They’re relative newcomers to the Santa Barbara dance scene, but Ballet Santa Barbara’s (BSB) dance roots go deep. For the company’s upcoming program, A New York Perspective, BSB artistic director Carrie Diamond has chosen to honor the company’s history, offering a retrospective that reaches farther back in time than one might expect.
Nearly 50 years ago, Benjamin Harkarvy, a young choreographer and dance educator from New York City, founded Nederlands Dans Theater, a Dutch group that is now among the world’s most elite contemporary ballet companies. Thirty years later, Harkarvy returned to New York to join the Juilliard faculty. He began teaching open dance classes at the Ailey School, but his name was unfamiliar to New York’s new generation of dancers, with a few exceptions. “I think there were four students there the first time I took his class,” Diamond recalled. “But I knew he’d founded NDT, I’d heard he was an incredible teacher, and I completely became his devoted pupil the moment I met him.”
Thus began what would prove to be a fruitful collaboration for both Diamond and Harkarvy. “I was just starting my own dance company,” Diamond said. “Ben was interested in making a piece for us. He said he wanted to try some new things.” Over the next two years, Harkarvy created two works for Diamond’s young company, New American Ballet Ensemble (NABE). One of those pieces was “Frames,” a dark, unsettling study of a male/female relationship that BSB restaged in November 2006. The second, a quartet called “Premonition,” was inspired by Picasso’s 1918 painting “The Bathers.” “Premonition” is on this weekend’s program at Center Stage Theater, where N.Y.-based dancers and one-time NABE members Carlos Fittante and Robin Gilbert will join two of BSB’s current dancers to perform the work in honor of the late Harkarvy, who died in 2002.
“He was an American treasure,” said Diamond of Harkarvy. “It’s very special that Ballet Santa Barbara has the rights to two of his last works. I get very emotional about it, not just because of my personal connection to the pieces, but because of everything Ben stood for. Everything I’m going for as a director comes from him: his discipline and his total dedication to the art form, his eye for detail as a director, and his ability to bring things out of dancers in ways that were positive, yet his unwillingness to settle for anything until it was right.”
Following his collaboration with NABE, Harkarvy became director of Juilliard’s dance division in 1992, where he remained until his death in 2002. That same year, Diamond and her husband, composer Eric Valinsky, relocated from New York City to Santa Barbara, where they founded BSB and gave their debut performance in March 2006, a performance that featured “Premonition.”
Also being restaged this weekend for the first time since BSB’s premiere is Lizabeth Skalski’s “Midnight Tangle.” Skalski was a founding member of NABE in 1989 and will be flying out to Santa Barbara this weekend, where she will be reunited with Gilbert for the first time in more than two decades. Diamond says bringing old colleagues together again is really what A New York Perspective is all about. “These are the people I knew then, and I still know them now,” she said. “I have so much respect for them, and I want to share with Santa Barbara that continuity, that history.”
On the phone from New York, Gilbert recalled her early days with NABE. “It was an immediate family atmosphere,” she said. “Carrie made me feel respected as a dancer, and in most ballet companies I hadn’t felt that. I met people there who became lifelong friends, in particular Carlos Fittante.” Today, Gilbert and Fittante are dance partners in Balam Dance Theatre, a Balinese-influenced dance company in New York City. Fittante also serves as BSB’s associate director. As part of A New York Perspective, Gilbert will be reconstructing her original role in “Sue±os Castellanos,” choreographed by Diamond for NABE, as well as dancing in “Premonition.” “I studied with Ben, admired him, and respected him,” she said. “For me, it’s a little bit of a homage to him. I can’t say enough how excited I am. It’s been a long time, but Carrie seems to still have the confidence in me that she had so many years ago.”
Like Gilbert, Skalski is eager to be reunited with her old colleagues. Now the associate director of a private ballet school in Connecticut, Skalski no longer performs, but last summer she choreographed a new ballet for BSB, and she hopes the collaborations will continue. “I haven’t seen Robin since 1990-I’m amazed she’s still dancing,” she said. “Carlos and I worked together at NABE as well-he’s incredibly creative and has a great personality. I think that’s the thing about the four of us coming together: Our work ethic meshed together very well then, and it still works well today. Who you are, how you like to work, and how you approach your art never change.”
Diamond agrees. “What I’m saying with this concert is that we as a company acknowledge our roots,” she said. “It’s not just two years in Santa Barbara; it’s 20 years of working with people. It’s really about the people.”
Ballet Santa Barbara presents A New York Perspective at Center Stage Theater March 14-16, with a special gala performance and post-show reception on opening night. For more information, call 963-0408 or visit balletsantabarbara.org.