South San Francisco, CA July 23, 2021 by Elizabeth Nisperos, Guest Contributor
Art in South San Francisco
I received an email from the editor of EverythingSouthCity.com asking if I’d like to cover a new Ballet Company Oceánica Ballet headquartered in South Francisco. Really? Ballet companies thrive in big Metropolitan cities like SF, LA, NY, Boston’. But in South City?
Years ago an article described South San Francisco as ‘ modest, unknown, and anonymous’ beside the world-famous San Francisco; it’s a dish on a party table, folks knows it’s there but nobody bothers to taste it. Then South San Francisco became the world’s largest biotech hub, and the San Mateo County ‘economic engine’.
Tourists don’t visit Vienna, Paris, Tuscany for its Math and Science but for the culture (arts, museums, sculptures, music, dance, food & restaurants, romantic stories).
So, the late Mayor Jack Drago envisioned a Cultural Arts Commission to infuse the area with artistic visions embodied in the proliferation of cultural dreams to match the scientific energy brought by biotech. Even in lockdowns and recession, real estate biopharmas are pandemic proof. Sculpture, murals, youth and art shows, art scholarships, new foodie fusions slowly arise. A visitor once said, “For a small city, I’m impressed you’ve an Art Commission.”
Now, the South San Francisco area has a Bay Area Ballet Conservatory—
Oceánica Ballet Inc located at 275 Wattis Way, SSF 94080
Their mission is ‘to enliven the San Francisco Bay Area cultural landscape by making professional-level ballet performances accessible and relatable to Bay Area audiences.
For the impressive profiles and background of the Board and dancers, please click on https://oceanicaballet.org
The Board Members are Karen Butcher, PhD, Henry Lowman, PhD, Sabina Perlsweig, Music Educator.
The Co- Artistic Directors are Edgar Lepe and Robert Burns Lowman. The dancers have experiences in several professional ballet organizations.
The inaugural opening was in South San Francisco location Saturday July 17, 3 and 7 pm;
Sunday July 18 12noon and 3pm at Hiller Aviation Museum, San Carlos.
Let’s check out the mission goals:
To ‘enrich the artistic careers of locally-based, professionally trained dance artists of diverse ages, races, genders, sexual orientations, and body types.‘
It’s hard to be a ballet dancer, harder than being a movie star; eventually an actor finds a role. When a young person dreams becoming a ballet dancer in a professional company, one encounters rejections because the classical stereotype or standard is based on physique. Examples for rejections are: ‘feet arches not right, legs too heavy, legs not long enough, neck too stubby , too short, too tall, too busty, past the age of 18 for development, body prone to gain weight, not a classical face’ plus the injuries the body encounters .
Years ago, I toured the San Francisco Ballet studio building, led by the former President Richard LeBlond Jr., a visionary leader; what I remembered most was the historical photos of the 1920/1930’s where the ballerinas looked overweight. The title of ballerina/ballerino is given only to the Principal Lead Dancer. The public forget a ballet dancer is not only an artist but an athlete, the sports medicine doctor who treated the SF 49ers injuries was the same doctor for the SF Ballet. How is it that a ballet dancer is expected to perform super incredible feats of movements with a bone thin frame and put on strict diet. An eating disorder led to the early death of 22-year-old Heidi Guenter who was told to lost weight by her Boston company whose sad story I followed. Ballet dancers are under tremendous pressure to remain thin.
What I liked most about the Oceánica Ballet dancers was they included different body types, races, sexual orientation not boxed by classical standards; Short, tall, several skin colors and faces, young and mature dancers displaying joy and glee as they moved, turned, pirouette on the floor. As if they came out of the rainbow holes revealing wavicles of cheer and flexible resilience after a long lockdown. Sade, the tallest among the females said, “We are inclusive, we include all kinds of dancers in our group.”
Sitting in the front row, I watched taut well sculpted muscles as they execute their movements. I’m glad I missed the Saturday opening; instead I went to the Hiller Aviation Museum for I’ve never seen a ballet show under a ceiling lined with airplanes, a metaphor this group will fly and soar high with their goals. I used the ‘wavicle’ a particle physics term for one can’t capture or box Oceanica in a standard for the group is unique and diverse in their mission, discovering in space and time the depths of beauty interfacing passion.
I didn’t attend to be a caustic or a scathing critic but to observe the basic movements and positions as I’d seen in San Francisco Ballet standards.
Did they perform the Cecchetti Method seven basic movements in dance: Plier (to bend), Étendre (to stretch), Relever (to rise), Glisser (to slide or glide), Sauter (to jump), Élancer (to dart), Tourner (to turn). Did they perform the basic arm and feet five positions? Check, check, yes, they did.
Related to their mission; Did they ‘create innovative new ballet-based dance works, and interpret classics in fresh and exciting ways.’? Check, check, yes, they did.
I was familiar with the music of Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Vivaldi, Vaughan Williams related to classical scenes and WWII big bands of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Andrew Sisters and Duke Ellington. I was introduced to new music of Slow Meadow, Dexter Britain, Steven Guthheinz which exemplified slow atmospheric music, existential drama in a dreamy meditative state.
Ballet deals with story to elicit emotions through the human body. Did the dancers reveal moods, lines of actions, feelings, expressions of the face to connect with the audience? Check, check, they did.
The normal costume for ballet are tutus with lace and crowns on the head. Did they have innovative costumes? They wore flesh tones shoes and wore blue and black tights and leotards but in other scenes they wore colorful dresses, WWII uniforms, jazz get up styles. Edgar Lepe with his Folklorico Ballet was responsible for most of the costumes chose simple yet attractive costumes related to the themes. It’s a check.
The show lasted for one hour and 20 minutes. The audience were allowed to take photos but not to disturb the dancers with flash. I didn’t take as much photos as I’d like to.
A Summary of the Six Theme Presentation.
Rachmaninoff Suite – Music: Rachmaninoff, Choreographer Constanza Murphy, Costumes: Edgar Lepe
Raining Glass, Music: Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Choreographer Matthew Ebert, Costumes: Edgar Lepe
Mosaic, Music: Slow Meadow, Dexter Britain, Steven Gutheinz, Choreographer Jessica Woodman,Costume: Edgar Lepe
A Divertissement- Music: Vivaldi, Choreographer Jessica Woodman, Costume: Edgar Lepe
Lark Ascending- Music: Slow Meadow, Dexter Britain, Steven Guthheinz Choreographer Robert Burns Lowman, Costume: Edgar Lepe, Robert Burns Lowman
Swingin’- Music: Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, The Andrew Sisters, Duke Ellington, Choreographer Edgar Lepe, Costume: Joshua Ugarte, Edgar Lepe
My favorite cinematic scene was in the Swinging theme performed by Constanza Murphy and Robert Lowman as if I were inside a theater viewing a movie dance scene. I met Constanza inside the restroom, “Are you a ballet dancer?” Of course, she is, she wrote in my notebook, “It’s a great environment for getting back to what we love and sharing art with everyone.” Robert Burns Lowman stood out whether he was dancing with Vincent Chavez, Camille Barlow, or Constanza. Robert said, “It’s great to be dancing again after 15 months of lockdown.” A lady approach me and said she’s Robert’s mom Karen Butcher, “I’m proud of him.” I didn’t know Karen is a board member until I visited the website.
In an atmosphere of divided partisanship, politicians better mix politics with dance like France King Louis XIV a ballet dancer; the oldest company Paris Opera Ballet historically started with this King Louis XIV in 1669, the start of classical ballet; no wonder ballet classes can be expensive because ballet was related to royalty and nobility. Oceánica Ballet Inc. has shown it can be open to anybody who has the passion to dance.
About Elizabeth Nisperos:
Elizabeth Nisperos’ is a long time resident of South San Francisco, and a lover of the arts, having served as a Commissioner on our Cultural Arts Board. She is also an award-winning artist/calligrapher, an award winning techie such as STEAM mentor from Google Code Corps, Computer World Honors Laureate Medal project member, OTECH outstanding effort and dedication for IBM project, and more.