Guests from afar dance in 'Don Quixote'

Like any dance performance, Festival Ballet Theatre's production of "Don Quixote" puts its cast through many tempo changes. Its two leads, though, may be operating on a particularly difficult time scale when they join rehearsals Thursday.

Which is to say, they may still be on China time.

The Fountain Valley-based dance company has enlisted Cory Stearns and Hee Seo, a pair of principal dancers with American Ballet Theatre, to join its regular troupe Saturday and Sunday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre. Wednesday, Stearns and Seo were scheduled to fly in from New York — en route from the other side of the world, where they've been performing on tour.

Festival Ballet has a hectic half-week ahead, with dress rehearsals and a meet-and-greet Thursday with Fountain Valley Mayor Pro Tem Michael Vo. But the stars will get to overcome jet lag first — for 24 hours or so, anyway.

"We're giving them a recovery day," communications director Connie Jankowski said.

Festival Ballet, which started in 1988 as the resident professional company of Southland Ballet Academy, has sent alumni to American Ballet Theatre, Scottish Ballet, San Francisco Ballet and other world-renowned groups. The exchange works the other way, too: For each of its productions, the Fountain Valley company brings in guest artists to play central roles.

When the company put on "The Nutcracker" in December, it featured more than half a dozen guests, including several trained in Russia. The shows this weekend in Irvine will include Stearns and Seo as "Don Quixote's" love interests — the barber Basilio and the innkeeper's daughter Kitri, who is betrothed to another man.

As far as Jankowski is concerned, though, Stearns and Seo won't be the only big names in the show; Dance Magazine spotlighted Southland Ballet Academy last year in a special issue on how to run a successful dance studio, and Pointe Magazine listed it the year before as one of the country's top local studios.

"The stars know when they come to dance with us, they're going to be in a high-quality performance that they're going to be proud of," she said.

Much of the Fountain Valley cast has experience, to say the least. A.J. Abrams, who plays the toreador Espada, has studied at Southland Ballet Academy for nearly 20 years; Roma Daravi, who plays the street dancer Mercedes, began working under artistic director Salwa Rizkalla at age 3.

Both are veterans of "Don Quixote," having appeared in the company's last production in 2010. During rehearsal Tuesday, Daravi said having guest stars in the cast raised the bar, but was quick to note that ballet is always about striving to improve.

"It's a challenging art form because you have to do all these complicated things and make it look so simple while trying to convey a story to the audience and still make it entertaining and really perfect everything," the Edison High School graduate said. "It's really something you can keep striving toward. You never quite like [say], 'Oh, I'm good enough.' You always keep working."

Abrams, a Huntington Beach High School alumnus, seconded that.

"The minute you think you're good enough, you just hang up your shoes," he said. "Know what I mean? There's no point. You've just always got to be a sponge and soak it up at all times."

Twitter: @MichaelMillerHB

If You Go

What: "Don Quixote"

Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Cost: $40 for adults, $36 for seniors, $30 for children

Information: (714) 962-5440 or

At 6:30 p.m. Saturday, ballet historian Donald Bradburn will give a lecture on the Spanish Golden Age and the history of "Don Quixote." At 1 p.m. Sunday, the Barclay will host a craft hour in which children can decorate hand fans. Both events are free with ballet admission.

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