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Sonoma dancers perform in world premiere of new Mexican ballet

LIGHT & MOON

Sonoma Conservatory of Dance presents “Por La Luz De La Luna” at 1 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, April 9 and 10, at the Sebastiani Theater, 476 First St. E. Tickets are $12-$22, available by calling 707-938-1424 or by visiting the website at SonomaDance.Studio.com

Staging an original ballet is always a risky artistic gamble. Audiences are both hungry for new experiences, and wary of them.

Still, once Patricia O’Reilly, of the Sonoma Conservatory of Dance, began to envision a new ballet based on the folktales of Mexico, she could not let go of the idea.

Certainly a folk ballet could find an audience in Sonoma.

“For several years now, we’ve wanted to do it - a ballet based on Mexican mythology,” says O’Reilly. “We knew we’d probably need to create it ourselves, so we started looking for the right kind of family-friendly story or children’s fairytale from Mexico. We found some really good ones, but they were a little on the scary side, so we just kept looking.”

Acclaimed dancer and choreographer Isabelle Sjahsam, selected as the lead choreographer and developer of the piece, began reaching out to a number of dancers and artists throughout the Bay Area. Eventually, she was put in touch with Oakland-based writer and educator Aida Salazar, who’d written a story titled “Por La Luz De La Luna.” Translated into English, it means “By the Light of the Moon.”

Salazar’s short, lyrical story has now been adapted, by the author, into a significantly longer piece, and with the additional contributions of a dozen designers and 35 dancers, “Por La Luz De La Luna” will have its world premiere as a ballet this weekend at the Sebastiani Theater.

The ballet was conceived as a highly visual three-act tale. Beginning in the 1920s, it tells the story of Jovita (to be danced by Siobahn O’Reilly), who is known as Mexico’s “Joan of Arc” for fighting for religious freedom in the early part of the 20th century. The second act takes place in the 1970s, following a married couple who emigrate to California. The fanciful third act conjures gods of the ancient Aztec world, dancing an epic battle between the sun and the moon.

To carry out the ambitious project, enormous set pieces have been built, and countless elaborate costumes have been found, borrowed, or sewn from scratch.

“I actually have no idea how many costumes are in the show,” laughs studio and production manager Giselle Lara, as she busily sorts and hangs dozens of elaborately detailed outfits. “But there are a lot of them.”

Says Lara: “I’m dancing in the ballet, and I know I have three costume changes all by myself, and there are 35 performers in the show. So, um, doing the math, I’d have to say there will be quite a few costumes.”

In addition to her other contributions to the complex three-act ballet, Lara has also choreographed a major wedding waltz in the second act.

“Everyone does at least two jobs here,” says O’Reilly. Serving as the artistic director and choreographer of SCD since February of 2005, O’Reilly is taking a break from her own multi-hyphenated activities to sip a chai latte and explain how she was inspired to develop an original ballet out of classic and original Mexican myths and music.

“It’s such a rich culture,” she says. “There have been a number of classical composers from Mexico, but very few ballets like the one we imagined.”

According to the one-time Fairfield resident, she has long been committed to expanding diversity within the company, and throughout the art form of dance in the Sonoma Valley area.

LIGHT & MOON

Sonoma Conservatory of Dance presents “Por La Luz De La Luna” at 1 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, April 9 and 10, at the Sebastiani Theater, 476 First St. E. Tickets are $12-$22, available by calling 707-938-1424 or by visiting the website at SonomaDance.Studio.com

It’s a passion, O’Reilly says, that comes from growing up on and around military bases for the first 25 years of her life.

“Having grown up in a multi-cultural environment,” she says, “the idea of diversity is very near and dear to me.”

Taking risks is nothing new to the Sonoma Conservatory of Dance, or to O’Reilly and her passionate troupe of artists. The Sonoma Conservatory of Dance produces two full ballets each year, and a summertime workshop performance that O’Reilly describes as “a high-class dance recital.”

Every December, instead of joining the predictable national winter-time worship of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker,” SCD has elected to present an alternative seasonal ballet, including the popular “Snow Maiden.” SCD’s commitment to original ballets will continue, O’Reilly says. A number of projects are in the works, including one set in the ancient Middle East. With dancer-choreographer Brooke Byrne, the company is developing a ballet called “The Magic Grove,” inspired by Persian folktales of birds and magic.

But first, O’Reilly points out, there is “By the Light of the Moon” to bring to life this weekend.

“We’ve got some amazing dancers, doing a number of styles,” says O’Reilly, who will also be dancing in the production. “There is classical ballet, modern dance, ballroom dance, and even some traditional Aztec dance. And there’s an epic battle between the Moon Goddess and her star warriors against the Sun God. I think it’s going to be incredibly thrilling.”

Contact David at david.templeton@sonomanews.com.