Labor and love: Western Ballet sets a high barre


For ballet studios, December is a busy month. There are props to be dusted off, costumes to be fitted and finishing touches to be put on the choreography for the end-of-year show. At Mountain View's Western Ballet as with so many other schools around the country, preparations are in full swing for a production of the classical Christmas ballet, "The Nutcracker," which the company will stage Dec. 5 and 6 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.

For Alexi Zubiria, Western Ballet's artistic director, it's a magical time of year. Then again, magic seems to follow Zubiria, whose own life story is just as much a fairytale as the productions he stages.

Born in Venezuela and raised in Colombia by a single mother of seven children, Zubiria lived in a village with no electricity until he was 8 years old. His father was never really in the picture; his mother, who had a third-grade education, died when he was a teenager. At 16, while trying to support himself and finish high school, he and a friend decided to check out the local ballet school; they figured it was a good place to meet girls. What he discovered there was something even more compelling something that kept him coming back to watch class, day after day, mesmerized by what he saw.

"I knew nothing about ballet," Zubiria recalled, standing in the quiet hallway of Western Ballet on a Friday morning, before the day's classes began. "I had no idea there was such a thing you could do with your body."

Though Zubiria had no money and no appropriate attire, the teacher saw his interest and invited him to begin taking classes.

It was the beginning of what would become an illustrious career.

Within a year, Zubiria had landed a job with the International Ballet of Caracas, Venezuela. He began to tour as a principal dancer. Next, he entered a ballet competition in the United States and won it. Soon, he was dancing with such esteemed European ballet companies as Deutsche Oper Berlin and Roland Petit's Ballet National de Marseille. In 1986, he joined the San Francisco Ballet, where he performed as a soloist for eight years. It was in California that he met his wife, Eileen, then a soloist at Oakland Ballet, and today an instrumental part of Western Ballet.

Now in his mid-50s, wearing a knitted vest with frayed edges, Zubiria strides the halls of his own school with evident pride. He retains the accent of his native Spanish, pronouncing the "t" of "ballet." He doesn't linger on his personal story, instead redirecting conversation to the art form that remains his passion, 40 years after he first fell in love.

As he leads me through the school's hallways, he stops now and then to point out the photographs that line the walls, all of which feature Western Ballet students in performance.

"You get them at age 4 or 5 and see them go at 18," he says. "It's a big deal in the life of a child, spending 13, 14 years here."

Western Ballet's presence in the lives of Midpeninsula dancers predates Zubiria's tenure. The school opened in Palo Alto in 1976 and moved to Mountain View in 1986. Zubiria took over as artistic director in 1997, moved the studios into a larger building on Rengstorff Avenue near U.S. Highway 101 and has steadily built enrollment and developed the curriculum. The popular school at 914 North Rengstorff now serves about 150 youth students and has approximately 1,300 adult students on the books for the open program, which offers drop-in classes for everyone from absolute beginners to those experienced in pointe work.

Unlike many studios where a fully staged production is an annual or at best semiannual affair, Western Ballet stages three performances every year and does so without drawing attention away from the rigorous daily training of their students.

High school sophomore Jennifer Peterson has been dancing at Western Ballet since she moved to the area four years ago. Like the rest of the students in the upper-level classes, she takes ballet technique six days a week in addition to rehearsing for five hours every Saturday. Peterson credits the faculty at Western Ballet with setting the tone for disciplined training without the cutthroat environment that too often accompanies such rigor.

"They have amazing teachers who are really dedicated and stay late with you on Saturday night if you're having problems with the dance," she said, adding that competition with other students isn't an issue. "I don't even remember what level some of my friends are in.

"Everyone gets the opportunities they want. It's really like a close family."

Peterson, who attends the University of Nebraska's online high school, acknowledged that not all teenagers would choose such a laborious and time-consuming hobby but said there are great rewards, both in the process of daily dancing and in the product. In this year's Nutcracker, she will dance the role of the Snow Queen. By the time the curtain rises, she will have devoted hundreds of hours to preparing for that moment.

"It is a huge time commitment, but the nice thing about ballet is that the more dedicated you are, the more you see the payoff," she said.

As for what it's like to train under Zubiria's guidelines, Peterson said: "He approaches everything from an intellectual standpoint. He wants you to understand why certain things are important. He has an appreciation for the art form how it all works and he has a lot of experience, so it's a pleasure to be taught by him."

Peterson's observations accorded with Zubiria's presentation of his school. While touring through one of the studios, he interrupted his own dialogue about the challenges of securing a permanent home for Western Ballet (the Rengstorff building is a rental, and not an inexpensive one) to deliver a mini-lecture on the physics of ballet.

"I don't let kids walk in the hallways with slumped shoulders," he said, quite sternly. "I was a technician. I respect the physics. I respect an invisible working line. That is the singularity of the style."

A few minutes later, back in the hallway, he stopped short in front of a photograph of three young women striking a fourth-position pose, each with her right arm raised in a curving arch alongside her head.

"Which one is the right one? Which one is regal, like a queen?" Zubiria demanded of this reporter, puffing out his chest.

Realizing he wanted me to answer him, I studied their postures, then tentatively pointed to the woman on the left, whose lifted chin and long neck seemed to fit the bill.

"No!" Zubiria cried, taking my pen from my hand in order to illustrate his lesson. "Let me show you why."

He tapped the framed photo, leaving traces of ink on the glass.

"Here, here, and here: The line is broken," he explained. "But this one" he traced another line of ink along the next woman's inner arm , "this one, the line is smooth." He stared intently at my face until I nodded my understanding. Satisfied, he moved on down the hall.

This curious mix of the artist in love with his art and the scientist seeking technical perfection is likely what made Zubiria such a successful dancer, and that same balance between beauty and rigor seems to pervade every aspect of the program at Western Ballet.

Alison Share, who teaches Pre-Ballet class, is one of the faculty members responsible for transmitting Zubiria's philosophy and pedagogical approach right from the beginning of a student's Western Ballet journey. A former Western Ballet student herself in the era before Zubiria took over, Share has a unique perspective on how the director's background and vision has transformed the school.

"Many schools in the area combine ballet instruction with character dance or competitions," Share noted. "We are purely a performance and artistic institution. (Zubiria) has really built his methodology, which is teaching the real classical ballet. There's a discipline, a uniformity you can see it in the classes and the shows."

That discipline, Share said, reaches beyond technique class to the way students comport themselves in general, even outside of the studio, where they tend to be high-achieving scholars and model citizens. Whether such young people gravitate toward ballet or the discipline fosters such behavior is debatable, but Share said Zubiria's emphasis on high standards clearly affects students.

"He wants the students to be very respectful," she said. "We train them to be respectful of ballet and of the classical art, so all of our students are very well-behaved. When guest teachers and choreographers come in, they always comment that our kids are well-behaved and very professional."

Inside the studios, Share said, cell phones must be put away, and even the teenagers respect that rule.

"There is no distraction; they have to be completely focused," she said.

For Zubiria, an orphan growing up in a politically and economically volatile country, the appeal of structure and rules was clear. Yet even in the 21st-century Silicon Valley where the majority of Western ballet students' lives are already filled with rules and expectations, there's an undeniable appeal to the rigor of classical ballet training at least for some.

Among those who are drawn to this culture of hard work and discipline are sisters Risako and Natsuko Nozaki, who have been training at Western Ballet since they were 4 years old. They're now 14 and freshmen at Carlmont High School in Belmont; they make the daily commute to Mountain View for classes. Though they clearly love Western Ballet and feel at home there, the language they use to describe that devotion doesn't feature words like "fun."

"We have highly trained teachers who give us really accurate corrections," Risako said. "They definitely look at each of us individually. Everyone there is a hard worker and is very supportive."

Natsuko agreed and elaborated, "I choose this over hanging out with my friends because it pushes me harder and gives me the courage to do other things."

What kind of things? "In school I used to be a very shy person, and one day in ballet I was told to look up. That told me that I needed to be more outgoing and socialize with other people."

Both Risako and Natsuko will dance multiple roles in this year's Nutcracker, which features a cast of approximately 100 dancers.

If young people are attracted to the rigor of Western Ballet, Zubiria said adult students often describe the school as "a sanctuary." He likes to think of the school, he said, as "the YMCA of ballet."

"It's a place to serve community, a place where a lot of people are happy," he said. "The adults come to get away from everything."

High school physics teacher Lea Fredrickson said she values the welcoming spirit of Western Ballet classes, as well as the quality of the instructors, many of whom dance professionally for Ballet San Jose.

"I just love being able to go in there and get some exercise and feel good about dancing," she said. "Each person is practicing their craft, trying to make themselves better."

Amazingly, given his devotion to the school, Zubiria also practices another craft: He works full-time as a biologist for Agilent Technologies. Rather than bemoaning the difficulty of maintaining a busy nonprofit on the side of his day job, he's cheerful as he walks through room after room of carefully hung costumes and looming props.

"This is a magical place," he said, grinning. "I'm not kidding."

Like his students, Zubiria doesn't have to pause for reflection when asked why he deems this endeavor worth this time and energy.

"We need to preserve classical ballet because it sets the foundation for humanity," he said. "It sets the tone. That's the standard not below it."

If you go

What: Western Ballet's "The Nutcracker"

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.

When: Friday, Dec. 5, at 7 p.m. and Saturday, Dec. 6, at 1 and 7 p.m.

Cost: $25-$30

Info: For tickets, go to mvcpa.com or call 650-903-6000. To learn more, go to westernballet.org or call 650-968-4455.

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