For choreographer Cecily Stewart, who has a new ballet based on Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl premiering this weekend at the New Vic, reading and interpreting great books is a consuming passion. Inside State Street Ballet’s rehearsal studio, she runs what may be the city’s most unusual book group — half a dozen or more brilliant and athletic young dancers working as a team to read, discuss, improvise around, and finally dance through the classics.
For this project, the dancers not only read the diary together; they also consulted other Holocaust testimony and met with survivors living in Santa Barbara. The resulting 33-minute ballet, “Anne’s Window,” rises to the challenge of imagining Frank’s excruciatingly poignant situation through a combination of words, dance, and music. Sofia Ross will speak the part of Anne while the dancers play multiple roles in telling the story. According to Stewart, the window of the title refers to both the opening through which Anne observes the world and her eyes, those indelible windows on the soul we all know so well from the famous smiling photo that adorns virtually every copy of her book.
With this new work by a company member as his starting point, State Street Ballet founder Rodney Gustafson went on to curate a full program called Women’s Work that celebrates the creativity of young women choreographers from all over the globe. “Watching Cecily and the company develop “Anne’s Window” gave me the idea,” Gustafson said, “and then I started to think about the wonderful women who have supported us, like Léni Fé Bland and Sara Miller McCune, and it all came together that this should be a program that celebrates strong women’s voices.”
The other choreographers include Brooke “Brooklyn” Hughes Melton, who grew up dancing in Santa Barbara and has recently returned after taking degrees in dance from UC Irvine and the University of Arizona and living and working in Portland, Oregon, and in Tucson. As company manager and rehearsal director for Santa Barbara Dance Theater, Melton occupies a spot at the core of the city’s vibrant dance scene. Sophie Monat, whom Gustafson called “the most classical of the group — like a Balanchine,” teaches at Cal State Long Beach and is a prolific maker of dances who has served as ballet mistress at both State Street and the New Jersey Ballet. Andrea “Andi” Schermoly comes by way of Nederlands Dans Theater, a company that Gustafson describes as “the greatest in contemporary ballet, no question.” Finally, there is Kassandra Taylor Newberry out of Atlanta, whom Gustafson praised for her “uncategorizable style and extreme athleticism.”
The venue, the Ensemble Theatre Company’s New Vic, adds extra excitement to the mix. The Vic’s combination of intimacy and high tech should add sizzle to what already promises to be an intense experience. For Gustafson, the choice was motivated not only by the size and location of the theater but also by the fact that it was a beloved project of Fé Bland, to whom Women’s Work is dedicated. Miller McCune, the principal sponsor of the event, will speak before the performance about State Street Ballet and about the legacy of her close friend and “partner in crime” as she once put it. For Santa Barbara dance lovers, this is a night that’s not to be missed.
Women’s Work is at the New Vic on Saturday, May 14, at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday, May 15, at 2 p.m. For tickets, visit etcsb.org or call (805) 965-5400.