MODESTO — Sweat dripped down the dancers' faces as they leaped and twirled in an intense rehearsal at a Modesto studio Thursday night.
They were learning a ballet by the legendary choreographer George Balanchine under the tutelage of a former solo dancer from the New York City Ballet.
"Your toes have to be strong in that pointe shoe!" Zippora Karz told the Central West Ballet company members. "Don't slap your feet on the floor."
The session is a major milestone for Central West, a resident company at the Gallo Center for the Arts. The group had to win approval from the Balanchine Trust to perform one of the choreographer's works.
Other companies in that privileged circle include the San Francisco Ballet, Sacramento Ballet, Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Ballet School.
After reviewing a DVD of excerpts of Central West's performances, the trust decided the company could perform only the first movement of the ballet "Serenade." The performances will be Feb. 15-16 at the Gallo Center in downtown Modesto.
Central West Ballet Mistress Leslie Ann Larson said it's not easy to win approval from the trust. "You don't just get it," she said. "The dancers have to be at a certain level to earn the right to do it. It's a real credit to them.They've done the hard work to earn this."
The dancers are in the best shape of their lives right now after years of working on nutrition and fitness, Larson said. The Balanchine Trust evaluates the dancers' bodies when deciding whether to award approval to perform the highly athletic works.
Central West has come a long way since its founding 26 years ago as a youth organization under the name Bravo! Repertory Dance Theatre. Back then, long before Modesto had a performing arts center, the dancers performed at school theaters. All of them were unpaid.
The company now includes women and men in their teens to late 20s. Starting in 2010, the ballet began paying its best dancers. Out of 35 company members, 12 dancers receive some compensation, ranging from about $100 a month to $1,200 a month.
Karz, who performed with the New York City Ballet from 1983 to 1999, is impressed with the skills of Central West dancers. "I thought they're wonderful," she said. "They're absolutely ready for this."
A Los Angeles resident, Karz is one of several former New York City Ballet dancers authorized by the trust to re-stage Balanchine ballets. No one else is allowed to set the works.
While at the New York City Ballet, Karz starred as the Sugar Plum Fairy, danced roles created by "West Side Story" and "Fiddler on the Roof" choreographer Jerome Robbins and traveled the world. She later wrote the memoir "The Sugarless Plum" about her struggles with diabetes.
Paige Brown, one of two lead dancers in "Serenade," said she loves the opportunity to work with Karz. "It's nice having the opportunity to experience all she has to offer," she said. "She has so much background in dance."
Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Balanchine (1904-1983) is an important choreographer because he helped bring up the quality of ballet in the United States.
"He put America on the map as far as classical dance is concerned," said Central West Ballet Artistic Director René Daveluy.
Balanchine created the neoclassical style and taught it to ballet teachers across the country. He also co-founded the New York City Ballet in 1948.
His steps were so wonderful that it seemed as if they were the only ones that could go to the music, said Karz, who met Balanchine just before he died. "With great choreography, your body wants to do exactly that as a dancer."
"Serenade," which features only female dancers, is set to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings in C. It was one of the first pieces Balanchine choreographed to teach his style to American students.
"It's beautiful women dancing to beautiful music," Karz said.
Karz, who now teaches dance in Los Angeles, arrived in Modesto on Wednesday and is working with the dancers through today. She said she has a passion to share Balanchine's techniques with young dancers. She loves helping them practice the details like the tilt of the head or the angle of the hand that make his work so distinctive.
"Balanchine's big thing was to give 100 percent and don't hold back," she said, adding that every performer gets a chance to shine. "As a dancer, to dance his ballets is heaven."
Elease Stice, who is the other lead dancer in "Serenade," said it's good for the Modesto dancers to work with someone outside the company. "When someone new comes in, it puts us on our toes," she said. "We're quiet and we're paying attention."
It's not that they don't listen during their normal rehearsals, Stice said, but there's a heightened awareness when someone new is working with them.
After Central West performs "Serenade," the company will send a DVD to the Balanchine Trust for review. The Modesto company will have to reapply for permission each time to stage other Balanchine works, but this gets a foot in the door.
"Once you have a Balanchine piece in your repertoire, you can get another and another," Daveluy said.
Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan Renner can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2313.