Always on point

Ten-hour rehearsals, broken feet and Pedialyte for dinner? As the Sacramento Ballet’s dancers prepare for Beer & Ballet, they handle it all with grace.

Photo By Larry Dalton

A ballet studio can be the scene of amazing contrasts. Witness the Sacramento Ballet Studio two Saturdays ago. In one room, the Sacramento Ballet’s dancers were brushing up on artistic director Ron Cunningham’s Romeo & Juliet—the evening-length, story-driven, formally costumed piece they would perform later that evening at the Community Center Theater before an audience as large as 2,200. The dancer portraying the just-slain Mercutio lay “dead” and motionless on the floor, while all around him, expressions of shock gave way to mourning.

But over in a smaller studio, something altogether different was cooking. The first clue was the music: Patsy Cline’s recording of “Crazy,” rather than Sergei Prokofiev’s orchestral score. Instead of William Shakespeare’s story of impulsive teens preoccupied with sex and swordplay, two dancers—tall, dark-skinned Bobby Briscoe and fair, light-haired Merrett Miller—were portraying a far more experienced pair of lovers. Their sultry, sensual dance was all about infatuation, abandonment and regret.

The lyrics, penned in the early 1960s by Willie Nelson, gave choreographer Amanda Peet plenty of thematic material: “I knew / You’d love me as long as you wanted / And then someday / You’d leave me for somebody new.”

Peet’s “Crazy” is one of the short, new works on the Sacramento Ballet’s annual Beer & Ballet program—an informal, highly varied program in which the company’s dancers are showcased as both performers and choreographers. An audience of about 100 sits in the studio for the performance and is invited to discuss the performance with the dancers afterward. It’s a far more personal event than the large productions in the Community Center Theater.

Beer & Ballet is a multidisciplinary smorgasbord with music from all over and the dance styles to match, from classical to modern to popular musical theater. The young dancer-choreographers in the company likewise have come from many different places, and this is their chance to show off their abilities and specialties.

W. Easton Smith arrived in Sacramento last year from the Smuin Ballet in San Francisco. He is preparing a piece for Beer & Ballet set to music by Sigur Rós, an arty Icelandic group popular on college radio stations, who have used ballet shoes to create percussive effects in some of their recordings. Smith’s piece (he was still deciding on the title) features “three couples, representing different stages of a deteriorating relationship.” And, he mentioned with a teasing glance, “it has a surprise ending.”

Briscoe, who came from the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago last year, choreographed “Episodes of the Heart,” which is also about couples and relationships. Briscoe is using the post-minimalist music of Steve Reich—lots of rhythmic patterns and mallet instruments—in an aggressive, electric remix.

Sunchai Muy, a dancer from Long Beach whose heritage traces back to Thailand, is going with excerpts from Antonio Vivaldi’s string concerti for “La Rose,” his 12-minute dance for a large ensemble. Jeanne Jacobson, also from Southern California, picked music from the film The Matrix Reloaded. R. Colby Damon (from Virginia) teamed with Joo Hwan Cho (from Korea) and Michael Vester (from the Midwest), using music from the documentary Winged Migration, which deals with birds that fly thousands of miles between summer and winter ranges.

“It has indirect avian motifs,” Damon said of the choreography, because “birds are a symbol of freedom and other good things.”

In an entirely different direction, Ilona Pociunas choreographed “Ballet de Lamé,” using “She’s a Rainbow,” a song released by the Rolling Stones in 1967. Pociunas is 21—born in the 1980s. “My dad listens to the Stones a lot. It’s really familiar—makes me feel at home,” she said.

At first, she resisted letting the song’s lyrics impose a storyline on her choreography. Then she realized that the lyrics mention the color gold. “This is Sacramento Ballet’s 50th [golden] anniversary,” she said, “and I’d always wanted to do a piece that would celebrate an anniversary.” So, Pociunas gave in. (Keep your eyes peeled for the color changes in her piece.)

Photo By Larry Dalton

Sunny Staton, who joined the company as an apprentice at age 13 and now serves as assistant ballet mistress, has dipped into music and dance styles from Cabaret for her piece, invoking a bit of “anything goes” hedonism and sexual ambivalence. Staton deliberately avoided reviewing Bob Fosse’s choreography for the landmark film, but she couldn’t resist the music. “It’s so danceable,” she said. “And it’s fun putting a new-millennium spin on that Fosse style of dance.” She added that her 11-minute piece contains “a couple of gestures that are not politically correct—there will be a program note about that.”

Twenty-year-old Michal Alida Humer, on the other hand, drew on the music of Django Reinhardt, the gypsy European jazz guitarist who was born in Belgium. (Humer identifies; she was born in Holland.) “He only had three fingers on one hand,” Humer said. “That reminds me how dancers often experience a number of injuries but keep on going. So many of us have to overcome things in our lives to dance, just like he did to play the guitar.”

Injuries, and getting over them, are part of life for any dancer, just as they are for athletes. Jacobson, for example, has dealt with a broken foot in two previous seasons. The members of the ballet company lead a physically strenuous life. They put in long hours rehearsing at the K Street studios, often from 9:30 a.m. until 6:30 p.m., and burn a phenomenal number of calories. The demands they place on their bodies are more like those of an athlete than those of your typical actor or musician.

“I have a vitamin regimen every morning, and I try to ice myself down at night,” said Jack Hansen, who, at 33, is a senior member of the company. He’s learned, like an athlete, that dancers who take care of their bodies enjoy longer careers. He visits a physical therapist regularly. He added, “I know a lot of dancers who drink Pedialyte,” an over-the-counter electrolyte solution designed to replace lost fluids and prevent dehydration, primarily marketed for use by infants.

The dancers’ schedule—especially in December, when there are sometimes two performances of The Nutcracker daily—can leave only minutes for dinner. Christina Schreivogel, 26, said, “A break is not long enough to wolf down an entire meal.” And besides, “it’s too hard dancing on a full stomach.” Instead, Schreivogel and other members of the company sometimes sip Ensure, the calorie- and vitamin-packed meal in a bottle, often served to recovering patients in the medical world.

Of course, there’s one big, obvious difference between a famous athlete and a ballet dancer—especially in a town like Sacramento. A basketball star can ink a multimillion-dollar contract and see his name in the news frequently. The Sacramento Ballet’s entire annual budget (around $2 million) is less than the salary of several starters for the Sacramento Kings—a few of whom individually earn several times the ballet company’s annual budget. And while the Sacramento Ballet’s dancers enjoy recognition from the company’s devotees, and their photos may appear on magazine covers when it’s Nutcracker time in December, they know they’re not household names.

Briscoe has the stature and musculature associated with a professional athlete. “I get that a lot,” he admitted. “My mother was ready. … She wanted me to be a football player. But I said, ‘I want to dance.’”

Both Briscoe and Smith came to Sacramento from much bigger cities where ballet has a somewhat higher public profile as an art form. Smith admits he sometimes feels “slightly overlooked as a dancer” in a city with a sports fixation. But he finds it easier to focus on his dancing, as compared with his more pressured life in San Francisco. “I live quite stress-free here, and it feels really great,” he said. “And Sacramento Ballet has so much to offer young dancers.”

Many of the dancers live around Midtown, close to the K Street studios. “This is a really nice town,” said Humer. “I walk every day to the studios; it gives me time for reflection.”

Jacobson added, “You don’t need a car to get anywhere. You can live your entire life just walking. And it’s quiet. I love it.”

Cunningham—who shares the title of artistic director with his wife, Carinne Binda—watches his dancers develop their pieces with interest. “I got to cut my own choreographic teeth in this kind of experimental workshop,” Cunningham said. “It’s a major point of development. Choreographers cannot work by themselves. Their raw material is the dancers. This is basically about giving them the opportunity and getting out of the way.

“Some choreographers naturally gravitate to certain dancers,” Cunningham said. “It may not be the best dancer in the room, but it may be someone so in tune with what the choreographer is thinking and feeling that it can help direct the creative process. And by choreographing, the dancers learn how to be better dancers in the creative process. They understand in a deeper way what the choreographer needs, the kind of alertness and tension that’s going on, when to make suggestions and when to let the choreographer have his space to think things through.”

Looking back at his own career, Cunningham observed, “I’m a choreographer who started dancing late. And I always wanted to choreograph, from my very first dancing lesson. One thing I’ve noticed: The very first things you do are sometimes the most interesting. That’s the closest to your creative heart, not cluttered up by technique.”

“The creative channels are much more open,” Cunningham continued. “The work may be raw or unfocused, but often those first efforts have enormous creative potential. I particularly like seeing young choreographers’ first works—they sometimes come up with very, very interesting things.”