By Dana Abbott
IN HER PROGRAM NOTES, Janette Harkness, director of the Monterey County Dance Theatre, recounts that in July 2017 Steve Ettinger, a music professor at Hartnell College, said he would like to compose a ballet score working with Harkness to develop and choreograph the Hans Christian Andersen tale.
A considerable undertaking for all involved, including a large group of local sponsors and contributors, came to fruition with three performances at the Stanton Theater in King City, attended by large audiences. The student company of the Monterey County Dance Theatre was the talent pool from which many performers were taken with local character actors drawn for some of the mature acting parts. The average age of the student company was nine and a half years.
This reviewer saw the April 14 performance. The sheer spectacle of the ballet was impressive with considerable professional polish even in numbers where most performers were children. Lighting was refined; costumes were colorfully effective.
The early “Dance of the Slaves” (student dancers) established high expectations delivering finely laid out choreography and precision of execution aplenty. Another stand out was the “Dance of 1,000 Hands,” which pleased the audience highly.
The Stanton Theater on the King City High School campus is a 1930s art deco concrete structure. It lent a solid foundation to the proceedings.
The story involves a Nightingale who becomes a favorite of the aged Emperor. Various intrigues develop including caging the Nightingale and the construction of a mechanical replacement by the dismayed, jealous court Music Master. The mechanical replica collapses and the Emperor is stricken. But though the Nightingale has escaped, she returns and the Emperor is restored and the ballet closes with a brief celebration dance.
As the title character, Ashley Madrid (pictured) is 12 years old and a 6th grader at Chalone Peaks Middle School in King City. As Harkness explains, “Ashley began dancing with Monterey County Dance Theatre at age three and a half years. She is an exceptionally gifted young dancer.” Her future prospects look very bright. “Last summer Ashley was accepted to train at American Ballet Theatre Summer Intensive in Alabama for three weeks. This year she won acceptance to the Bolshoi Ballet United States training school for six weeks in Connecticut.” (Monterey County Dance Theatre uses a Vaganova/Russian based curriculum.)
The staging of the ballet was excellent. A chamber Monterey County Pops orchestra under Carl Christensen handled Ettinger’s fine score with skill. Highlights were the flute passages for the Nightingale’s numerous dances, all ably executed by Ashley. There was an interesting string bass and bassoon duet accompanying the “Music Master’s Dance” where the composer strove for a pedantic atmosphere, yet also comic, the bassoon suggesting the buffoon. The “Dance of the Demons” presented the full potential of the orchestra.
At a small group meeting I was able to hear composer Ettinger discuss some of the challenges of working with students and their ability to sustain the concentrated effort required. I hope Ettinger will find an opportunity to create a concert suite from the ballet score. If one noticed a lack of a big closing number, it mattered little. The afternoon was a surprising joy, thanks to South County dancers and their director, a capable King City composer and the entire production team.