It's a Monday afternoon in early October, and at Menlowe Ballet's studio in Menlo Park, 10 dancers stand poised before the mirror, waiting for the music. No accompanist sits at the piano in the corner; ballet mistress Julie Lowe mans the sound system.
"OK?" she calls. "Here we go."
The music that spills into the airy studio isn't Chopin or Tchaikovsky or anything remotely resembling the classical composers most closely associated with ballet. It's an unfamiliar yet melodious blend of plucked strings, percussion and vocals, and it seems to vivify the dancers instantly. Their eyes brighten as they leap into motion, throwing their arms wide and stomping their heels in time with the rhythm of the song.
Facing them sits Michael Lowe, Menlowe Ballet's artistic director. In an oversized Giants jersey, his spiky black hair streaked with blond highlights, Lowe doesn't look the part of the classical ballet choreographer. Yet the artistic director of Menlowe Ballet is steeped in the grand tradition of the Ballets Russes. Born and raised in the East Bay, the Chinese/Korean American dancer joined the Oakland Ballet in 1974 and served as a principal dancer there for three decades, dancing with ballet greats Leonide Massine, Agnes DeMille and Anna Sokolow before retiring from his performing career and establishing himself as a choreographer of contemporary ballets, particularly works based on Asian cultures and folktales. In 2003, Lowe was honored with an Isadora Duncan Dance Award -- a coveted prize among Bay Area choreographers -- for his cultural ballet, "Bamboo."
Lowe and his collaborators Lisa Shiveley, Julie Lowe and Sarah-Jane Measor founded Menlowe Ballet in 2011. Over the past six seasons, the young company has drawn talented dancers from around the Bay Area and beyond, presented the work of guest choreographers alongside Lowe's ballets, and established itself as the premiere classical dance company on the Midpeninsula. All the while, Lowe has been biding his time, waiting for a chance to pursue a ballet he's had in mind for years.
Finally, that time has come. On Saturday, Nov. 8, Menlowe Ballet will premiere "The Legend of the Seven Suns," an original production based on an ancient Mongolian story. In order to conduct research for the ballet, Lowe traveled to Mongolia last summer, where he lived with a Mongolian family in their "ger," or yurt, and joined them in their daily activities, milking cows, chopping firewood and riding horses in order to understand the rhythms of their lives. From there, he went to the capital, Ulan Bator, where he spent time with the Mongolian State Ballet, studying their blend of classical technique and traditional folk dance.
The result of Lowe's research is a 30-minute work for 17 dancers: the largest and longest production Menlowe Ballet has yet staged. It's not the only work they'll present -- Dennis Nahat's classical "In Concert" and Lowe's more contemporary "Plague" round out the program -- but "Legend" is the only premiere and a milestone for both the choreographer and company.
Lowe first heard the Legend of the Seven Suns as a child, when his uncle told him the story. In traveling to Mongolia, Lowe hoped to hear the most authentic version of the tale. Instead, he discovered that the legend varied from one telling to the next.
"There's a saying in Mongolia: 'There are as many versions of a story as there are tongues to tell it,'" Lowe said. "What I found really intriguing was talking to the Mongolian people and learning just how true that was." Lowe explained that he listened for the version that would most readily translate to the stage. The one he chose goes something like this:
"The God of Fire had three beautiful but selfish daughters. One day, they decided to compete to see who had the greatest fire-making skills. Determined to outdo each other, they hurled sparks into the woods, igniting a blaze that destroyed the forest. When their father returned, he was so angered that he cast them up into the sky, where they became six burning suns. Years later, the earth was hot and parched. The animals were suffering, and appealed to a brave warrior to help them. With his bow and arrows, the warrior shot down five of the suns, but as he aimed at the sixth, the swallow saw that his aim was off. Bravely, she flew into its path, redirecting the arrow to bring down the sixth sun, but splitting her tail in the process. With only one sun burning in the sky, the animals rejoiced."
For the most part, Lowe has been true to the legend, but with one significant change: He has added a female huntress -- a powerful woman who loves the warrior but displays a strength of her own. Company member Julie Giordano dances the role.
"Michael wanted me to really focus on the character of a beautiful yet independent huntress," she said, noting that unlike some contemporary ballets, "Legend" tells a story from beginning to end, so nailing the characters is particularly important.
"I've never been the lead in a big premiere ballet, so it's a lot of pressure, but it's an exciting pressure," she added. "I'm trying to do my best to portray this character that Michael created for me."
Joining the company on stage will be a number of students from the Menlo Park Academy of Dance. Rather than thinking of them as "extras," said Executive Director Shiveley, Lowe integrates these talented students into the creative process. Other dancers are traveling much greater distances to take part in the production. Brian Gephart, a former Joffrey Ballet dancer, has flown in from New York for the eight weeks of rehearsal and performance. He will dance the role of the warrior. Menlowe Ballet member Terrin McGee-Kelly lives in Antioch, California, and has been making the daily commute of up to three hours to attend rehearsals.
That level of devotion seems to characterize the small but talented company. From the way Giordano describes it, that loyalty is a response to the way Lowe works with company members. Formerly a member of Ballet Tucson, Giordano noted that Lowe is particularly good at recognizing each dancer's talents and drawing them to the forefront. "Even with 17 dancers this season, he sees each person's individual strengths, and knows how to broadcast them," she said. "He does a good job of making sure we look good on stage."
Looking good is clearly important to Lowe, and to that end, he has commissioned an original animation that will accompany the dance. At the time of writing this article, costume designer Christina Weiland was still hard at work crafting 17 costumes for the human and animal characters of the story. She's taking cues from what little is known of ancient Mongolian dress and adding in plenty of her imagination.
The score for the production is an eclectic mix of traditional and contemporary Mongolian songs with other musical arrangements, including those by Yo Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble. Part of what fascinates Lowe about Mongolian culture is its close relationship with bordering Russia. Much of modern Russia was once part of the Mongol Empire, and the two nations established close ties during the Communist Era. Lowe says those ties are evidenced in the dances of both nations. The traditional dances of Mongolia utilize deep knee bends, high jumps, flexed feet and a rapid shimmying of the ribs and shoulders, all of which remind Lowe of Russian Cossack dancing (though he noted his Mongolian hosts weren't particularly flattered by the comparison).
In translating these movements for the Western stage, Lowe said he has made certain concessions. Western ballet is characterized by a lifted, weightless quality, while Mongolian folk dances rely on much earthier, weighted moments.
"The translator kept telling me, 'dig, dig!'" Lowe remembered, demonstrating the way his Mongolian hosts encouraged him to bend his knees, flex his arms and stomp the ground, hard. "It was a reminder that these are dances done by real people, not sylphs." His approach with "Legend" blends elements of both Eastern and Western dance traditions.
"I want to maintain the integrity of Mongolian dance, but change certain aspects to integrate it into ballet," he said.
When asked whether he has any concerns about cultural appropriation, Lowe noted that classical ballet choreographers and composers have long presented the dances of the East on the Western stage. "Think of the Chinese Doll dance in the second act of 'Coppelia,' or the Chinese dance in Tchaikovsky's 'Nutcracker Suite,'" he said. "The intent is narrative; not every step is authentic, but you try to translate in a sensitive way. I would hope that audiences understand that."
Back in the studio rehearsing for the show, lead dancers Gephart and Giordano are working on a complex lift. Giordano is wonderful to watch: lithe and expressive, using her face as well as her body to convey the energy of the huntress. As the music rises to a crescendo of racing drums, she leaps high into the air, only to land somewhat clunkily in Gephart's arms. They both giggle, disentangle themselves and try again.
What: Menlowe Ballet's "Legend of the Seven Suns"
Where: Menlo-Atherton Performing Arts Center, 555 Middlefield Road, Atherton
When: Saturday, Nov. 8, at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, Nov. 9, at 2 p.m.; and Saturday, Nov. 15, at 2 and 8 p.m.
Cost: Tickets range from $28-$48.
Info: Go to menloweballet.org or call 800-595-4849.