Westside Ballet’s resilient dancers enchant with elegant and joyous performance
By Bridgette M. Redman
During a year of many changes and hard-earned lessons, the word that artistic director Martine Harley uses to describe the dancers of Westside School of Ballet is “resilient.”
“The dancers have been incredibly resilient,” Harley said. “They spent half of last year in quarantine training from home over Zoom with us, and despite that huge adjustment, as soon as we were able to open a studio with an open-air roll-up door, they hadn’t lost anything. In fact, they blossomed. It was as if their determination to keep dancing was enhanced.”
Harley compared them to caterpillars turning into butterflies once they were allowed back in the building.
“They emerged from their cocoons and were dancing better than ever,” Harley said. “We were so pleasantly surprised at how they had continued to improve despite having to train from home.”
Other dancers shared her perspective. Jesse Dean Peterson, 14, said it was very hard at first to keep up the same atmosphere he had when he was dancing in person, but he experienced a lot of growth.
“I strived a lot in my dancing and learned a lot of new things,” Peterson said. “I feel like I improved a lot this year.”
Samara Koseff, a graduating senior, described the year as “unexpected and simultaneously fabulous and horrible.”
“Westside Ballet came back and it was so important to me to be in a space where I could move,” Koseff said. “Doing a final ‘Nutcracker’ performance was really important to me, but I missed out on other parts we would do, so there were a lot of bittersweet moments. On the whole, it has been a really good year, but it had a lot of bumps.”
Nadia Hofer, 12, found Zoom challenging because they were learning to dance pointe for the first time.
“It was pretty tough doing it online, but I learned I could do more than I thought,” Hofer said. “It’s really hard with masks, but I learned through it.”
Creating safe spaces for vibrant performances
As a studio that emphasizes giving their dancers performance opportunities, Westside Ballet recently created a COVID-safe performance space — an enhanced black box called Theater Studio Six — to showcase their graduating seniors and other dancers in a spring show.
The artistic staff selects pieces for the spring performance designed to showcase the dancers and their skill levels. This past May, they continued that tradition with a workshop performance that featured choreographer George Balanchine and many other gifted classical musicians, choreographers and dancers.
“Each year, we do what we call a mixed repertoire for the spring performance,” Harley said. “I select ballets that are individual to the skills of the dancers because we have dancers from 8 to 18 years old. We create a program that has ballets that are appropriate to every skill level.”
The workshop limited the audience to friends and family, but it was filmed and will be released for a public viewing at a date to be announced. This year’s workshop included pieces from “Sleeping Beauty,” “Swan Lake” and “Don Quixote,” among others.
There are also Westside Ballet premieres including a romantic “Sylvia Pas de Deux” and “Donizetti Variations” with music by Gaetano Donizetti and original choreography by Balanchine.
Casting a spotlight on all their dancers
The private performance bestowed solo and featured work to Westside Ballet’s graduating seniors including Koseff, Maya Zeevi, Zane Tahvildaran Jesswein, Stella Grynberg, and Natalia Burns.
Koseff was asked if she had a piece she wanted to do as her goodbye solo and she didn’t hesitate.
“‘Swan Lake’ has been my favorite ballet since I was a child,” Koseff said. “I had a DVD and I’d watch it all the time. The black swan solo was the one I wanted to do. I love dancing tricksters and evil characters, characters I wouldn’t necessarily be. It’s a really challenging solo choreography- and technical-wise, and that was the way I wanted to go out.”
Koseff is going to college on a dance and academic scholarship next year, and hopes to dance professionally and do social advocacy work.
The “Donizetti” pieces offered several technically challenging and thrilling parts for many dancers, in addition to featuring graduates Zeevi and Jesswein. Peterson danced in the male trio and partnered with Koseff.
“It’s a very fun ballet,” Peterson said. “It’s the first time we’ve partnered in a while. When we started rehearsing it, we didn’t touch.”
Koseff said a lot of hand sanitizer was involved once they did start touching, and even though they did full partnering for the workshop performance, there still wasn’t a lot of close contact.
“The boys are a bit younger than most of the girls,” Koseff said. “It is the first time they’re really getting to partner on stage, so that was exciting. All of us have known them since they came to Westside, so it’s very cool.”
She played Peterson’s mom in the first production of “The Nutcracker” that he did and she refers to him as a little brother.
“That was a big deal to end my dance career at Westside Ballet together,” Koseff said. “I’m very grateful to have that and it’s a really joyous ballet. It’s a great way to come out of COVID. We have gorgeous costumes that are so pretty.”
Hofer danced in “Les Petites Etoiles” (The Little Stars), which was a new piece created to Mozart’s piano composition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” It featured Westside Ballet’s youngest dancers and was accompanied by live piano.
“It’s our first one on pointe, so I’m excited about that,” Hofer said. “I like our costumes and the music a lot.”
Support and family
While all the dancers are committed to learning technique and achieving virtuosity, they also speak highly of the atmosphere and the community that they’ve found.
“It’s kind of like a big family and we support each other,” Hofer said.
For Peterson, the family connection is more literal than most. After dancing many years in New York, he and his mom, Kiva Dawson, moved to Santa Monica because she felt he really needed Westside Ballet. It was an experience she was familiar with as she was a dancer there Westside when she was young.
Dawson had been taking tap lessons in 1980 as a 10-year-old when her teacher told her if she wanted to be a well-rounded dancer, she’d have to take ballet. She went to see Westside Ballet’s “Nutcracker” and that sealed the deal for her. She enrolled in Westside Ballet, where she would make lifelong friends and dance the role of Clara in two “Nutcrackers” before she moved back east.
Her first job out of school was working in a film directed by Julie Taymor. Dawson stayed in New York City for many years.
“Jesse and I were in New York and he gravitated toward dance,” she said. “A lot of my friends think it was my influence of being a dance mom, but it really is within him.”
Three years ago, Dawson moved back to California.
“I felt that Jesse needed Westside Ballet,” Dawson said. “There is something about Westside Ballet and the nurturing component in the community. We needed that person who said you can stand a little taller. I saw that magic happen. If children have those type of mentors, it will help them in every facet of their life.”
Dawson’s son said that he has formed great friendships and relationships at Westside.
“There’s a very good community around Westside,” Peterson said. “My peers, we bounce off each other and there is a lot of community involved. There is great training and great relationships and friends I’ve made. When I’m going to think about Westside Ballet, those are going to be my highlights.”
A big fan of science, Peterson is planning to spend the next four years at a project-based learning school centered around science.
Surviving and thriving
Harley stressed that the opportunity for dancers to perform has always been a priority for Westside Ballet throughout their 54 years. It’s why they wanted to make sure the dancers could still have a performance even if it wasn’t on the Broad Stage where they usually dance.
She said she is grateful that the Santa Monica community continued to support them throughout this past year-plus.
“We had a crisis relief fund, which we established as quickly as we could,” Harley said. “We got donations from the community at large and it helped us keep our doors open. It has helped us develop our programs and performance opportunities this spring where we otherwise could not have. It’s really the support of the community that has made all of this possible and we are very grateful.”
This summer, they will offer several classes from intensives to three-week sessions. There will be one intensive for levels 3 to 4+ that will involve creating a dance project that will be performed on the final day. Three intensives will be offered for upper division students levels 5 to 7. The intensives will include lessons from professional guest dancers and each week will do a different ballet: “Sleeping Beauty,” “West Side Story,” and “Raymonda Variations.”
“It’s really touching that people still care about what we are doing and what the dancers are able to achieve,” Harley said. “We’ve seen how important the arts are. It’s easy to see in these dancers how important it is to them and to their lives and development, especially in this time of crises.”