For more than 15 years, ballet instructor Lois Ellyn has been showcasing her students in annual performances, first at the Fullerton College Campus Theater and more recently at Anaheim’s Pearson Park Theater.
Last October she decided to go a little further.
The soft-spoken ballerina, who has been a soloist with George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, began auditions for a new company, the Nouveau Chamber Ballet, which makes its debut tonight at the Curtis Theater in Brea.
The 16 dancers, from 16 to their early 30s, are either former or current students. Ellyn said she hopes to draw more outsiders and professionals as the group becomes better known.
Her underlying goals are still what they have always been: to allow a creative vent for herself as a choreographer and to let her students practice on stage. The big difference between Nouveau Chamber Ballet and her previous student productions is that she’s no longer modifying technically demanding segments.
“So many of the local companies always have a ‘Nutcracker’ and a ‘Swan Lake’. . . . I want to do more original, creative things, where everybody has a chance to grow,” she said. “To perform is the best lesson you can ever have.
“I don’t think we’ll break even” this weekend, she continued. But, she added, “If I lose $1,000, I won’t be too unhappy.” Her school has spent about $4,000 on costumes and sets. “I keep thinking of more things I need.”
The idea for Nouveau Chamber has been simmering in Ellyn’s mind for the past four years while she was teaching at her studio in Fullerton. The biggest stumbling block was her apprehension about carrying off modern pieces. “I’ve always had ideas,” she said, “but never the confidence,” largely because her own experience has been so heavily classical.
Finally, she just decided to take the plunge. “If I had kept thinking ‘do I know enough about that?’ I wouldn’t have done it,” she said. “Sometimes you have to let your intuition guide you and let your background back that up.
“It seems to come have come off OK,” she said. The debut program will include “La Revue de Cuisine” (to music by Bohuslav Martinu). The dance is a light drama-romance that takes place among kitchen utensils. She has added a tango (after making a pilgrimage to a library for a book on basic tango steps) and a Charleston.
She also choreographed another whimsical piece, “Picasso,” to music by Erik Satie. Set in a museum, the work sets out to convey a mood inspired by a Picasso painting of nine stick figures cavorting under a huge sun. The painting is re-created as a backdrop for the dance.
Ellyn, who was born in Anaheim, studied sporadically for six years with ballerina Mia Slavenska and was coached for two years by Bronislava Nijinska, sister of the famed Russian danseur Vaslav Nijinsky. Ellyn was one of four dancers Nijinska picked from her Los Angeles school in the late 1950s for a two-year stint with the Grand Ballet de Marquis de Cuevas, for which Nijinska served as ballet mistress. Sandwiched in between were two seasons with the New York City Ballet under Balanchine.
A more local mentor is Stefan Wenta, a former lead dancer in the Warsaw Opera-Ballet who in the early 1970s was artistic director of the Los Angeles Ballet. Ellyn had returned to California “because this is my home and I was tired of touring,” and after studying with Wenta she became a principal in his Wenta Ballet. There, in 1971, she performed in Wenta’s “Vocalise,” choreographed to Rachmaninoff’s famous score. A dramatic piece about the attachment among three sisters, it will be on the Nouveau Chamber program this weekend.
Wenta has been directly involved in the production. He said he was “very much amazed at her sensitivity for style and honest approach to steps” and came forward to lend Ellyn a hand as artistic consultant. He praised her work as having “a lot of intricacy worked in” and for seldom use of empty “filling steps.” Wenta, who continues to teach at his studio in Los Angeles, has been conducting master classes at Ellyn’s studio for the past two years.
The fourth piece on the weekend’s program, “Air de Danse,” to music by Donizetti, was choreographed by Judy Britten, a teacher at Ellyn’s school for about 10 years.
The Nouveau Chamber Ballet of Fullerton will give its debut performances tonight and Jan. 9 at 8 p.m. at the Curtis Theatre, One Civic Center Circle, Brea. Tickets: $8 to $10. Information: (714) 990-7722.