Menlowe Ballet spring show: from classic to 'otherworldly'


Menlowe Ballet continues its tradition of tapping into the star talent of the Bay Area ballet world with the choice of Dennis Nahat as guest choreographer for its April 4-6 production, "Transcendence."

A former principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater and the longtime artistic director of Ballet San Jose, which he founded, Mr. Nahat recently worked with Menlowe Ballet dancers in the company's Menlo Park studio in preparation for the performance of his acclaimed "Pas de Cinq."

The spring production, staged in the Menlo-Atherton Performing Arts Center, will also include the premiere of Menlowe Ballet artistic director and co-founder Michael Lowe's individual work, "Transcendence," and a reprise of his dynamic and well-received "Tribute," which debuted at the company's November show, "Lineage."

In response to sold-out performances last fall, the Menlowe Ballet has added a fourth performance to the spring production, with matinees on Saturday and Sunday in addition to the Friday and Saturday evening shows, said Lisa Shiveley of Atherton, the company's co-founder and executive director.

Mr. Lowe, who during his dancing career was a star performer and choreographer with the Oakland Ballet, has created numerous dances for Menlowe Ballet, including "Double Happiness," "Serei," and "Cirque." But Ms. Shiveley said the company also wants to feature the work of guest choreographers, and "we always wanted to do something with Dennis."

"We courted him," she said. "He was on our dream list -- and it's a great marriage."

Mr. Nahat said he's known Mr. Lowe for years, and was eager to work with the company. "Everything they do is dynamite," he said in a recent interview. "Their work is as good as (that of) any Bay Area company dancing now."

The "Pas de Cinq" to be featured in the April production is from a full-length "Swan Lake" Mr. Nahat created in the late 1980s. The piece "is in lieu of the 'Pas de Trois'" from a traditional version of the ballet, but "is more streamlined in that it reduces the number of princesses dancing," he said. "I always felt there were too many princesses," he added wryly.

The "Pas de Cinq" is a longer piece than the segment it replaces in "Swan Lake." "It's a nice little excerpt that can be performed by itself," he said.

Mr. Nahat was recruited to dance with the Joffrey Ballet while still a teenager studying dance and music at the Juilliard School. He trained with such luminaries as Martha Graham, Jose Limon, Martha Hill, and Anna Sokolow.

He co-founded the School of the Cleveland Ballet in 1972, and the Cleveland Ballet four years later. He was serving as artistic director of that company when he created a joint venture between Cleveland and San Jose. The local company was known as the San Jose Cleveland Ballet, later becoming Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley, and in 2000, Ballet San Jose.

His achievements in the world of choreography include more than 100 works for ballet, opera, Broadway, film, and television. His "Blue Suede Shoes," set to 36 Elvis Presley songs, aired on the PBS television series Dance in America and was nominated for two Emmy awards.

After leaving Ballet San Jose in 2012, he founded the San Jose-based nonprofit Theatre Ventures International School and Productions.

Michael Lowe's choreography has also earned him high and wide praise. Although his thematic range is broad, he is noted for a contemporary form that borrows from classical dance, but is rooted in cultural themes.

The dance "Transcendence," which receives its premiere with this production, is an example. Describing its genesis, Mr. Lowe writes: "In 2001, I traveled alone to China on a research project for a new cultural ballet that I was choreographing for Oakland Ballet. One evening ... some locals took me to visit a Shanghai nightclub.

"The ambiance inside this club was immediately otherworldly, edgy, and mysterious, and made me feel, and somewhat fear, that at any time, anything might happen.

"In 'Transcendence,' I attempt to capture this atmosphere, pairing it with a choreographic idea that's been percolating in my mind for a while. We all hear stories about senseless acts committed when human emotions overcome judgment, empathy and humanity. Here, I explore this tragic human weakness and its consequences, contrasting it with that which calls upon us to transcend our human failings and limitations."

If you go

"Transcendence," the spring production of Menlowe Ballet, will be performed Friday through Sunday, April 4-6, in the Menlo-Atherton Performing Arts Center at Menlo-Atherton High School, 555 Middlefield Road in Atherton. Tickets are $28-$48, and may be purchased at menloweballet.org or by calling 800-595-4849.

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