Pointing the way
Chico Community Ballet teaches young dancers the art of discipline
Alex Schwartz wanted to dance like Michael Jackson. When he was small, he would mimic the pop star and dream of being in a music video. “I had no interest in ballet at all,” he says.
That was before he learned about Chico Community Ballet. Its senior company is an ensemble of talented junior high and high school students who range in age from 13 to 17 years old and follow an intense regimen of pre-professional dance training. Two years ago, on a whim, Schwartz attended the company’s ballet partnering class. “They needed guys who could lift the girls,” he recalls. “I had been playing football, so it was no problem.” Before class was finished, he was hooked.
He joined the company soon after, and Schwartz, 17, says his whole life changed. He stopped playing sports, dropped out of student government and gave up two honors classes to dedicate himself to dance.
“One of the things you realize is if you want to go anywhere with this, you have to be willing to give up things,” he says.
When the company performs the ballet The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland at Laxson Auditorium this weekend, it’ll take the audience on a magical trip through the dream world of the little girl, Alice, and bring to life Lewis Carroll’s beloved characters—the Queen of Hearts, the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat.
But few in the audience will likely understand the unusual and demanding real lives of the young dancers like Schwartz.
During rehearsal season, which began in September, company members spend at least 25 hours per week dancing. (Those who pursue hip-hop log an additional 10 hours.) That translates into classes nearly every night of the week, including a mandatory Friday class that starts at 4 p.m. and stretches into evening. They’re back again on Saturday with ballet class, followed by a six-hour rehearsal. As the performance draws closer, rehearsals run through the weekend.
“It’s not dissimilar to someone who’s an elite gymnast,” explains Catherine Sullivan Sturgeon, the associate director of Chico Community Ballet who adapted, choreographed and directs this weekend’s performance. “They wouldn’t be there unless they were serious about what they were doing.”
Serious, they are. On a recent afternoon, members of the senior company, clad in tights and leotards, gathered to discuss their upcoming performance and to talk about how they make room in their lives for dance. They don’t go to Friday-night football games. Nor do they have time for movies or the mall. Some of them can’t remember the last time they ate dinner with their families. “A lot of us don’t have social lives,” says Mekayla Alter-Reitz, 15.
And yet even as they enumerate the sacrifices, none of them seems too terribly upset. “This is not something we have to do,” Alter-Reitz quickly adds. “It’s something we want to do.”
Fifteen-year-old Cameryn Titus loves ballet but she also loves raising goats. To do both, she gets up every morning by 6, pulls on her “muck” clothes and slogs through the mud behind her family’s Keefer Road farm house to feed her animals. Then she hurries back inside to eat a quick breakfast, change clothes and head off to school by 7:15 a.m. “I have to know exactly what I’m wearing to school,” she says. “There’s no time for a fashion show in front of the mirror.”
After school Titus speeds through her homework in the library for an hour before her mother, Robyn, arrives to take her to ballet. On Tuesdays she takes ballet class from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., then a “dance lab” focusing on classical variations and pas de deux, or partnering, until 8 p.m. Then it’s home to eat dinner and finish homework. “I’m always tired,” she says, “exhausted.” But she gets up the next day and does it again.
Chico Community Ballet’s artistic director, Deborah Jorritsma, jokingly calls that kind of commitment “The Disease.”
“You begin to understand that when you keep working, things start to happen,” she says. “You start to feel more control with the movement, and that’s exciting.” Jorritsma knows the feeling. As a child, she studied dance in Fort Wayne, Ind., went to college on a dance scholarship and later danced professionally with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. Dance becomes a passion, she says.
The passion started early for 15-year-old Vanessa Ralston. At two-and-a-half years old, she came twirling into the kitchen on her tiptoes. Her grandmother fashioned a gauzy tutu and sewed it to her toddler pajamas. “And she’s been dancing ever since,” says her mother, Terry.
The Ralstons live in the foothills 25 minutes beyond Oroville, requiring a two-hour daily commute. Five years ago, they decided to home-school Vanessa partly to ease the unforgiving schedule. “It makes it easier for me to build my life around ballet,” Vanessa says. Over time, her parents have done the same. Terry serves as the company’s costume mistress. Her husband, Derek, a sergeant in the Butte County Sheriff’s Department, has performed theatrical roles in the company ballets for six consecutive years.
Based at Chico Creek Dance Centre, at 1144 W. First St., Chico Community Ballet holds auditions every August for serious ballet students ages 7-18, who are placed in senior, apprentice or junior divisions. Company members perform one full-length ballet and one repertory performance each season. Their parents must pledge to do 40 hours of volunteer work to help with fund-raisers and performances.
In the summer, many of the dancers scatter across the country to participate in prestigious intensive programs that have included Orlando Ballet, Ballet Chicago, American Ballet Theatre and the Juilliard School.
In January, 14-year-old Ashley Everett, who will dance the lead role of Alice this weekend, walked into an audition for the summer program at the School of American Ballet, the elite training school for the New York City Ballet, and walked out with a full scholarship.
For five weeks this summer, Everett will attend classes at the school eight hours a day Monday through Saturday. Her mother, Chris, will accompany her to New York and rent an apartment to be near her. “I want to get that feeling of living there in case she should ever move there,” Chris says.
It could happen. Ashley’s resume reads like that of a rising star. In 2001, at age 12, she received a full scholarship to study at the Dance Theatre of Harlem. The following summer she returned to New York to dance with the American Ballet Theatre. Last summer she traveled to Washington, D.C. to study at the Universal Ballet Academy and was offered a year-round scholarship.
If Ashley or her peers decide to go professional, they will follow in the footsteps of other Chico Community Ballet alums, some of whom have gone on to dance with companies such as the Joffrey Ballet or start companies of their own.
It’s an impressive track record, especially for a town the size of Chico. And it’s a testament to the commitment of a community of dancers, parents and teachers. By all accounts, the tradition will go on.
Robyn Titus reminds her daughter, Cameryn, that now she’s one of the "big girls," a role model for the younger ones. "Open your lap to the little girls," she tells her. "Open your arms to them, so that this continues."