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Ballet Company at UCLA spotlights dancing for ‘the sheer joy of ballet’

Dressed in feathery tutus, ballerinas Kayla Choi (left) and Elise Wu (right) balance on one foot while extending their arms. Co-director of programs Aysha Cunningham said the aim of the Ballet Company at UCLA is to provide an accepting space for all students to learn and practice the art form. (Courtesy of Alex Aljouni)

By Lex Wang

Aug. 19, 2023 8:05 p.m.

The Ballet Company at UCLA is poised to take center stage.

Founded in early 2020, UCLA’s first and only student-directed ballet club opened its doors at the height of the pandemic, with members participating in virtual events over Zoom. More than three years later, the club has shifted to offering in-person ballet classes and showcases. Despite this transition, its overall goal remains the same as when it was first established – to create a welcoming environment for all ballet dancers to perform their artistry, said co-director of programs and rising third-year dance and physiological science student Aysha Cunningham.

“Our mission is to provide an inclusive and accessible space for any college student at UCLA,” Cunningham said. “We really want to make ballet easy and not intimidating to start or to continue while we’re in college.”

During the 2019-2020 academic year, three Bruins – Ada Chung, Ying Xuan Chua and Moe Kawakami – came together to form the ballet company after noticing a lack of dance programming at UCLA. Rising fourth-year civil engineering student and current co-president Catherine McGrath said she would join classes from the comfort of her own bedroom during that time. But when she was finally able to return to the campus, she embraced the opportunity to participate in in-person events.

“It’s easier to get people together when you know it’s going to be a group of people in a room, or on the grass over by Janss, all hanging out,” McGrath said.

[Related: UCLA’s first ballet company a safe haven for pliés, dégagés and fun]

As the organization settles into an in-person rhythm, McGrath said the ballet company has been able to book venues for live performances. McGrath, who has helped in the planning of some of the scenes, said the dancers performed a Nutcracker scene in fall, which was recorded and edited together. The company also put on two in-person shows during the spring quarters of 2022 and 2023, she said, held in Ackerman Union Grand Ballroom and Schoenberg Hall, respectively.

Unlike professional ballet companies, such as the Los Angeles Ballet, in-person showcases run by the Ballet Company at UCLA are completely free of charge, said Sara Habibipour, social chair of the club and rising second-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student. Because tickets can run upwards of hundreds of dollars at other companies, something not every individual can afford, Habibipour said this no-cost alternative offers a readily available channel for those who are interested in ballet.

Six dancers perform on stage against a backdrop of mangeta-lit curtains. Social chair of the club and rising second-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student Sara Habibipour said the organization's performances are free to attend and there is no audition requirement to join. (Courtesy of Alex Aljouni)
Six dancers perform on stage against a backdrop of mangenta-lit curtains. Social chair of the club and rising second-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student Sara Habibipour said the organization’s performances are free to attend, and there is no audition requirement to join. (Courtesy of Alex Aljouni)

Throughout the year, McGrath said, the company also offers free courses, ranging from beginner to intermediate and advanced levels, with most students determining which class they would prefer based on the amount of experience they have. Regardless of whether someone has never danced before or has done so professionally, the club aims to cater to everyone – including those who may not have had the privilege of growing up with access to lessons, Habibipour said.

The organization hopes to foster a noncompetitive atmosphere, Habibipour said, where all who wish to learn are welcome. In contrast to other dance companies where auditions are the prerequisite to acceptance, she said the Ballet Company at UCLA holds no such process and is committed instead to nurturing camaraderie and friendship between dancers.

[Related: Dance Disassembled: Hip-hop, ballet offer contrasting opportunities for expression through dance]

For Cunningham, being part of the company has been a chance to develop meaningful connections with others who share a similar passion. Habibipour said that as a dancer whose previous studio never participated in competitions, she felt encouraged by discovering a like-minded group who welcomed the art as a leisurely pursuit.

“We perform because we love to,” Habibipour said. “It’s just a group of people who bond over the sheer joy of ballet, which I think is really nice.”

With membership in the ballet community continuing to flourish, McGrath said achievements are met with an outpouring of support. These displays and gestures extend beyond the club itself to the entire dance population at UCLA, Habibipour said. Dancers across different styles frequently attend each other’s performances, which she said is a result of knowing the dedication and effort it takes to hold an event. At the end of the day, McGrath said, it is wholesome to see dancers at the university lifting each other up.

Prevailing preconceptions in the industry, however, exert pressure on dancers to be mindful of their appearance and attire, Cunningham said. In order to move away from the negative aspects associated with ballet culture that many members have experienced, she said the company allows dancers to wear the clothing of their choice. Most importantly, Cunningham said, the club has been dedicated to seeking feedback, ensuring that the company maintains a comfortable and supportive atmosphere.

“We are hoping that our presence on campus will help to broaden people’s perspectives on what it means to be a ballet dancer and what it means to do ballet,” Cunningham said.

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Lex Wang | Enterprise editor
Wang is the 2023-2024 Enterprise editor. Previously, she was the 2022-2023 Opinion editor, and prior to that, an assistant Opinion editor. She is Arts and Quad staff and also contributes to News, Sports on the men's volleyball beat, Copy, Design, Photo and Video.
Wang is the 2023-2024 Enterprise editor. Previously, she was the 2022-2023 Opinion editor, and prior to that, an assistant Opinion editor. She is Arts and Quad staff and also contributes to News, Sports on the men's volleyball beat, Copy, Design, Photo and Video.
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