Santa Monica’s Westside School of Ballet will pay homage to the spirit of its founder on Saturday when it presents its Spring Performance at Pepperdine’s Smothers Theatre. Founded by the late Yvonne Mounsey, the company will be honoring her memory with an extraordinary performance of New York City Ballet founder George Balanchine’s classic “Elegy,” a movement from his ballet “Serenade.”
The Balanchine Trust does not often give non-professional companies permission to stage his works, but Mounsey was one of Balanchine’s first ballerinas. In 1949, the great ballet master approached her, saying that he was going to start a new company and wondered if she would like to be a part of it. He didn’t have to ask twice.
The company would become the famed New York City Ballet. Mounsey danced for Balanchine for ten years, including in a revival of “Serenade,” a ballet that became one of the company’s signature repertory works.
“We have a great relationship with the Balanchine Foundation,” Westside Ballet’s Executive Director Allegra Clegg said. “Because we really have a premium pre-professional company, they embrace us and we’re so grateful!”
“Serenade” was the first original ballet Balanchine created (in 1934) in America, danced to Tschaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings in C.” Westside will be performing the dramatic “Elegy” movement, famous for staging 28 dancers in blue costumes against a blue background. Originating it as a lesson in stage technique, Balanchine worked unexpected rehearsal events into the choreography. When one student fell, he incorporated the slip-up. Another day, a student arrived late, and this too became part of the ballet.
The Balanchine Trust permits only 10 people around the world to stage Balanchine ballets. Patricia Neary, who was a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, has donated her time to choreograph the Westside company, matching the Trust’s donation of the rights to the piece. Clegg said the extraordinary generosity was an honor to Mounsey, who was her mother.
“My mother choreographed a piece called ‘Classical Symphony’ as an homage to Balanchine,” Clegg said. “We are also offering that as part of the program.”
To enhance the step-backin- time quality of “Serenade,” Westside will be using some of the components of the original ballet’s costumes.
“After she died, I was going through her things and found the original Barbara Karinska costumes in a trunk my mother used to travel the world with,” Clegg said. “Karinska was sort of the Edith Head of ballet. Balanchine had given the costumes to Mom. The bodices are too fragile to use, but our dancers will be wearing the skirts.”
Lucia Connolly is 15 years old and has been dancing with Westside since she was five. She is one of the featured dancers in “Elegy” and said that Mounsey’s training was always very strong technically, preparing her for the hard work of a Balanchine piece.
“‘Elegy’ is hard to do physically, but it’s also really emotionally taxing,” Connolly said. “It’s very dramatic. I get carried offstage at the end like a sort of angel. This part really spoke to me.”
Connolly was also delighted to know that she has a link to the original company costumes.
“When they found the costumes, there were still tags attached to them, saying which famous ballerina had worn them,” Connolly said. “They even had the costume for Dewdrop from an early ‘Nutcracker!’”
Clegg is thrilled to be honoring the memory of her mother with this performance.
“She was so passionate about ballet,” Clegg said. “A big part of Westside is the great life lessons she gave along with her instruction. It was not just about dance. She said you had to be a good person, you had to give 110 percent, be happy, have a good attitude.
“This is injecting a whole new energy into Westside,” she continued. “We operate at a huge deficit because we want to keep the ticket prices so low. My mother believed that everyone in the community should have access to dance.”
Westside Ballet of Santa Monica’s Spring Performance Series will be performed Saturday, May 18, at the Smothers Theatre at Pepperdine University. Tickets may be purchased at the door. For more information, visit the website www.westsideballet.com