Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen wasn't known for his cozy bedtime stories. The 19th century author is best remembered for his dark, sometimes downright haunting fairy tales. "The Ugly Duckling" tells the story of a homely little bird who is bullied by the rest of the flock. In "The Little Mermaid," the heroine gives up her life in the sea for human love, only to find that love unrequited. Among the most famous of Andersen's tales is "The Snow Queen," an epic story of good and evil that features an evil troll, a magical mirror, a jealous queen and the innocent children caught in her spell.
This weekend, Bayer Ballet Academy will stage an original dance production of "The Snow Queen" at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Choreographed by the company's director, Ina Bayer, this is the show's second staging; it premiered last year. With "The Snow Queen," Bayer Ballet aims to offer audiences both a refreshing alternative to traditional holiday "Nutcracker" productions and a vision of what can be accomplished through rigorous training and a dedication to high-level artistry.
Founded in 2005 and housed in an unassuming building on Old Middlefield Way in Mountain View, the academy has established itself as a serious training facility for young dancers interested in learning classical ballet in the Vaganova style, a technique named for Russian dancer and educator Agrippina Vaganova. Five years ago, Bayer launched the Bayer Ballet Company, offering her students regular opportunities to perform fully-staged works for the larger community.
One step through the door at Bayer Ballet Academy, and it's clear this is a school that takes its training and performance seriously. Young girls in leotards and tights sit quietly in the lobby, stretching as they wait for their class to begin. Piano music floats in from the studio: technique classes are taught with live accompanists rather than recorded music. In the corner, a standing dress form displays a jeweled corset with a drop waist and full romantic tutu: an example of the costumes for "The Snow Queen," all of which were commissioned especially for this production and custom-sewn in Russia.
"Miss Inna spares no expense when it comes to ensuring a top-quality production," explained parent volunteer Oriana Halevy, whose daughter Karina has been dancing with Bayer Ballet for the past five years.
From the original sets for "The Snow Queen" designed by a Mountain View artist to the recent hire of master teacher and Bolshoi Ballet graduate Ivan Goliandin, and the academy's roster of visiting teachers, including former New York City Ballet principal dancer Stephanie Saland, Bayer has set the bar exceptionally high. She's serious about ballet, yet her passion is as much for artistic expression as it is for technical prowess, and her commitment to quality doesn't seem to weigh heavily on her students. Instead, it seems to motivate them.
"The kids of Silicon Valley deserve the highest quality of ballet, both in class and on stage," the director explained during a break from rehearsal last week. Having trained, performed and taught in Russia, Ukraine and Israel as well as touring internationally, Bayer sees Mountain View as a community that's especially well-equipped to value the training she offers.
"This is a beautiful area full of educated, smart people," she noted. "It's very international, and people here value children's education -- they value serious classes with serious results."
Serious results she has had; among Bayer's current students is Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School eighth-grader Alina Taratorin, a three-time first-place winner at the World Ballet Competition. Taratorin will play the lead role of Gerda in this year's "Snow Queen" production.
Such student achievements are a source of pride, yet they're not the primary goal at the academy, where the majority of students have no intention of pursuing a professional career in dance. Instead, like Los Altos High School freshman Karina Halevy, most students value the training in its own right.
At 5 feet 10 inches tall, Halevy towers above the rest of the girls in her technique class.
"Pirouettes have always been a challenge," she explained. "Every time I find my balance, I grow and have to learn them again." Rather than finding the process discouraging, Halevy described the constant struggle to teach her body to perform the technique properly as "rewarding."
"Ballet has taught me never to give up," she noted. "I never say, 'I can't.' I always say, 'Just give me a little time to get it.'"
Like the Danish author whose stories combine a certain severity with an undeniable magic, Inna Bayer offers an unusual combination of no-nonsense rigor and true warmth. During rehearsal, she stands at the front of the studio calling out both praise and correction as the girls dance. "Beautiful, Anya -- beautiful, Masha!" she shouts. A moment later, she stops the music to demonstrate what she doesn't want to see. Hopping around awkwardly with her head bent forward and her knees jutting out to the sides, she makes the girls giggle. "This is horsey," she says, smiling widely at them. "Don't give me this. Again." The dancers fall quickly back into position, determined to do better.
This year, after many years in what her mother referred to as "wallpaper roles," Halevy will dance the role of the Snow Queen. Performing on stage is the ultimate reward for so many hours of hard work in the studio, Halevy said.
Taratorin agreed. "When I go on stage, I feel a different kind of happy -- an out of the this world happy -- it's glorious."
What: "The Snow Queen," presented by Bayer Ballet Academy
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.
When: Saturday, Dec. 19 and Sunday, Dec. 20, 1 and 6 p.m.