Ballet San Antonio Rises to a New Challenge With Balanchine

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As I walked into the rehearsal studio of Ballet San Antonio, Artistic Director Gabriel Zertuche sat at a table with his back to me, intently viewing a class in progress. I quietly perched on a stool behind him, hesitant to interrupt. After a few minutes he sensed my presence and gave me a whispered hello, and the smile that I have come to know him for.

He quickly explains that he has started holding auditions once or twice a week for open spaces in the company. It is not unusual for Zertuche to travel to Houston or Dallas for “cattle call” open auditions.

“We aren’t always successful with those types of auditions, so we have started soliciting videos and then inviting dancers to come here to take company class,” he said.

It doesn’t appear that today’s hopefuls will be finding a berth with the company. If he doesn’t find what he is looking for soon, he will go to New York or Chicago after the close of the season.

Jayson Pescasio and Kate Maxted rehearse "Donizetti Variations."  Photo by Tami Kegley.

Jayson Pescasio and Kate Maxted rehearse “Donizetti Variations.” Photo by Tami Kegley.

And the close of the 2015 season is imminent. Ballet San Antonio will perform Balanchine for the the first time along with new works by Zertuche and the pas de deux “Nokturne,” choreographed and performed by principal dancers, Ian Morris and Sarah Pautz, at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, March 27 -29. Performances begin at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, with a matinee on Sunday at 2 p.m.

The company has been granted permission to dance “Donizetti Variations” by The Balanchine Trust, the first time the company has performed a work by Balanchine. New York City Ballet (NYCB) veteran and repetiteur for the Balanchine Trust, Philip Neal, has returned to San Antonio this week to put the finishing touches on the work as the company moves into the theater for the final week of rehearsal. Neal originally started rehearsals with the company after the very successful run of “Romeo & Juliet” came to a close in February.

“I am really excited to be a part of their first experience and foray into Balanchine,” Neal said. “I worked two weeks intensively with them on a very technically challenging ballet, each day seeing it take a step up. It takes two weeks to stage and coach it, and then I return for the week of the premiere to supervise its evolution onto the stage, with the costumes, and the lighting, and the technical details of staging.”

Philip Neal and Amy Fote work with dancers rehearsing Balanchine. Photo by Tami Kegley.

Philip Neal and Amy Fote work with dancers rehearsing Balanchine. Photo by Tami Kegley.

Neal travels extensively in his role with the Balanchine Trust. So far this year, he has worked with four different companies in three months. In this day and age, it is very common to rely on video archives to recreate a ballet, but there is so much more to it than that. In his 23 years with New York City Ballet, Neal had the good fortune to work with and learn from dancers who had direct professional contact with the master himself. It is this literal chain of humanity that keeps these works true to their original intent.

There are quite a few repetiteurs employed by The Trust at this point in time.

“It’s gone global. Everyone wants to dance Balanchine. It’s terrific that we have all this technology at our fingertips, but it is dangerous, too. There’s nothing like passing down this information generation to generation, peer to peer,” Neal said.

With his in-depth understanding of the Balanchine catalogue, Neal works almost as a detective. It would be very easy to pass on bad habits and inaccuracies without his exacting attention to detail.

“When I work from videos, I have to be sure that what I’m working with is very pure. I very often will pick up the phone and call colleagues of mine. I will resource generations who have worked before me as well as the people who are dancing it now, after me. It is very well researched,” he said.

Neal and Fote adjust a position with Crystal Serrano. Photo by Tami Kegley.

Neal and Fote adjust a position with Crystal Serrano. Photo by Tami Kegley.

“Donizetti Variations” (1960) is one of Balanchine’s more classically bucolic ballets. It is courtly, cheerful, and pretty, but with the sharp knives of the choreographer’s style in evidence with attack, speed, and brightness. There is also a sly humor and playfulness about it that will challenge the dancers to be at the top of their game in terms of acting skills, on top of the already tough technicality of the movement. Balanchine is noted for the quick pace of his ballets that requires the dancers to be light on their feet – it is a matter of correct weight placement and balance. Ballet San Antonio has their work cut out for them.

Neal said that this ballet was carefully selected for the company since it is their first time with Balanchine.

“I met with The Trust just last week and let them know that things are going well and that I thought this was a very good first step. After the performance, the conversation will begin, assuming that everything goes well, what the next logical step will be.

“Many factors are taken into account such as the level of experience of the dancers, where they are at this space in time, what the community will respond to, how many dancers there are to fulfill the needs of a particular ballet. If they wish, I could certainly consult on the next appropriate step. It is a process,” he said. 

This ballet employs a lead pas de deux couple along with a small corps de ballet of ten dancers. Jayson Pescasio will dance in the leading male role alternating between female partners, Sally Turkel and Kate Maxted. This is a feather in Maxted’s cap, to be selected from the corps to perform in a principal role in “Donizetti Variations.” This is the result of casting decisions by Neal.

Zertuche works out a sequence with Carol Tang as Fote observes. Photo by Tami Kegley.

Zertuche works out a sequence with Carol Tang as Fote observes. Photo by Tami Kegley.

“I like to watch class and call a handful of people to the parts. I tend to make up my mind quickly. Number one, I only have a couple of weeks. Two, I don’t like to put the dancers through the process of auditioning. It’s not fair. They work very hard.

“I’ve become more adept at walking into a space and defining very quickly who’s appropriate for a part. When it’s time to try someone relatively new in a role, or go with someone with more experience, I try to weigh everything out. I am a dancer and I am sensitive to their plight. I have been in that position and I try to be very respectful, because they are in this for the love, they’re not in it for the money. It requires a lot of mutual respect,” he said.

Just in from working with Boston Ballet, this is Neal’s first glimpse of the ballet since he left it in the hands of the company and Ballet Mistress Amy Fote. He seems pleased with the current state of affairs. After giving performance notes and corrections, he was out the door and the company shifted their attention to the next works on the agenda.

The dancers are working on two of Zertuche’s new pieces, “Butterflying” and “Arvo.” Stylistically, Zertuche’s choreography stands in contrast to the Balanchine. Softer and looser, more lyrical, which owes a certain debt to the choice of music – more modern selections with works by composers such as Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt. Still, fast moving with lots of shapes and patterns. “Arvo” is a big ballet, employing the services of all the company dancers.

Zertuche sets choreography on Carol Tang and José Gonzalez as understudies follow. Photo by Tami Kegley.

Zertuche sets choreography on Carol Tang and José Gonzalez as understudies follow. Photo by Tami Kegley.

Zertuche is glad to be back in the studio. It has been awhile since he has put his choreographic skills to something meaty. The challenges of running a professional ballet company keeps him away from the dancers more than he would like.

“We are a growing company and I think it’s fair to say that we are understaffed. Based on our budget size, we have a relatively small administrative staff producing tons of work. So, everyone is wearing five to ten different hats, if you will, so sometimes this requires me to be in the office more than in the studio. That can be a challenge.

“It’s been a great process for me to experience for the first time as an artistic director, a season of this magnitude and putting this together. I think the works that we have premiering this weekend will be fabulous,” Zertuche said.

This has been a momentous season for the company as part of the inaugural season at The Tobin Center. In addition, they have been working more than ever before with the San Antonio Symphony to add live music to their productions, most notably Ben Stevenson’s “Romeo & Juliet.” There have also been performances with Opera San Antonio and Soli Chamber Ensemble.

Just last week, there was a successful performance in Travis Park, with more than 1,000 people in attendance. And then there is the community outreach work that they do. This is a company that is pushing itself hard in setting goals, proving their artistic merit and seasoning by continually setting the bar higher.

The Company rehearses Zertuche's "Arvo." Photo by Tami Kegley.

The Company rehearses Zertuche’s “Arvo.” Photo by Tami Kegley.

“I have to tell you that most of our dancers have adapted really well. The dancers have grown artistically, in large part due to the exposure to new people. Amy Fote’s wealth of knowledge that she brings to the company is priceless. You can’t buy that anywhere. Having her here has been truly incredible. 

“Or Ben (Stevenson)’s people, Dominic Walsh and Anlin Li, and Ben himself coming in to work with the company for an entire week has really pushed and motivated the dancers. The dancers are very motivated. They are working very hard, and now they come to me asking how they can improve, and what more I would like to see from them.

“That’s different, I think, from before in that we have dancers who need it. They want it. They have to have it. I think it was Balanchine who said, ‘I don’t want people who want to dance, I want people who have to dance.’ That’s where they are and it is a great feeling to see how this experience has changed these dancers in San Antonio,” Zertuche said.

These last performances for Ballet San Antonio’s season are a great opportunity to experience the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are available for all performances and every seat is $29. Call the Tobin box office for tickets at (210) 223-8624 or buy tickets online at tobi.tobincenter.org. Tickets are also available one hour prior to performance at the theater box office.

Related Stories:

Romeo & Juliet: Game Changer for Ballet San Antonio

Ballet San Antonio Brings ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to The Tobin

Tobin Center: More Than Performing Arts

Ballet San Antonio’s ‘Dracula’ Takes Flight at The Tobin

20 thoughts on “Ballet San Antonio Rises to a New Challenge With Balanchine

  1. I love the diversity of programs that the Tobin Center is able to accommodate. This venue is definitely taking San Antonio arts to the next level. Both local and international artists are able to be showcased in a manner that truly highlights their art. This should be a beautiful program.

  2. My favorite part of the Tobin Center is that it sits right on our beautiful river walk. I pass it every day running with my dogs and we always stop to see what’s being shown on the screen. Thanks for making that section of our river walk so pretty!

  3. It’s opened the doors to our city for more creative performances and opportunities set in a beautiful designed building. It oozes creativity from the inside out.

  4. It’s opened the doors to our city for more creative performances and opportunities set in a beautiful designed building. It oozes creativity from the inside out.

  5. We saw Donnizetti Variations last night from the best seats in the house: Balcony 3. The appreciate Ballanchine again in San Antonio is just exhilarating. The company performed it brilliantly with great energy and professionalism.

    We wanted more Ballanchine…so here’s to hoping Mr Neal will open the floodgates…’cause these guys can dance!

    I grew up in the NYC metropolitan area 1958-1963 when Mr B was in his prime. A family friend’s daughter from Schenectady where I too was born was a principal dancer under Mr B…so I got to see the NY City Ballet often – even party with the Corps.

    Our SA Ballet deserves our support. They’re good, professional and most accomplished.

  6. BalletsSA at the Tobin Friday night was an epiphany. It’s almost impossible to describe how far this company has come in the space of a few years. I felt transported to NY, or somewhere where contemporary and modern dance have been part of the cultural landscape for decades. What Courtney Barker and Gabe Zertuche are accomplishing together is arguably the performing arts story of the year since the Tobin has opened.

    The tragedy is empty seats. Too few people in our city are aware of how mesmerizing this company is at its best, or how vital BalletSA is to a city on the rise. In a few more decades we will be a city of another one million people. Will we have BalletSA? I can’t imagine life without these artists. Ballet is affordable. It is accessible. And often enough, it is magic. Last night was magic. Change your weekend plans and get there this weekend. And think about next season now. -RR

    • Jim and Robert — I am delighted to hear these early reports on the Balanchine program. I look forward to the Sunday matinee and seeing what I saw in rehearsals projected onto the stage at The Tobin. I would wholeheartedly second your call to action to the citizens of San Antonio. Having BalletSA in our town is not an automatic given. Without our support this company cannot sustain the growth that we have witnessed over the past two seasons. It should be our pleasure to fill every seat at every performance.

  7. Tami–thanks for the behind-the-scenes look at the ballet company. I took my aspiring ballerina last night with a friend and we were all entranced by the amazing dancers. Just bought season tickets for next year and can’t wait!

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