Your Career

Director's Notes: City Ballet of San Diego's Steven Wistrich

Wistrich teaching company class. Photo by Gary St. Martin, courtesy City Ballet of San Diego.

City Ballet of San Diego is admired in Southern California for its diversity of dancers, a sizeable Balanchine repertoire, lively story ballets and regular accompaniment by full orchestra—all from a compact company. Steven Wistrich, artistic director of CBSD, recalls a 2007 performance, an “aha" moment, when he knew his company, then only 14 years old, had matured: The sisterhood of dancers in Balanchine's Serenade delivered the aqueous grace that the ballet demanded. “Seeing Serenade onstage danced so beautifully was definitely a turning point for me," says Wistrich. “I was so impressed with the style, technique and quality of the dancing."


Balanchine repertoire forms a vital part of the company's DNA: Since 1996 CBSD has danced 19 of his ballets, including Apollo, Agon, Concerto Barocco, “Emeralds" and “Rubies." In many ways, CBSD, which has a close relationship with The George Balanchine Trust, has mirrored what Miami City Ballet has done in southern Florida: It's curated a top-rate Balanchine repertoire in the region. While the City Ballet School of San Diego imports Balanchine teachers for its summer intensives, the organization offers more beyond the Balanchine legacy. Other classical techniques are taught in the company and the school, whose curriculum was developed with help from David Howard.

Wistrich's family pitches in, too: His wife and resident choreographer, Elizabeth Wistrich, has created story ballets, such as Swan Lake and Don Quixote; his daughter, Ariana Gonzalez, is a dancer there; and his son-in-law, Geoff Gonzalez, who also serves as resident choreographer, has tailored contemporary ballets for CBSD. In the future Wistrich hopes to bring in works by prominent choreographers, such as Justin Peck and Christopher Wheeldon.

Photo by Gary St. Martin, courtesy City Ballet of San Diego.

Wistrich's career as a performer shaped the path of CBSD. He was a founding member of Boston Ballet, and then joined Nederlands Dans Theater and Norwegian National Ballet. But working with John Cranko as a dancer with the Stuttgart Ballet and being coached by Balanchine at Grand Théâtre de Genève influenced him the most. “When it was time to give back and establish a company, I felt like I was really qualified to do something special." Wistrich went on to direct Ballet Arizona and Ballet Idaho, and then in 1992, he established a school with his wife in San Diego, which has trained a number of the company's dancers. They started CBSD in 1993.

He grew the company dancer by dancer, and carefully handled the finances, while building a board of directors. Nonetheless, nurturing a company hasn't been easy in outdoorsy Southern California. “Ballet is a hard sell in San Diego," explains Wistrich. “We've really had to develop our audience by educating them." CBSD has integrated itself into the community with teacher instruction, school assemblies to introduce children to ballet, and outreach programs for at-risk youth.

The choices in how to run the company and cultivate dancers make it unique, says Wistrich: “In some companies I've worked with, people aren't always treated as respectfully as they should have been—there was a lot of abuse in how dancers were treated. We treat ours with the utmost respect and dignity and are committed to each dancer's personal development." Erica Alvarado, who joined in 2011, agrees, saying, “We are competitive in a healthy, supportive way."

Ariana Gonzalez, who rejoined CBSD in 2006 after dancing with Atlanta Ballet and Joffrey Ballet, loves the company's family atmosphere and diversity. “We have different heights, shapes and body sizes, and everyone is an individual. We do the same kind of rep you would find in a major company, but because it's smaller, you get more opportunities." For example, when Alvarado joined the company after a stint with Milwaukee Ballet II, Wistrich immediately cast her as Juliet, one of her dream roles. “If I were in a bigger company, I might not have gotten that chance," she says.

For the 2016–17 season, CBSD will perform Mark Schneider's Esmeralda and the Hunchback, Elizabeth Wistrich's Carmen and The Nutcracker, and contemporary works by Geoff Gonzalez. One program features Balanchine's La Source and Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, and the company will premiere its first Jerome Robbins ballet, Afternoon of a Faun, and Peter Martins' Hallelujah Junction.

As the company grows, Wistrich wants the repertoire to grow, too. “I've always wanted to do the full-evening Jewels," he says. “That's a goal."


At a Glance

City Ballet of San Diego

Number of dancers: 32, including 5 apprentices

Length of contract: 26 weeks

Starting salary: No less than $250 per week (non-union company)

Performances per year: 30, including touring up to two hours outside of San Diego

Website: cityballet.org

Audition Advice

CBSD doesn't hold cattle-call auditions, but allows dancers who have submitted videos and resumés to take company class, by invitation only, for a few days. Most dancers, however, are selected through CBSD's three-week summer intensive. “I look for dancers who are intelligent—right away they're picking up the steps," says artistic director Steven Wistrich. “I look for personality—if they are dancing from the inside out rather than the outside in. I really like dancers who have a voice, who have something to express—with a light in their eyes. They shine."

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Angela Sterling, Courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet

Clear your schedule now for Monday, January 29th, 2:45PM (EST)/ 11:45AM (PST). Pacific Northwest Ballet will be live-streaming rehearsal from Kent Stowell's Swan Lake, straight from their Seattle, WA-based studios. To psych us up for their on stage performances February 2nd - 11th, PNB is letting us in on their Act II rehearsal.

From the corps of swans to Odette and Prince Siegfried's pas de deux, and the infamous four swans, this rehearsal is not to be missed. You can sign up now for a live-stream reminder on their site. In the meantime, we'll be brushing up on our Cygnets with this PNB sneak peek.

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Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.

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Summer Study Advice
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Videos are a great alternative when auditioning in person isn't possible. Here are some general guidelines for making a good impression.

1. Follow directions. Before filming, research what each school you're interested in requires. "It demonstrates your ability to follow instructions, and schools pay attention to that," says Kate Lydon, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre's summer intensives and the ABT Studio Company. "If the guidelines haven't been followed, your video might not be watched the whole way through." You may need to make multiple versions to accommodate different schools.

2. Videos should be no longer than 10 minutes. "Keep it short, simple and direct," advises Philip Neal, dance department chair at The Patel Conservatory and artistic director of Next Generation Ballet. "You have to be sensitive to how much time the director has to sit down and look at it." Barre can be abbreviated, showing only one side per exercise, alternating. Directors will be looking at fundamentals—placement, turnout, leg lines, stability—but don't ignore musicality or movement quality. Make sure music choices match combinations and are correctly synced in the footage.

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I want to be a professional dancer, but my parents won't listen. They either don't think I can do it (contrary to what my teachers have said) or they won't let me take the necessary steps to become a professional. Please help. —Audrey

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Videos

They say that pigeons mate for life—perhaps that's why these birds naturally symbolize the young lovers in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Two Pigeons. In these two clips from a 1987 performance in Pisa, Alessandra Ferri and Robert LaFosse—then stars with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, respectively—dance a rapturous pas de deux at the end of Act II. With tiny pricks of her feet and bird-like flaps of her elbows in Part 1, Ferri marks her anguish, thinking she's been abandoned for another woman. Later, both she and LaFosse grow more and more entangled as they reconcile, Ferri dancing with the passionate abandon she's famous for. I love how in Part 2 (0:20), they can't seem to get enough of each other as their necks arch and intertwine. At the end of the ballet, two pigeons fly in to perch symbolically on the chair—er, there's supposed to be two. It looks like one missed its cue at this performance! No matter—Ferri and LaFosse's dancing make it clear that these young lovers are meant to be together for life. Happy #TBT!

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Summer Study Advice
The author at 13, rehearsing at her home studio, Ballet Arts Theater, in Endicott, NY. Courtesy McGuire.

This story originally appeared in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Pointe.

As a young student at a small ballet school in upstate New York, I was obsessed with getting into the School of American Ballet. From the age of 10, I entered class each day with the ultimate goal of studying at SAB dangling before me like a carrot on a stick. Every effort I made, every extra class I took was for the sole purpose of getting into what I thought was the only ballet school that really mattered.

I auditioned for SAB's summer program for the first time when I was 12. In the weeks that followed, I became a vulture hovering over my family's mail, squawking at my mother if the day's letters were not presented for my inspection when I walked through the door. The day the letter finally arrived, it was thin and limp. I cried for a week as I dealt with the crushing feeling of rejection for one of the first times in my life.

My mind filled with questions and self-doubt. What was wrong with me? Why wasn't I good enough? I figured I must be too fat, too slow, my feet too flat. I had worked so hard. I had wished on every fallen eyelash and dead dandelion in pursuit of my single goal, just to have a three-paragraph form letter conclude that I was a failure. For a while, I let myself wallow in the comfort of my resentment, content to believe that success should have come easily, and that to fall was the same as to fail.

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