The Westside Ballet makes sweets out of pandemic-spoiled plans

By Bridgette M. Redman

(left to Right) Natalia Burns, Zane Tahvildaran-Jesswein and Zoe Singh.
PHOTO BY LUIS CHAVEZ

For 47 years, the Westside Ballet has brought “The Nutcracker” to Santa Monica. This year, they faced challenges like no other with the rising surge in COVID-19 cases laying waste to their well-made, safe plans to bring the holiday tradition to audiences longing for holiday cheer.

They had planned to film their advanced dance students on The Broad Stage at Santa Monica College, complete with
COVID-19 compliance safety officers and proper protocols. But when the December surge in cases made that impossible, they had another plan in place.

Their Plan B brings an abbreviated virtual performance of “The Nutcracker,” a production dubbed “Kingdom of the Sweets” that will feature six dancers in their senior year of high school and their last year in the Westside School of Ballet, along with several younger dancers.

“There is no doubt that we have all been challenged throughout 2020,” says Westside Ballet’s artistic director Martine Harley. “Westside Ballet was committed to find a way to continue to share the beauty and joy of dance––and also to provide our graduating high school seniors an opportunity to perform their dream roles. So, until our resilience is rewarded and when we can perform again for audiences…we decided to present an abbreviated version of ‘The Nutcracker’ this year to our community.”

Excerpts from “The Nutcracker” were filmed in an open-air “black box” and will be showcased on Vimeo. The dance pieces include the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, her Intrada with her Cavalier, the Dew Drop Fairy, Toy Soldier, the Doll and the Arabian Dance. The video will be available to watch through December 31.

It’s a different sort of look with dancers in a carefully controlled environment, wearing masks and choreographed so that they never touch. There are no pas de deux, though there is a reimagined dance with the Cavalier and Sugar Plum Fairy sharing a stage. Crowd scenes such as the iconic Snow Dance are gone, but beautiful solos are featured showcasing some of the most memorable moments of Tchaikovsky’s score and there is one number with five dancers sharing the stage.

The six featured seniors are Maya Zeevi as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Zane Tahvildaran-Jesswein as the Cavalier, Stella Grynberg and Zoe Singh as the Dew Drop Fairy, and Samara Koseff and Natalia Burns as the Arabian.

While the seniors might have felt cheated out of getting their shot at performing the coveted roles in front of the usual sell-out audiences, the words that three of the seniors kept using were “adapting” and “gratitude.”

Singh, a senior at Marymount High School, joined Westside Ballet three years ago after her family moved to the Westside from Pasadena. She had previously danced at the Los Angeles Ballet. She described the beginning of COVID-19 lockdowns as a culture shock where she was suddenly isolated from the highly social community aspect of training to dancing in a room by herself with a teacher on Zoom.

“I obviously missed training with all my friends and having a teacher in person to correct me, but it was an eye-opening time to try new things and explore your own artistry and your ability to push yourself,” Singh says. “I think I grew a larger appreciation for the art form. When summer came and we were able to go in person, I came with such a clear mindset of what dance was to me. I came with such a better mentality—with a clear view of dance being therapeutic and the simplistic beauty of it.”

She also found herself adapting to the outdoor environment, frequently facing new challenges in being exposed to the elements and “becoming one with the environment around us.” She talked about car alarms going off and adjusting to colder weather and earlier darkness. As someone who has asthma, she’s also found the masks to be a challenge to overcome.

“It’s a new barrier to tackle but it’s not life-threatening or anything,” Singh says about dancing outdoors. “In terms of masks, I think we are going to come out of this with lungs of steel. We’re figuring out what kind of masks allow us to breathe through certain things, especially when filming, but I think it is all for the better and we’re going to come out stronger.”

Burns, who commutes an hour from San Juan Capistrano every day, always knew she wanted to dance at Westside Ballet where her mom once danced and trained with the founders. Since the pandemic caused school to switch to Zoom, she now has the time for the commute to Westside Ballet, a company she describes as “legendary.” She also says the pandemic gave her a new perspective.

“I was so used to being able to dance in a studio and not wear a mask and then when COVID-19 happened, it was like everything was gone that we had done before,” Burns says. “I’m so grateful for being able to dance, even if it is open air and outside. It gave me such an appreciation for being able to dance on stage. It taught me that I love the art form for myself and for the people around me. It is a group experience that we’re all able to get through this together.”

Burns, who plans to be a professional dancer, points out that ballet is already a challenging art form and putting a mask on makes it even harder. Yet, she refers to it as a blessing.

“I think it is going to increase our stamina and make us better dancers in the long run,” Burns says. “It will give us perspective when we don’t have to wear a mask anymore—how grateful we’re going to be to be able to dance and I think we’re going to come out better because of this.”

Tahvildaran-Jesswein, a senior at Santa Monica High School, is appearing in his eighth
“Nutcracker” performance, having danced with Westside Ballet since he was four-and-a-half years old. The pandemic pushed him into discovering more about his artistry and his love and talent for choreography. He took to the beach with a friend and they worked at the challenge of dancing and jumping on sand with masks on while trying to avoid other people. He says it gave him an adaptive mindset and pushed him to become stronger.

“Honestly? I hated it at first. It was super, super gnarly,” Tahvildaran- Jesswein says. “I got into the mindset of, ‘I’m going to accept this challenge. I can’t breathe at all and I love it.’ You push yourself as much as you can to build up more stamina and muscle.”

Still, he will miss the traditional performance, especially for his first year performing as the Cavalier.

“Being able to have a whole crowd, that’s a different energy, I can’t describe it,” Tahvildaran-Jesswein says. “You have to be in it to understand it. It’s like the eye of a storm and I love it. [This year] there is just recording and it’s a little tough and it’s definitely disappointing, but it will be memorable.”

Tahvildaran-Jesswein plans to be a professional dancer, though he says that he likes to have as many options and doorways as possible and is open to change. He’s auditioning for scholarships at schools and with companies. This year has taught him a new area of dance he is interested in.

“I may do choreography,” Tahvildaran-Jesswein says. “It’s a different mode of expression and a way to express your feelings.”

Singh also describes having a myriad of feelings, and recognizing that the hybrid rehearsals they’ve been holding outdoors have offered them the opportunity to dance together when some dancers are still at home learning on Zoom.

“Westside is still providing us with the most important aspects, which is being able to dance, as well as connecting with my friends and family on the level that is art,” Singh says. “While I definitely get pangs of nostalgia of our days at The Broad Stage, it has really taught me to appreciate the most important parts of the art form, which is the community and the resilience in all of us.”

All three are glad that even though the pandemic has fundamentally changed the way that they rehearse and the type of performance they are bringing to Santa Monica this year, there is still a version of the holiday classic for their audiences.

“Westside Ballet has the longest running ‘Nutcracker’ in Santa Monica,” Singh says. “It is such a quintessential part of the holidays for so many people. [Westside] has that adaptive mindset, being able to adjust and offer a little sense of normalcy. It’s really admirable that Westside Ballet has been able to carry on in this time.”

While the video is free, Westside Ballet encourages audiences to make a donation to their Crisis Relief Fund, which is helping the Westside Ballet survive during the pandemic.

“One thing is certain: dancers will always find a way to dance,” Harley says. “A dancer’s passion for their craft continues to grow and adapt in the face of any adversity. This has truly been an extraordinary time, but you cannot quarantine a soul. Our advanced dancers have continued expressing themselves physically and emotionally through their music and movement.”

For more information, visit westsideballet.com and to watch excerpts from the performance, visit vimeo.com/showcase/6997255

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