At the end of a long corridor at the Gail Towbes Center for Dance on Las Positas lies the inner sanctum of Rodney Gustafson’s State Street Ballet, a large, blissfully air-conditioned studio wrapped in giant mirrors and drenched in clear light. It’s where the company’s professional dancers put in the long hours of prancing, gliding, spinning, floating, and soaring that keep them at the top of the West Coast dance world. From Santa Barbara to Las Vegas to Seattle, State Street Ballet is one of the most in-demand companies going, and the hard work that supports this extraordinary enterprise mostly happens right here.
On the hot morning in mid-May that I visited the studio, rehearsal was a little different, because the dancers were moving in steps prepared for them by one of their own. Cecily Stewart, a young dancer who grew up in Santa Barbara and has been with the company for five years, has developed her own version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of the most choreographed works in all of literature. Later this week, the 45-minute piece, along with a shorter dance also by Stewart called The Gift of the Magi, will get its premiere when the dancers of the State Street Ballet are joined onstage at San Marcos High School by a group of San Marcos students. Through a series of high-intensity tutorials conducted by the dancers themselves, these lucky teens will be leaping into the world of professional ballet with both feet. The whole project is designed not just to introduce them to the rigors of dance but perhaps more importantly to deepen their experience of literature.
Library Dances takes as its point of departure the idea that great books do much more than entertain us. A text as complex and layered as Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream contains the seeds of any number of other works of art, from the music it inspired in composer Felix Mendelssohn to the choreography that George Balanchine developed in response. By going into schools and engaging students first as readers, and then as apprentice dancers, Stewart and her team link the deep meanings of the story to an unforgettable episode in these students’ lives — the two days during which they become part of a working professional dance company. Fairies and kings, gods and monsters abound in Shakespeare’s amazing fantasy world, but for a teen, there’s nothing more fantastic than the exposure these San Marcos pupils will have to the dancers. Ballerina Leila Drake Fossek, speaking for the troupe, remarked that part of what the program offers is a chance for the dancers to act as friends to the participating students. With the help of the Library Dances program, this dream of a connection between the books required in school and an exciting career as a professional dancer has become a reality.
The first Library Dances performances take place at San Marcos High School (4750 Hollister Ave.) on Tuesday-Wednesday, May 27-28, at 7 p.m. Visit librarydances.org.