Inside the brilliantly choreographed world of Robert Kelley and Santa Cruz Ballet Theatre
Radon is a chemically inert radioactive gaseous element produced by the decay of radium. Log on to radon.com and you will discover that the "action level" for deciding when you need to "do something" about the radon in, say, your home, school, or work place is 4 pCi/l. Let’s break that down: pCi/l= picocuries per liter, is the most popular method of reporting radon levels. For number queens, a picoCurie is 0.000,000,000,001—one-trillionth—of a Curie. A Curie is an international measurement unit of radioactivity.
Radon has nothing to do with dance, the topic I am supposed to write about after I interview Robert Kelley, who has everything to do with dance, specifically ballet. Radon is, however, the thing that fascinates Kelley at the moment, and the very thing he speaks of, as he winds his SUV along Old San Jose Road’s scenic thoroughfare on the way to the stables that house Zugia, his 16-year-old pregnant horse. Radon is also the very thing that keeps me captivated on my subject.
Kelley’s curiosity of the two-syllabled element began the evening prior to our meeting. The night was significant mainly because Kelley enjoyed a rare evening out.
“It was the sixth time I went out in six years,” the ever-busy Kelley admits. “Really.”
He’d been perched on a wooden chair in 99 Bottles in Santa Cruz. There, he and several friends began surfing Trivia Night’s addictive waters.
When the League of Women Voters was established on Feb. 14, 1920 in Chicago, who was its first President?
A ferrier puts shoes on what?
What is the radioactive gaseous element produced by the decay of radium?
Radon, then, becomes the first thing Kelley speaks about when the interview officially begins—the “icebreaker.” Not that anything really needs thawing. Kelley is more “let’s get going” than “big chill,” engaging if not purposely present; such an instigator of curiosity that I find myself making a note: learn more about radon. This, I soon discover, is what Kelley does well—charm, lure, intrigue. The co-artistic director of Santa Cruz Ballet Theatre, and the co-owner of The Studio, School of Classical Ballet, also does much more, which his sudden burst of interest in all that’s trivia indicates. Kelley is a man who tosses himself fully into the mix of whatever is happening at the moment; he is somebody who dives into the ingredients that become the frosting on the cake about to be served. And the servings are huge, often monumental.
I know none of this, now, of course, as Kelley pulls into Quail Ridge Farms where Zugia lives. During the next hour, I will stroll around and take notes: Kelley disappears into the stables and later marches out of the stables clad in beige riding slacks, black sweater and a black hat; Kelley grooms the long slope of Zugia’s back; Kelley rubs the horse’s bloated belly; Kelley mounts the gorgeous chocolate brown animal and rides her across a small dirt field, the January sun streaming down on man and beast.
Two dogs—a golden retriever and a lab—find comfort in my hand and a saliva’d tennis ball. A dozen roosters and hens flutter around me. Occasionally, Robert and Zugia stop nearby. I look up at them.
What do you love most about riding horses, I ask him.
“The solitude of it,” Kelley says. “And the partnership between the horse and me.”
And dance? What do you love most about that?
“The physicality—without a doubt. And I love the constant improvement of the company.”
He is, of course, referring to the ballet theatre and the ballet school, both of which he runs with Diane Cypher in Soquel. The theatre and the school are anomalies in a way. At first glance it’s all mom-and-pop—seemingly small town, good people, hard work. Further digging reveals that SCBT and the ballet school have become internationally recognized and extremely revered; a place that apparently gives birth to stellar ballet dancers who themselves go on to perform in nationally and internationally recognized companies. In addition, SCBT is on the A-List of Regional Dance America (RDA). (Think People magazine’s 25 Most Intriguing People of the Year by way of dance.) The ballet school boasts 35 classes a week, teaches 250 students, mostly young girls and boys. SBCT’s yearly staging of “The Nutcracker” continually packs houses. Some of Kelley’s choreography appears in the repertoires of several ballet companies around the country—his “Cinderella” and “Beauty and the Beast” stand out. He also sits on the National Board of RDA and this county’s Salz Tannery Arts Community Project. Cypher’s technical detail is unmatchable. The students are jazzed; their parents proud. Six years ago, before Kelley and Cypher were hired by the theatre’s board of directors to be artistic directors, SBCT’s annual budget was $33,000. This year, it’s nearly a quarter of a million dollars.
Trivia Question: What man breaks a sweat trying to create unforgettable ballet locally? The answer: Robert Kelley.
Of Men and Mules
Mule Day is celebrated on the second Saturday in August in Muleshoe, Texas. On this day, the typically low-key town hosts mule rodeos, mule races and other mule activities. Muleshoe is the home of Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge. Founded in 1935, it is the oldest national wildlife refuge in Texas, a place where you can find migratory waterfowl and native wildlife. Best of all, perhaps, is the little-known fact that Muleshoe boasts the National Mule Memorial, a place where one of the animal kingdom’s hardest working members gets its just rewards. (The trivia world might house such important forgotten facts: mules pulled the covered wagons west, plowed the first sod for pioneers, hauled freight, built the first railroads and highways.) Noting the dwindling mule population over the years, a group of determined Texans erected a memorial to these unsung beasts. Muleshoe’s population is 4,551. Altitude: 3,889 feet above sea level. The only trivial fact about Muleshoe is that Robert Kelley refers to it as the place his “family is from,” a place he admittedly, and jokingly, calls “the most God-forsaken place I can possibly imagine.”
“What people do for entertainment there … ” Kelley says, “is dare people to run across the street barefoot because the pavement is so excruciatingly hot in summer.”
Kelley’s body sinks into the maroon sofa in my office as he tells me this, his eyes rolling. He laughs off the memory and informs me that he spent his high school years growing up near Ventura, in a place called Springville. I wonder if Springville was better than Muleshoe, and, more importantly, if Kelley enjoyed living there.
“No,” he responds quickly. “It was horrible. The sign read 750 people and every once in a while it would read 749 when somebody got out.”
He chuckles. I take notes.
When he was a kid, he wanted to be a jockey. He was short, small for his years, until he sprouted around the age of 16. Admittedly, he had no idea what ballet was, never took a class and had no clue what he was going to do.
“I had no aspirations. The aspiration was to get out of Springville come hell or high water.”
The emotional dam broke when Kelley was 18. During that year, he found ballet, or rather, ballet found him.
“I thought it was stupid,” Kelley says. “I was dating a girl at the time and she was in the Washington Ballet, and one time she said something like, ‘Oh, I’ve been on my toes all day,’ and I said, ‘Oh, it must be really hard running around on your toes all day,’ and after a few choice words, she said, ‘I bet you couldn’t make it through one class!’ So she dared me. She bet me 50 bucks that I wouldn’t go to a class. So, on a 50 buck bet, I went. I took a class and I thought, you know, ‘This is really stupid. I am going to get 50 bucks!’ And then there was this step that I couldn’t get and I absolutely could not make it make sense logically. I went home and my girlfriend said, ‘How was it?’ And I said, ‘It was pretty stupid.’ But I told her about the step and that I was going to go back the next week and try to figure it out.”The step was pasdebourree, which can come in many different forms, but basically, it’s all “right foot back, step underneath yourself, back side front, front side back.”
After that, he never stopped. At 18, an age when it is virtually unheard of for a dancer to begin ballet, let alone somebody who never stepped foot into a dance class, Kelley auditioned for the Washington Ballet School. He fudged his age because when he told somebody how old he was, their frightening stare convinced him that there’s a certain stigma in the dance world: younger is better; always think dog years. On paper, Kelley dropped a couple years off his age, then another during another term. It worked. Another plus? He was flexible, mostly because he rode horses most of his life.
“My body, really, just fell into the world of ballet,” he says. “I went a long way on that flexibility; being that sort of oddity.”
And an oddity he would remain. Kelley went on to receive formal dance training at the School of American Ballet, San Francisco Ballet School and with Alonzo King, the revered director of Line Contemporary Dance Company.
Along came the gigs: Charleston Ballet Theatre, Fort Wayne Ballet and Sacramento Ballet, where he met Cypher in 1983. Well-known choreographers, including Ron Cunningham (“Etosha” “Carmina Burana”) often choreographed works specifically with him in mind.
“I never really thought about it,” Kelley says of his seemingly sudden emergence into the ballet world. “If I had thought about it, I would have turned around. I just put 100 percent of my focus on ballet. When I danced, it was this total, unleashed passion that was so surprising to me. I had no idea it was there. Also, at that point (age 18), I had a lot of catching up to do; I had to figure out all those steps. My singular focus was to master all these steps. Once I figured it all out, I thought I was going to quit.”
Kelley’s head shakes upon delivery of that comment. As if all the steps could be learned. But it mirrors other moments I’ve experienced with Kelley.
Radon, radon, everything about radon.
Becomes the frosting on the cake about to be served …
“… the partnership between the horse and me.”
If The (Ballet) Shoe Fits
In the ballet world, there are five basic positions of the feet. First position finds the feet in line with heels together. Second position finds the feet in line, heels apart, separated by the length of one's foot. In third position, the feet are touching, one foot in front of the other and overlapping by about half the length of the foot. Fourth position showcases the feet apart, separated about the length of a foot, one foot in front of the other. In fifth position, the feet are touching, one foot in front, heel to toe and toe to heel. In what’s known as the “Cecchetti fifth,” the feet do not overlap completely, but in a “Russian fifth,” they do.
Sparky’s feet are in fifth position during a recent rehearsal of the SCBT’s upcoming February concert at Cabrillo College Theatre. Kelley’s and Cypher’s hawk eyes are on the 15-year-old ballet dancer’s shoes.
“What are those?” Robert points. “Are those bows on the top of your shoes?”
There are 15 other girls in the room. Everybody giggles. Sparky leans over, fidgets with the shoestrings on her ballet slippers and quickly conceals them underneath the shoe’s lining. Bows, it seems, are not allowed.
Everybody smiles. The rehearsal continues.
This particular group of girls is rehearsing “Swan Lake, Act II” under Cypher’s watchful eye. Tchaikovsky’s searing music flows out of the corner speakers, and then … one, two, three, four, five, six … the girls, dance.
Arms raise, legs stretch, toes point. They breeze—no—flow, lightly, like warm August air off the ocean, graceful in their journey, focused on their arrival.
“It takes amazing dedication to be a dancer,” Kelley tells me later. “The company dancers of SCBT are in that building 30 hours a week. It’s a job. You have to be driven by the passion of becoming a ballet dancer.”
Kelley first landed at SCBT in 1989 on a part-time basis guest choreographing and guest teaching. Eventually, he became the resident choreographer, then executive director. During this time, he’d worked closely with Jean Dunphy, who’d launched the ballet school in 1976 and saw the nonprofit theatre birth of SCBT in 1982. Six years ago, Dunphy wanted to retire and presented Kelley with the option to buy the ballet school. Intrigued, Kelley immediately thought of Cypher.
“I didn’t really want to do it by myself and Diane and I had worked together for a number of years, so I called her. I said, ‘Hey, do you want to buy a ballet school?’ And she said, ‘You’re crazy!’ And hung up. The next day I called her and said, ‘Hey do you want to buy a ballet school?’”
After some coaxing, Cypher joined business hands with Kelley. They bought the school and also came on board as artistic directors of SCBT. Their impact was immediately felt. Every other year the theatre presents a classical ballet and years in between they do a mixed repertoire. Its 2003-04 season began a stellar run with the premiere of last December’s ever-popular “The Nutcracker,” featuring Santa Cruz Ballet Theatre’s live orchestra headlined by local symphony pioneer John Larry Granger. Later this month SBCT’s unraveling of Coast Commercial Bank’s Spring Repertoire series features an impressive collection of works. There’s the poignant if not breathtaking sweep of “Swan Lake, Act II” where Tchaikovsky’s score amazes the senses. The West Coast premiere of “Sans Souci” by choreography titan Alan Hineline shows off the country’s premier choreographers’ work of “Romantic Neoclassicism.” It’s also important to note that Hineline grabbed the Choo San Goh Award for this, which, in pop culture speak, would be the equivalent to Sean Penn taking home the Oscar. Natalie Thomas, a former SCBT company member, delivers her world premier of “Point of Exposure,” a moving modern ballet feast. Kelley’s own contemporary work, dubbed “Pivot,” returns. It draws from Jerome Begin’s randy, rhythmic score and offers some dynamite athletic bravura.
The February concert is a nice move for a company that primarily unleashes significant work during the holiday season. Another plus is that it will be presented at Cabrillo Stage. The show illustrates, too, the gutsy determination this nonprofit ballet company actually has to keep its slipper-laiden toes on the hardwood floor of the slippery business world.
Ever since its inception in 1982, the company has relied heavily on the generous donations of community members, corporations, grants and other local, significant entities, Ow Family Properties, Coast Commercial Bank and Community Foundation of Santa Cruz, Cultural Council of Santa Cruz, Hutton and Sheer Marketing, Advertising and Design among them. After Kelley and Cypher came on board, they soon found the $33,000-a-year budget ballooning—new ideas spawned rising production costs and there were higher pricetags to nab significant works and guest talents. In addition, there were bold moves like taking its standard “Nutcracker” from Cabrillo Stage and inserting it into the expansive Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium in downtown Santa Cruz in 2002. That alone sent prices through the roof. There were costs of the union orchestra ($35,000) and the Civic union crew ($15,000). But the funds arrived, even through it hasn’t always easy been easy to obtain them. Even this year, with the budget at $247,000, Kelley says that he is continuously looking for funding sources. On the plus side: “People in the community really value Santa Cruz Ballet Theater.” Bottom line: somehow, it all works out.
“It’s major,” says SCBT board member Genevieve Daly, who, along with other board members assists in structuring how the ballet theatre operates. “[Finding] funding is a huge amount of work … but Robert and Diane are a great team and well balanced.”
Draw a line under Kelley and Company, add it all up and the total sum seems to look like “steely resolve meets unbeatable creativity.”
“We’re training professional aspiring dancers,” Cypher will later report. “The fact that they are still being educated and are still minors; still children ... I think there is a certain amount of responsibility in that and what we teach them because there’s a lot more to it than the technique of ballet. Ballet sort of imposes that you teach them good manners. It’s a very odd art form.”
The Turning Point
The pregnancy cycle for horses is just shy of one year. A horse can typically live 25 years. Kelley’s horse, Zugia, weighs 1,200 pounds. She eats five pounds of alfalfa for dinner and three pounds of grain. For breakfast, it’s two flakes of hay. It takes a half hour to groom Zugia. At night, she wears a blanket to stay warm. Horses can sleep laying down or standing up.
“Horses,” Kelley says, “have good ‘honesty instinct.’ If you are 100 percent honest with them, they will trust you.”
It’s a profoundly fitting statement. Delivered another way: Zugia is to Kelley what Kelley is the SCBT dancers.
“He’s really fun, humorous,” Sparky had said of Kelley. “But with Robert, we also know to be serious … we work hard.”
“Robert is a brilliant choreographer,” Cypher says. “The kinds of movements he comes up with are outstanding and he quite often approaches a new work very open minded. He really depends a lot on what the dancers put into it— [he] lets them shine more than many choreographers. He’ll take their artistic input. He’ll give them a step and if they do it slightly different and if he likes it, he’ll put it in. He lets a lot of the piece shape itself depending on which dancers we are using and what their special attributes are. I think that’s really exciting. That’s what makes his work really exciting. It brings things out of the dancers you wouldn’t normally see.”
Discipline is one of those things.
“He can be incredibly hard on dancers and demand so much of them but he makes them want to do it because he is so charismatic about it,” Cypher adds. “He’s not demanding like a general, he’s demanding because not many people can do what he does—get people excited about it based on the way he presents it.”
Kelley just sees what he’s doing at SCBT as part of a creative process.
“It is as much their product as it is my product and I really want the company dancers to play an integral role in putting the dances together,” he says. “Their ideas are really important.”
All this is fine and dandy, certainly good enough to file away, send to the printer and, hopefully, savor as a story. But to end the tale here, would come short of serving all that is Kelley, all that is SCBT and the ballet school he owns with Cypher. Why? Because, like most ballets, the unknown lurks around the next arabesque or pirouette. What is dance if not a totally unpredictable visual morsel to digest freely and with complete abandon? Is there, then, any trivia left on Mr. Kelley?
He has a white standard poodle named Parker.
His hair is, technically, graying, with distinguished traces of brunette.
He really has only been “out” six times in six years and only answered one question correctly on trivia night. (It had to do with horses.)
He does have a life credo, which he lives by: “Trust your instinct and don’t ever be afraid to ask.”
And with that, it’s time to ride this dancing horse home.
Learn more at Santa Cruz Ballet Theatre.
written by GravesBenita24, August 13, 2010
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