Check Out Tacoma City Ballet- It’s Not Your Mother’s Ballet!

The Tacoma City Ballet (TCB) is a gem of a dance company that makes its home in the grand ballroom – a kind of sun-filled cloister – at the Merlino Art Center, above the Grand Cinema. Who knew? TCB will be presenting Spring Dance Extravaganza, seven original and dynamic dance works spanning traditional and contemporary styles, at Theatre on the Square, April 20-22. After attending a recent TCB Choreographers’ Talk and dance preview by Artistic Director Erin Ceragioli, Resident Choreographer Travis Goldman and Assistant Artistic Director Joel Myers, I honestly can’t wait.
Practice makes perfect at TCB. Young ballerinas watch from the sidelines. Photo courtesy of TCB.

The spring showcase features TCB’s terrifically versatile dancers in an eclectic repertoire accompanied by live music. Erin Ceragioli (that’s “Miss Erin” to you) has forged a reputation for innovative choreography and has had seven original ballets chosen for performance at Regional Dance America/Pacific festivals. She brings to the company her mastery of the classical ballet of five international schools through years of study with many world-renowned artists and master teachers. The 2011-2012 season marks Miss Erin’s 25th year with Tacoma City Ballet. We chatted with her via e-mail about the upcoming Spring Extravaganza – which is definitely not your mother’s ballet! Congratulations, Miss Erin and TCB!

Spaceworks Tacoma: Hi Miss Erin. As a non-dancer, I have to say that every time someone rises en pointe without breaking a toe I am still filled with wonder. Do you remember the first time you stood on your toes?
Erin Ceragioli: I was eleven years old, but I don’t remember what I felt at the time. That was a while ago!
ST: At a recent choreographers’ talk you gave with Joel Myers and Travis Goldman, dancers performed three tantalizing excerpts from Spring Dance Extravaganza. I think audiences will be surprised by the range of original dance being performed by TCB.
EC: I think they’ll be surprised as well – I’m not sure that Tacoma really knows what Tacoma City Ballet can offer aside from The Nutcracker!
Dancers move beneath waves of billowing silk in Whalesong. Photo courtesy of TCB.

ST: Each of the three pieces had something wonderfully unexpected about it, in the dancing, the music, the costuming or all three. In Whalesong, a ballet you choreographed 24 years ago, the dancers move beneath a room-size piece of translucent gauze silk that billows like waves. In your piece, Angelus Angelorum, the dancers’ costumes were designed by Dale Chihuly. Joel’s work, a loving and spirited ode to his late father, was set to a spiritual, “Walk with Me, Lord,” performed by Alex Tapia, whom locals know as a rock musician. How would you describe the repertoire of dance produced by Tacoma City Ballet?
EC: George Balanchine expanded the concept of “ballet” early last century – most working ballet companies today are no longer performing a strictly classical repertoire. While most of the pieces in Spring Dance Extravaganza aren’t strictly “classical ballet,” most of them fall into the realm of “neo-classical” or “contemporary ballet.” This concert has something for everyone. The Angel piece is almost completely classical movement, but other pieces are more neo-classical, contemporary, or modern in technique. We’ve got a whole range in this show!

Rehearsal with choreographer Travis Goldman. Photo courtesy of TCB.

ST: The ballet continues evolving, and it’s fascinating to think about some of the early ballet collaborations between artists like Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, and the great Russian impresario, Sergei Diaghilev…Your musical choices are inspired. For the Spring Extravaganza, Travis chose a score by Bach with Bobby McFerrin scatting to it! (Spaceworks artist) Nate Dybevik, who plays a pretty raucous piano in addition to classical, will provide some live accompaniment. How does a choreographer choose his or her music? Do you begin with a story or music?
I begin with the music. For a mixed rep show like this one, finding musicians that are willing to collaborate with the ballet company is a big deal. Musical scores can be extremely costly, just for the rights to perform a piece. Then adding the cost of an orchestral group like Northwest Sinfonietta also increases the cost of the show. It can be a challenge to find music in the public domain, or to find musicians that are able to work with us….Alex created his own arrangement of two traditional spirituals, “Walk with Me, Lord” and “Ain’t No Grave”, as well as composing two original works.

ST: How many dancers are in TCB? How do they range in age and experience?
The company has around thirty dancers, ranging from around 12 through adults. We generally bring a few of our alumni back as guest artists for our bigger productions such as The Nutcracker and Spring Dance Extravaganza. This year, we have a fairly young company. What I mean by that is, the bulk of our dancers are in the younger and less experienced range. They’re working extremely hard, and it’s amazing what they are able to do already. Look out for what Tacoma City Ballet will have as a company in a few years though! One of the great things about working with younger dancers now is that we still have them for several years before they start thinking about college and professional careers.

Photo courtesy of TCB.

ST: What is the ratio of men to women? Is it hard to get boys interested in the ballet?
Of the thirty dancers, we have just five men and boys in the company. Unfortunately, there is still a stigma attached to being a male ballet dancer. In America, that’s often seen as synonymous for “gay,” which is definitely not the trend we see here at Tacoma City Ballet. It takes so much strength and perseverance to be a male ballet dancer, but many parents steer their boys towards sports, and don’t see ballet as a “manly” activity.

Thrilling viewers by leaps and bounds. Photo courtesy of TCB.

ST: TCB will perform seven pieces for Spring Extravaganza. What other surprises can we expect?
EC:The biggest surprise for me was the musician for Travis’s piece, For Suzy. We asked one of our company members who plays violin in the Tacoma Debut Orchestra from the Tacoma Youth Symphony Association, Taryn Tieu, if she knew any cellists that would want to play in our show. She replied that she could play for us. Musical training and ballet are so complementary, it makes sense to have musicians who are dancers, but it is a surprise to have someone that is accomplished enough to perform both the music and the dance in one show.

ST:How many hours a week do your dancers rehearse?
The company has classes 6-8 hours a week, but many of our dancers elect to take additional classes that bring their in-class time closer to 10 or more hours each week. When we’re not in production for a performance, that’s their “normal” schedule. However, when we’re rehearsing for a show, we add usually 10-15 hours on top of that, so it’s like a part-time job for the performers. “Tech Week,” the week we move into the theatre, usually has even more rehearsals, so the dancers might be in the studio and theatre for upwards of 32 hours this coming week.

Taking ten. Photo courtesy of TCB.

ST: What would you tell someone who never watches ballet, or any kind of live dance, about why they should give it a try?
I think dance is dimensional. We’re so used to looking at things that are flat on a screen. It’s alive and carries a different rhythm and feeling than you can get from a TV set or a movie screen. There is a depth to the performance that so many people nowadays are missing in their lives. Everything around us is so two-dimensional – television, movies, even on our telephones. A live dance performance brings us back to three dimensions – there is more human interaction, even without “audience participation.”

ST: What are your aspirations for Tacoma City Ballet?
EC: [To] stay alive – Miss Jan [Collum] started the Concert Ballet Group of Tacoma [which became TCB] in 1955. It was a struggle then, and it remains a struggle today. We have to find a balance between what we want to accomplish and what we can afford to do. We’re in a time that people are struggling, and one of the first things to go are the lessons in the arts. Right now, we’re seen as a luxury, and we need to find a way to change that.
ST: Much more than a luxury. Congratulations on your 25 years with TCB, Miss Erin!

During the final rehearsal week, dancing becomes a full-time job. Photo courtesy of TCB.

Spring Dance Extravaganza at Theatre on the Square. Sponsored by the Tacoma Arts Commission. All photos courtesy of Tacoma City Ballet.
Friday, April 20, 2012 at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, April 21, 2012 at 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, April 22, 2012 at 3:00 p.m.
Tickets: $24 (click here to buy your tickets now)

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