Want to attend?
City Ballet presents “Rhapsody in Blue”
When: 8 p.m. Friday, March 25 and 8 p.m. Saturday, March 26
Where: Balboa Theatre, 868 Fourth Ave., downtown San Diego.
Tickets: $32 to $99, with students, seniors and military receiving a $5 discount.
Buy at: cityballet.org or through Ticketmaster.
Good to know: Prior to each performance is a free pre-concert lecture for ticket holders with artistic director Steven Wistrich 45 minutes before show time. Run time is 2 hours, including two 15-minute intermissions.
Questions? Call 858-272-8663.
“It has been a blessing in disguise,” Wistrich said. “We are reaching new audiences that have not seen us before all over the county. ... It is a great opportunity. The theaters are all very nice.”
He said the March 25 and 26 shows have “something for everyone ... all ages.” Wistrich said this includes those who enjoy the glamour of traditional classical ballet and those who like contemporary, jazz-inspired ballet.
Gonzalez choreographed “Rhapsody in Blue” to the music of George Gershwin for a virtual presentation last year. Now, patrons will see the ensemble present the piece on a stage to the music that debuted in 1924.
“It is very jazzy and energetic, beautiful music,” said Jacobs, who is among those cast in the piece. “Geoff said the ballet is about relationships, from friendships to romance. People come into your life and change you.”
Jacobs said the ballet has been reimagined from its virtual presentation. While glad they had that opportunity last year, she added, “We are excited to do a live performance because there is nothing like it.”
“Geoff ... has done a tremendous job with creating a contemporary dramatic take on the score,” Wistrich said. “You hear the music differently. It is very interesting, about relationships and how the dancers interact with each other. It is athletic and challenging.”
City Ballet is presenting the San Diego premiere of Balanchine’s “Danses Concertantes” that the legendary choreographer first created in 1944 and re-choreographed in 1972. Balanchine, founding director of the New York City Ballet, created the work with Igor Stravinsky’s score.
Described as a “highly entertaining masterpiece,” City Ballet will have 14 dancers swirling around the stage while presenting the “daringly fast,” athletic and jazzy choreography.
“It is such an honor that the prestigious George Balanchine Trust in New York continues to grant City Ballet permission to perform Mr. B’s wonderful ballets,” Wistrich said. “We are thrilled that we have been granted permission to not only present the San Diego premiere of ‘Danses Concertantes,’ but we are the only company in the world performing it this season. This varied program of ballets is truly a ballet lover’s delight.”
He described the piece as “playful with a jazzy, sexy vibe.”
Jacobs is also among those selected to present “Danses Concertantes.”
“I love Balanchine’s work and it is why I dance in San Diego,” Jacobs said. “So few companies get to do his works.”
City Ballet is one of a few ballet companies to receive permission from The George Balanchine Trust in New York City to perform his ballets. Wistrich was trained by Balanchine during the 1970s.
Jacobs said Balanchine and Stravinsky worked together frequently and the choreographer’s visual representation of the music is intricate due to the dancers being on different counts or instruments. “It is done in a brilliant way,” Jacobs said.
According to Jacobs, it is a very different experience to perform a ballet set on other dancers, as is the case with “Danses Concertantes” versus one set on her and the other City Ballet members, as happened with the contemporary “Rhapsody in Blue.”
“When you learn the different solos (of a historic ballet), you look at the different dancers who did it before you and try to dance like that,” Jacobs said, adding, “When (a ballet) is set on you, the choreographer looks at you as a dancer and sets it for your body. It’s nice to be originated on you.”
While Jacobs will not perform “Kingdom of the Shapes” from “La Bayadere,” she said she is familiar with Petipa’s 1877 ballet based on Ludwig Minkus’ music due to dancing it during auditions several years ago. City Ballet of San Diego last presented it to audiences in 2008.
The ballet is listed among Petipa’s supreme masterpieces and is one of the most celebrated ballets in classical ballet. “Kingdom of the Shapes” is from the full-length ballet “La Bayadere,” but has been presented as an independent piece. It is set in a moonlight nocturnal forest and features a large corps de ballet costumed in glimmering white tutus.
“It is a great contrast to the two other jazzy pieces,” Jacobs said. “It is one of (Petipa’s) supreme masterpieces, very beautiful with 16 women all in white tutus.”
She explained that at one point the dancers do a series of 39 arabesques as they trail down the stage in a snake-like line.
“It is beautiful, with their crisp white tutus and silk attached to the back of their buns, trailing down their arm like billowing sleeves,” Jacobs said.
Wistrich said the “perfect unison” of the ballerinas makes the piece “ballet’s version of the Rockettes. There is a great deal of rehearsals for the synchronization to make sure the company does it justice.”
He called it one of his “very favorite” ballets due to it being “just stunning.”