Lights, Camera, Grand Jeté! Team films a ballet documentary in San Diego
By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt
“Ineffable” is a word for things that are too great, extreme or beautiful to be expressed in words. But film is another story.
Producer/directors Joani Livingston and Renée McKay believe in stories that touch people’s hearts and raise their awareness. The Georgia-based, Emmy award-winning team recently spent several days in San Diego, shooting footage for their latest undertaking, “Ineffable.” A documentary about the struggle to keep the arts alive in this country, it spotlights three different ballet companies, one of which is San Diego Ballet.
Why did they choose, in a film about the arts, to focus on ballet?
“Because it’s a performance art, where music, dance, theater and visual art intersect,” Livingston explained. “And performance art is ephemeral. We watch for an hour or so, then poof! It’s gone. Ballet personifies beauty, wonder, strength and a whole gamut of emotions — basically, who we are as human beings. It’s transcendent; watching a ballerina leap into a grand jeté takes your breath away. And the only way art like this, demanding constant practice and great dedication, will not be lost is by passing it on from generation to generation.”
“Ineffable” examines valiant efforts to train future generations of ballet students, practitioners, and audiences in a small town (West Palm Beach, Fla.), a big city (New York) and our own mid-sized San Diego.
During their stay here, at the Hotel La Jolla, Livingston and McKay were joined by writer/co-producer Sarah-Jane Murray, who lives part-time in Rancho Santa Fe. The three filmed and interviewed two of the principal dancers with San Diego Ballet, Maxim Tchernychev and Stephanie Maiorano.
Tchernychev was born and trained in Russia, which was important to the film’s storyline, since ballet first came to this country with the Ballets Russes. And the company’s founding director, Robin Morgan, danced with New York City Ballet under George Balanchine, the Russian-born choreographer who is considered the father of American ballet.
“We were impressed with the company’s focus on technique and innovation,” Murray said. “And we were very interested in how Max came and started a new life and career here, and how Stephanie deals with the difficulty of pursuing her passion in a time when everyone is cutting back.”
It’s tough to survive as a dancer, especially when the performance season is only six months long. Balletmaster Tchernychev teaches at the company’s ballet school, and coaches dancers for the world’s largest student ballet competition, Youth America Grand Prix.
Maiorano, in the off-season, does secretarial work for a law firm.
“We try to tell stories that promote positive change,” McKay said. “As independent producers of content for PBS-TV, we reach millions of eyes and ears, and we don’t take our responsibility lightly.”
With “Ineffable,” they hope to show that, through dedication, even in a world obsessed with bottom lines, beauty can triumph. And if one day it does not, something profoundly human will be lost.
Livingston and McKay’s most recent documentary, “Primary Concern,” about the critical shortage of primary care physicians, is now airing on PBS. That film took 2½ years to complete. “Ineffable,” which started shooting in March, should be ready for viewing in 2015. “We think it will be our best film yet,” Livingston said.
The “Ineffable” Maxim Tchernychev and Stephanie Maiorano will appear as the Cavalier and the Sugar Plum Fairy in San Diego’s Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker” at UCSD Mandeville Auditorium in La Jolla, Dec. 20-22.
— For tickets and information: (619) 294-7311, sandiegoballetdancecompany.org/
Brief History of Ballet
• French became the language of ballet, as the form spread across Europe and into Russia, which established its Imperial Ballet in the mid-18th century. • The collaboration between choreographer Marius Petipa and composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky produced late-19th-century classics like “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty.”
• After the Russian Revolution, when many artists fled to France, impresario Sergei Diaghilev started his Ballets Russes in Paris with a company of Russian émigrés. His association with composer Igor Stravinski and dancer/choreographer Vaclav Nijinsky produced daring works like “The Rite of Spring,” which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2013.
• In the mid-20th century, another Russian émigré, George Balanchine, became founding director of the New York City Ballet and its ballet school. He choreographed some 400 diverse pieces, transforming American ballet.
• Today, there are about 100 ballet companies in the U.S., including three in San Diego.
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