The esteemed Westside School of Ballet stages its annual Spring Performance in Santa Monica

By Michael Aushenker

Anyone involved in the world of dance knows of the Westside School of Ballet in Santa Monica.

The prestigious training facility — founded more than 40 years ago by Yvonne Mounsey, a dancer for legendary choreographer George Balanchine — employs 21 instructors, including Melissa Barak, a rising star in L.A.’s ballet scene.

Sarah Drake, center, performs dances from “Faust” in a previous Spring Performance

Sarah Drake, center, performs dances from “Faust” in a previous Spring Performance

On Sunday, the Westside School of Ballet stages its annual Spring Performance, highlighting the work of some of the 20th century’s great choreographers (including Balanchine) and excerpts from “The Sleeping Beauty.”

It will be the first time the event, previously staged at the Wadsworth Theatre and the Smothers Theater at Pepperdine, takes place at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica.

The performance includes a staging of choreographer Ben Stevenson’s celebrated “pas de deux Prelude.” Set to Rachmaninoff, “pas de deux Prelude” was first choreographed in 1965 by Stevenson, for whom Westside Ballet’s current artistic director, Martine Harley, danced during her time at Houston Ballet.

Originally from the Malibu/Pacific Palisades area, Harley studied under Mounsey before spending 24 years with Houston Ballet as a dancer and later as a character actor and instructor. She returned to the area and worked at Westside School of Ballet for eight years. When Mounsey died in 2012, Harley became the school’s artistic director.

“Yvonne was my teacher since I was 12 years old, so I have been part of Westside Ballet since I was a child. They launched my career,” Harley said.

“You can’t possibly replace someone like Yvonne [Mounsey],” she said. “Mostly what I wanted to do is continue Yvonne’s legacy. It was a huge privilege to be the person to carry that torch into the future.”

Harley said the opportunity for this year’s venue change to The Broad Stage happened through Santa Monica College Professor Richard Tavildaran-Jesswein, associate director of SMC’s Public Policy Institute and head of Westside Ballet’s fundraising guild.

“Now we’re performing right in the vicinity of our ballet studio. It all feels much more part of the Santa Monica community where we’ve been for all these decades,” Harley said.

Part One of Sunday’s program opens with a new contemporary ballet by Sophie Monat and closes with a jazz piece by Michele Bachar. Act III of “The Sleeping Beauty” follows intermission.

Westside School of Ballet’s younger ballerinas will perform dances from “Faust” with music by Gounod and choreography arranged by the late Mounsey. They will also embody a number of familiar characters — Puss ‘n Boots, the White Cat, Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, the Bluebird and Princess Florine, and Princess Aurora and Prince Florimund in the “Grand Pas de Deux.”

“The challenge in contemporary dance is in doing all the steps to make the dancing look totally free, yet doing it in such a way that maintains your technique,” said one of the performers, Lucia Connolly, who dances the Princess Aurora role.

Barak, who also runs her own company in Santa Monica, praised the Westside School of Ballet’s legacy.

“Westside has always been home to me; it’s a studio that has always had excellent training taught with heart and integrity,” Barak said. “Being back here is like coming full circle. I’m anxious to pass on what Westside’s founding teachers, Yvonne Mounsey and Rosemary Valaire, instilled in me.”

Stagings of Westside School of Ballet’s Spring Performance are at 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday at The Broad Stage at Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $35. Visit westsideballet.com for tickets and information.

michael(at)argonautnews.com

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