Visitors to the People’s Republic of China can hardly be expected to see everything. In a country where 40 cities now have populations in excess of one million, there’s only so much one can do in a single trip. That’s what makes State Street Ballet’s (SSB) recently completed nine-week tour there so remarkable.
Beginning in Wushan on May 19 and concluding in Changshu on July 19, the company gave 34 performances of Beauty and the Beast in 25 Chinese cities. Boarding trains, buses, and planes at least as often as every other day, the company’s 18 dancers and two crew members succeeded in barnstorming one of the biggest territories ever covered by a performing arts group.
As a crowning achievement in this, State Street Ballet’s 20th anniversary year, the China trip, despite its enormous challenges, made perfect sense. Artistic Director Rodney Gustafson has spent two decades building an organization that is as much at home on the road as they are here in Santa Barbara. Principal dancer Leila Drake Fossek, who led the group through China, has embraced the role of cultural ambassador and speaks with genuine enthusiasm about the long journey she and the company so recently completed.
As a veteran of State Street’s many tours in the United States, Fossek knows that traveling as a group requires “patience and adaptability” from everyone involved, but she also provides a vivid example of what really keeps people going on the road — a strong sense of wonder. “Almost every theater was brand-new,” she said, “and even though there was not the same kind of applause as we are used to here, it was easy to tell that the audiences were happy.” Asked about memorable differences in the ways that the programs were presented, she recalled the recorded English-language instructions that were played before the performance in many of the theaters. “Everything was in Chinese until this very proper-sounding British voice would come on and ask the audience to ‘Please be elegant,’ and I loved that,” she said.
“There were so many beautiful moments for us as a group as we got more used to the culture,” added Fossek. “For example, almost every meal was at a big group table, and we learned to really appreciate the cuisine. Also, in China, many people gather in the public squares to dance, both in the early morning and at night. It’s an unusual synchronized dancing, with a leader demonstrating the steps and all kinds of people, most of them in their ordinary work clothes, having a great time following along. You can be sure that our dancers did not waste any time standing around — we joined right in.”
The piece that SSB took on the road, Robert Sund’s ballet version of Jean Cocteau’s film Beauty and the Beast, turned out to be an excellent choice for a number of reasons. Chinese audiences appreciated the romance and the symbolism of Sund’s mystical interpretation of the legend, and the dancers liked performing a work that gets better the more times one performs it. Fossek said that “with two different casts, everyone got a chance to alternate roles from one night to the next, which helped keep it fresh. There’s also a lot of room for improvisation, not only in the steps, but in the hair and makeup, as well. By the final week, we were working things we had seen in China into the looks we created for each other onstage, and that made it fun.”
State Street Ballet has two more major events coming up soon in Santa Barbara. On Sunday, September 27, supporters of the organization will gather at the Four Seasons The Biltmore for Edgy & Elegant, a gala evening honoring longtime SSB supporter Sara Miller McCune. (For more information and tickets to that, call  845-1432.)
On Saturday-Sunday, October 17-18, the dancers will perform Carl Orff’s fantastic Carmina Burana at the Granada Theatre. This monumental collaboration with the Santa Barbara Symphony and the Santa Barbara Choral Society is presented with the Santa Barbara Center for the Performing Arts and is sure to be one of the Granada’s season highlights. When the evening-length work by choreographer William Soleau premiered at the Granada in May of 2008, it was — with more than 50 musicians, 20 dancers, and 100 voices — by far the most ambitious production of any kind to have been mounted in what was at the time a recently renovated venue. Judging by the exuberant response at that sold-out show, there will be plenty of enthusiasm for these performances, which will officially cap the company’s series of 20th-anniversary events.
For tickets and information on Carmina Burana, contact the Granada box office at 899-2222 or see granadasb.org.