Culver City Ballet students dance through COVID with ‘Grit and Grace’

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Millie Vargas (left) and Serena Klipfel show off their costumes for Westside Ballet of Santa Monica’s Nutcracker performance in 2019. The Nutcracker is generally the largest performance of the year at the school, and is still on the school’s schedule this year. (Todd Lechtick)

Westside Ballet of Santa Monica announces ‘Grace and Grit’ will be presented at the Santa Monica College Bundy Campus, East Parking Lot, on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 9 and 10, at 7:30 and 10 p.m. as a Drive-In Movie venture in conjunction with Santa Monica College’s Public Policy Institute Annual Arts Forum and the SMC Dance Department.

Speaking on the motivation behind the film, Martine Harley, Westside Ballet’s Artistic Director says, “This spring, the COVID crisis abruptly halted all preparations for performances, and with it, critical funding for the arts in our community — and around the world. But dance is a living, diverse and adaptive art form, so we wanted to find a way to not only preserve Westside Ballet’s legacy, but also celebrate and sustain the arts in our great city of Santa Monica.” 

Grace and Grit will feature a compilation of Santa Monica’s most celebrated companies, choreographers and dancers. Included are Barak Ballet — a preeminent contemporary dance company founded by Westside Ballet alumna Melissa Barak, Santa Monica College’s diverse dance companies Global Motion and Synapse, the exuberant and award-winning Ballet Folklórico Flor de Mayo, and Westside Ballet’s own dancers and accomplished alumni. Segments include pieces by acclaimed choreographers Melissa Barak, Jae Young Lee, Jackie Lopez, Sophie Monat, Raquel Ramirez and Sri Susilowati in emotionally moving works. 

The drive-in dance performance will also feature several Culver City residents. Maya Zeevi is a sophomore at Santa Monica College despite being just 17. Zeevi, who has been dancing at Westside Ballet of Santa Monica since she was just four years old, says that despite the all the negatives that come with COVID, it has opened her up to a new way to display the timeless art form.

“It changed my view of the way we are able to express dance in a modern age,” Zeevi said of the pandemic and the lockdowns that followed. 

“It is incredible that we can merge both film and editing into dancing to create a new media that is relatively new. We are able to reach audiences at a greater volume, and make the art accessible to more people.”

Millie Vargas, 12, who is currently homeschooled as a resident of Culver City, says that the pandemic made her appreciate the little things in life.

“The pandemic made me realize that all the activities we do each day are less important than our life and our health,” Vargas said. 

“The stuff that makes life fun, life dance, are possible to do in other ways that we never thought of before — like doing ballet and pointe at home.”

For some, like Culver City Middle School student Serena Klipfel, 12, the pandemic has made them realize how much of a privilege dancing really is.

“The way I view dancing is different — I now view it as a special thing that I am able to do in these times, whereas before I saw it as something anyone can do at any time,” Vargas explained.

All three of these dancers will be a part of a schoolwide performance entitled ‘The Grand Defile.’ ‘The Grand Defile’ is a presentation of the entire ballet company — from the youngest to the most experienced — to exhibit the evolution of each dancer toward the pinnacle of their training as pre-professional artists. This year’s dancers demonstrated their resilience by recreating the Defile, each from their own space, so they could come together virtually.

“When I did ‘Defile’ on stage, I liked it because I really like being on stage and having our individual dances for each level,” Vargas recalled. “Doing it on film was different and hard because it was filmed in our house and it was harder to connect with the bigger group when they are not all around me.” 

“I am looking forward to seeing it on film when it is all put together with the other dancers because I think that will be really cool.”

‘Grace and Grit’ is all about pushing towards the future with resolve and dignity, and that is the message that these dancers hope to convey through this unique project.

“I hope they see that even though we are in a bad situation we are dancing through it,” Klipfel remarked.

“When people see ‘Grace and Grit’ I hope they’ll be inspired during these difficult times to keep pushing through. There is always light at the end of the tunnel,” Zeevi said. “‘Grace and Grit’ means the ability to stand tall in a frightening time. It means making the conscious effort to push forward instead of dwelling on what once was.”

Vargas echoed similar thoughts, saying “I am hoping that people see how hard dancers work for everything to look beautiful and how dedicated we are. I also think that people will see how important things like dance are in our lives.”

While COVID hampers the full experience of dance for both parties no matter the measures taken, it places like Westside Ballet of Santa Monica that are going above and beyond both in effort and creativity that will keep the art alive until we can get back to dancing in front of crowd.

“One of the most rewarding things as a dancer is being able to perform in front of an audience, to see shining smiles and to hear a crowd clapping,” Zeevi admitted.

“I am grateful for everything Westside is doing to keep the ballet community alive. By supporting ‘Grace and Grit,’ we continue to uplift the ballet community in a time when we all need positivity and hope.”

Tickets for this must-see Dance Film Drive-In Fundraising Event are only $50 per vehicle and available now at: www.westsideballet.com.  

The community can also help Westside Ballet’s “1500 Angels” Crisis Relief Campaign here:  https://westsideballet.com/save-our-school/