California Ballet returns to the show with “Awakening”

If there’s one thing dancer Michaela Gould hopes to take away from her performance in California Ballet’s “Walpurgisnacht,” it’s the pair of pointy ears she wears in her costume.

Playing a nymph suits her well.

“I read a lot of fantastic books growing up, and I love being immersed in a story,” Gould said. “It’s so much fun to wear this beautiful costume, and it really helps me get into character, especially those elf ears. If I can’t have the costume, I at least want the headpiece.

“Walpurgisnacht,” inspired by mythology, is one of five choreographic works in Saturday’s “Awakening,” California Ballet’s first professional production in two years.

For more than half a century, California Ballet was known for staging lavish classical ballets at the San Diego Civic Theater and for being instrumental in many dance careers, including Calvin Kitten (Joffrey Ballet), Justin Peck (New York City Ballet) and many local artists, thanks in large part to dance founder and advocate Maxine Mahon.

The school continues to offer classes at two locations, but the performer arm of the business has changed hands.

“Things have worked themselves out and decisions have been made, but the name, California Ballet, is waking up,” said former principal dancer Trystan Merrick, who serves as the show’s artistic director.

“I try to get in touch with former dancers and collaborators who have worked with the company in the past. I really want to remind the community what California Ballet meant to them as an institution. It really was like a family. In order to reconnect with people, we need to make sure we honor the past.

Michaela Gould and Artistic Director Trystan Merrick, who directs “Awakening,” California Ballet’s first production after a two-year absence.

(Courtesy of T. Loucado)

The Saturday Ballet Production includes classical and modern works featuring a cast of highly skilled professional dancers who have retained a connection to California Ballet.

The show opens with “Espresso,” a fast-paced work choreographed by internationally acclaimed dancer Thor Sutowski, who served as California Ballet’s associate director in the 1990s and artistic advisor from 2001 to 2004.

Merrick invited former California Ballet dancer Summer Jones, now a master teacher and movement specialist, to put the work on the dancers.

In the California Ballet archives, Merrick discovered an excerpt from a work called “Out in the Sunlight” by dancer Christina Krejer-Kosmas, who died earlier this year.

“There’s a warm, hopeful feeling,” Merrick said. “There is an upward distribution in most port de bras (port of arms), and I thought it would be nice to honor that.”

“Awakening” also features two premieres, the first by Daniel Wentworth, the California Ballet School’s current director of operations and commercial choreographer. It’s titled ‘Hiraeth’ – a Welsh word meaning nostalgia or homesickness – and the dancers begin wearing monotonous clothes but end in vibrant and colorful costumes, a reference to the distancing demanded by COVID-19 and back to normal life.

Merrick said he wanted “Awakening” to reflect modern dance trends, so he invited Disco Riot’s Zaquia Mahler Salinas to create the dance “groove,” a work set to house music in which the dancers wear black leather leotards.

The show ends with Merrick’s choreographic work “Walpurgisnacht”, which is the name of an annual festival in European and Nordic countries that resembles Halloween or the Day of the Dead, when mystical creatures can roam the Earth.

Revelry, dramatic themes and imaginative costumes inspired the ballets of George Balanchine, Leonid Lavrovsky and others.

Merrick’s version comes with a score by Charles Gounod and references the mythological story of Bacchus, the god of wine and fertility known to entertain many fans. Bacchus loved the satyr Ampelos. But when Ampelos mocked the moon goddess Selene, she killed him, and a despondent Bacchus turned Ampelos’ body into the First Vine.

Lead roles are performed by some of San Diego’s most accomplished performers, many of whom have danced in California Ballet productions.

Stéphano Candreva stars as Bacchus, Gould and Sona Jaeger are nymphs and Victoria Jenkins plays the moon goddess, Selene.

San Diego City Ballet principal dancer Lucas Ataide joins the company as satyr Ampelos.

“I think this is an important transitional moment, not only for the company but also for the community’s perception and involvement with California Ballet,” Merrick said.

“Awakening” is my vision of what can happen next to the company. It has a lot to do with what I like. Along with classical dance, there is a forward movement that pushes forward.


When: 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 15

Where: Joan B. Kroc Theater, 6611 University Ave., San Diego

Tickets: $30-$65

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Luttrell is a freelance writer.

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