Western Ballet turns the big 4-0

'Red Riding Hood' performances and gala mark dance company's anniversary

There was a palpable energy in Western Ballet's Mountain View studio recently as dancers stretched at the barre, marked their steps and practiced pirouettes. Amid the traditional black leotards and pink tights, some dancers were in costume while others carried props -- a wolf mask, wooden rifles and baskets brimming with flowers. Rehearsal was about to begin for the longstanding dance company's spring production of "Red Riding Hood."

In a few moments, Artistic Director Alexi Zubiria would assume his position at the front of the studio, where he gives dancers feedback as they rehearse numbers, but in the moments before it all began, Zubiria discussed the upcoming events on the horizon: "Red Riding Hood" and the 40th anniversary gala.

In his ninth year as artistic director of Western Ballet, Zubiria described the company as a performing and education institution for everyone. Western Ballet offers classes for students from a wide range of both dance levels and ages. This diversity was reflected in the rehearsal, where a group of 30 children and adults waited their turn to take the stage.

"(Western Ballet) is a sanctuary for many. Professionals meet here -- most of these people are Silicon Valley's best," he said.

Western Ballet, founded in 1976, is a nonprofit institution offering the general public access to classical ballet training, including granting scholarships to underprivileged kids. It's a school where there is a high level of commitment and expectation, Zubiria said. Open 365 days a year, Zubiria takes pride in the fact that Western Ballet offers classes to around 1,200 adults, in addition to its children-and-youth program.

Western Ballet is also an innovative place: The spring production of "Red Riding Hood" is a world premiere, which Zubiria has created from the ground up. Zubiria said that though it is uncommon to see the well-known fairytale as a full-length ballet, he has incorporated other wolf folk tales, such as the stories of the three little pigs and the boy who cried wolf.

Zubiria has also turned the story of "Red Riding Hood" into a comedy. He said he is anticipating a lot of laughter from the audience and emphasized that it is appropriate for children and has no tragic endings.

Sophia Palant, 15, is a dancer in Western Ballet's trainee program (for teens who are preparing for a professional dance career). She is playing the role of a gypsy and one of the three little pigs. She spoke of her experience participating in the spring production.

"Seeing how passionate everyone else is really motivates me. It motivates me to try hard and to dance my heart out onstage," she said.

This same weekend, Western Ballet will celebrate its 40th Anniversary by hosting a gala with performances from its students and professionals. There will be guest speakers and the mayor of Mountain View will be presenting Western Ballet with a special proclamation. Performances will include pieces from dancer and choreographer Vicente Nebrada's "Nuestros Valses" ("Our Waltzes") and Zubiria's own "Danzon!"

Palant said she is particularly looking forward to dancing with professional dancers from San Jose, adding that the pieces performed in the 40th anniversary gala are more mature than those in "Red Riding Hood."

"They really show what we can do as a professional company," she said.

What: Western Ballet's "Red Riding Hood" and 40th Anniversary gala

Where: Menlo-Atherton Center for Performing Arts, 555 Middlefield Road, Atherton

When: "Red Riding Hood" will be performed Saturday and Sunday, April 23 and 24, at 1 p.m. The 40th Anniversary gala will be held Saturday, April 23, at 7 p.m.

Cost: Tickets for "Red Riding Hood" cost $25/adult, $20/students and children (18 and under). For the 40th Anniversary Gala tickets cost $35-45/adult, $20/students and children (18 and under); student/children tickets only available at Western Ballet's studio.

Info: Go to Western Ballet or call 650-968-4455.

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