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UCLA’s first ballet company a safe haven for pliés, dégagés and fun

Moe Kawakami, a first-year human biology and society student, founded UCLA’s first ballet company with her friends Ying Xuan Chua, a first-year economics and psychology student, and Ada Chung, a first-year psychobiology student. The founders said they currently offer intermediate classes online, but they hope to expand to teach both advanced and beginner dancers to reach their goal of making the dance company open to people of all skill levels. (Amy Dixon/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Vivian Xu

May 12, 2020 4:27 pm

Three ballerinas have finally set the barre – and set up their own ballet company too.

UCLA’s first ballet company, founded by Ada Chung, Ying Xuan Chua and Moe Kawakami, has been holding virtual Zoom events throughout spring quarter. By catering to dancers of all skill levels and experiences, Kawakami, a first-year human biology and society student, said the co-founders hope to foster an inclusive and supportive atmosphere at the Ballet Company at UCLA.

“My experience with ballet isn’t in a very competitive or professional setting and that’s sort of the community I want to bring into establishing our ballet company,” Kawakami said. “I want it to be open (without) that competitive nature ballet usually has.”

Upon arriving at college, Chung, a first-year psychobiology student, said she was surprised to find out that UCLA did not have a ballet company. Since starting ballet at five years old, Chung had attended intensives at Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet Academy as well as Joffrey Ballet and said she found herself missing the art. This eventually led her to attend open classes at a studio in Santa Monica with Kawakami.

[Related: Dance students adjust to curriculum changes, self-accountability of online learning]

In the many round trips to the studio, Chung said the two began entertaining the thought of starting their own ballet company at UCLA so they could dance closer to campus. The pair began the process of turning their idea into reality during winter quarter and invited Chua, a first-year economics and psychology student, to help.

“(Initially) we thought maybe there weren’t a lot of people interested in ballet and that’s why there wasn’t a ballet company already,” Chung said. “But after we sent out an interest survey, there (were many) responses from people saying how they’ve been looking for a ballet company for so long.”

The trio first established their ballet company’s goals with the primary purpose of offering opportunities for dancers of all skill levels, Kawakami said. To support the varied experience each dancer has, Chung said the co-founders hold all workshops over Zoom at an intermediate level. Beginners have the opportunity to slow down exercises to learn at their own pace, while advanced dancers can perform the same exercises on relevé, which is on the toes rather than on flat feet, Chung said.

“We still want to have that portion where more advanced dancers can challenge themselves,” Chung said. “(But) we also want that portion where beginners can try out dance or get back into dance.”

The ballet company’s workshops begin with slower warmups, Chung said, like pliés that involve the bending of the knees and dégagés that require dancers to point their feet in various directions. Gradually, she said the instructors progress to quicker movements like battements, which are faster pointings of the entire leg, and rond de jambes, where the dancer’s leg moves in a semicircle.

Considering the current workshops are not held in a studio, Chua said the main focus is connecting dancers with their bodies by focusing on completing the exercises to the best of their abilities rather than nitpicking technique. Dancers are also encouraged to adjust exercises based on the amount of space they have at home, Chua said.

“A lot of people think ballet needs specialized equipment, which is true to some extent,” Chua said. “But the fundamentals of ballet (are) just about movement and getting to know your body.”

With time, Chung said the ballet company hopes to offer beginner and advanced level workshops as opposed to solely instructing intermediate level ones. To get new dancers in tune with their bodies and with the basics of ballet, Chua said beginner workshops would be geared towards learning the French terminology that comes with the art and engaging in strength training to improve bodily control.

For more advanced dancers, Chua said the ballet company intends to challenge them by offering complex and fast-paced exercises like grande allégro, or large jumps, and fouettés, which are one-legged turns. Experienced dancers will also be able to choreograph and teach their own combinations, Chung said.

“When you’re (learning) all the different techniques, it can be difficult to put them together and pace them with music,” Chung said. “An advanced dancer will (be challenged by getting) more creative in choreographing.”

[Related: Dance Marathon 2020 moves online with a focus on themes of unity and awareness]

Though the virtual workshops are fulfilling, the rest of the co-founders’ vision is dependent on returning to UCLA in the fall, Kawakami said. The ballet company plans to hold a recital at the end of every spring quarter where Chua said all dancers can perform for an audience and showcase what they have learned throughout the year.

“We want to give beginning, intermediate and advanced dancers opportunities to perform for other people because it’s very different from when you just dance in the studio,” Chua said. “It’s a different kind of vulnerability and level of expression.”

In the few months that the ballet company has been active, Chua said the number of people who have attended their workshops – even though they are online – has been heartwarming. UCLA Ballet Company has been able to build their own community, Chung said, and more importantly, find a way to do ballet no matter the circumstances.

“(Our ballet company helped) us find a home within UCLA,” Chung said. “It’s like a safe haven for us to go dance together and that’s the best part.”

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