Drive-in film event showcases the creative strength and spirit of Santa Monica dancers

By Christina Campodonico and Katherine Brubaker

Photo courtesy of Westside School of Ballet | Westside Ballet of Santa Monica

Ask international ballet star and Westside School of Ballet alumna Joy Womack what “grace and grit” mean to her and she’ll give you the raw truth.

“In the ballet sense… ballet looks beautiful on the outside,” she says, during a Zoom call from Russia, where she’s been performing under the country’s laxer lockdown rules and trained as a Bolshoi Ballet dancer after attending Westside. “But, like, I have literally bleeding toes and things like that,” she says, pointing her toe toward the camera, adding that it’s “lots of just basically smiling and grinning and burying it.”

But she also says ‘grace and grit’ encompasses resilience, much like the spirit of Santa Monica’s Westside School of Ballet, which despite the upheavals of the pandemic, has continued to offer first-rate ballet training in-person and via Zoom throughout lockdown as conditions have allowed.

“I think one of the most beautiful things about Westside Ballet,” says Womack, referring to the school’s pre-professional nonprofit dance company and the community itself, “is that they are a family and no matter what, for the many years that they’ve been in Santa Monica, the show always goes on. And there’s not a group of more resilient people that are committed to an art form that I know of in the world.”

That tenacity will be on display Oct. 9 and 10 during “Grace and Grit,” a drive-in dance film festival and fundraiser in collaboration with Santa Monica College featuring a compilation of films created by Westside Ballet and SMC’s dance communities.

Among the featured segments set to screen in the East Parking Lot of Santa Monica College’s Bundy campus are pieces by SMC’s Global Motion and Synapse dance companies; Barak Ballet’s “Breathe In,” a short film with choreography by the company’s artistic director and Westside alum Melissa Barak; a duo of original solos on film called “Water and Air” choreographed by Westside Ballet’s Sophie Monat; and a fiery solo on film from “Don Quixote” performed by Womack in a remote Utah salt flat.

“I was basically homeless for like six months of the pandemic,” recalls Womack of the wandering road trip that led her to film that solo on the side of a road during a pitstop between California and Colorado. “[It was] like a kind of adventure to try to find a place to just be for a little while.”

Barak found a similar theme of release in making “Breathe In,” which depicts an ensemble dancing through the unique architecture of Pan Pacific Park.

“It was just sort of a film about better days ahead and sort of freedom, you know,” says Barak. “It starts with a man who takes his mask off, and is just obviously longing to dance and feel free again, and he sort of is the instigator. Other dancers follow suit, and they kind of join in with him on this frolic through the park. But it’s less flowery than that. … He kind of reminds them of what’s inside them as dancers and the freedom that they longed for, and that they embrace when they see him take initiative.”

“So really ‘Grace and Grit’ was born of that idea that… you can’t quarantine your soul,” says Westside Ballet Artistic Director Martine Harley, underlining the resilience of the organization’s dancers. “And so dancers will find a way to dance. They will go in their yards; they will go in their living rooms, kitchens, the sidewalk if you’re allowed outside.

“And so ‘Grace and Grit’ was born of that. … Even with the quarantine, even with COVID, it all managed to keep living and adapting and blooming. And there was no way to stop that,” says Harley of the evolution of the film event. “There was no way to put any polish on it, there was no way to go into a theater and have beautiful lighting… it had to be done just with the grit of what was possible in the time, or what is possible in this time because it’s continuing. But it’s also about the grit of dancers, that they have this tenacity that keeps them going no matter what. They have high tolerance for pain, they have high tolerance for all kinds of adverse situations.

“So there’s a lot in the film[s], where you just see the dancers, both in their polished elements and then also in these raw elements, you know, being outside or just being in their living room and doing what they love.”

“I think it’s a great way for people to continue to dance and to continue to enjoy dance during a time where obviously, none of us can go to live performances,” adds Joffrey Ballet dancer Lucia Connolly, who performs in Monat’s “Water” solo. That was also the last piece she performed at Westside before entering the School of American Ballet and embarking on her professional dance career. “So this just really feels full circle. … I feel like it, for me, symbolized all the help that Westside gave me over the years. … It was a culmination of everybody’s hard work and everybody’s skills that gave me the skills that I needed. Getting to use that solo to come back and get back to Westside is really great. It’s cool.”

“I think it also is like this extension past Westside, which is incredible that there’s also SMC pieces and Barak Ballet’s in it,” chimes in Molly Novak, who dances in the corresponding solo by Monat “Air” and joined Boston Ballet after attending Westside and Samohi. “Hopefully, it reaches a broader audience and range of people. I think it’s showing that Westside still has this commitment to producing art and sharing with our community in a difficult time like this — against all odds, trying to still make something happen and put something together.”

“Grace & Grit” screens at 7:30 and 10:00 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 9, and Saturday, Oct. 10, in the East Parking Lot of Santa Monica College’s Bundy Campus (3171 East Bundy Drive, Santa Monica). Tickets are $50 per vehicle. Visit westsideballet.com/graceandgrit to learn more, buy tickets or make a donation.

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