Langley dancer Kaela Willey

Langley dancer’s skills put to the test

A ballerina is growing in experience as a swan.

It was a first for Langley ballerina Kaela Willey to dance while literally disrobing on stage – albeit an accident.

During a recent dress rehearsal for the first performance of Swan Lake, her costume came undone on stage – a moment she won’t soon forget.

“I had to hold it up with one hand and keep dancing with the other,” Willey said. “I think my colleagues found this pretty comical. I looked ridiculous, but at least I still smiled the whole time.”

Willey, now 21, has been dancing since she was a toddler and describes her current role as a swan in the Coastal City Ballet production of Swan Lake as her most challenging undertaking yet.

The Vancouver-based dance troupe is bringing the production of Swan Lake close to Willey’s hometown next week. It shows on Friday, June 10, at 8 p.m. at the Surrey Arts Centre.

“This show is a modern retelling of Swan Lake, so everyone regardless of their knowledge of dance will understand it,” Willey said. “ It has everything one could want in a performance: a great story, romance, entertainment, beautiful dancing and beautiful music.”

Willey, who lives in the Salmon River area of the Township, was born and raised here and excited to be part of the troupe bringing the show so close – expecting her entire family – including her three dancing sisters – to be in attendance.

Skill and work ethic pay off

In Swan Lake, Willey is dancing in all four acts of the ballet, and commented on how privileged she feels for the chance.

That said, she noted dancers are typically cast for certain roles based on their work ethic, skills, and performance in rehearsals and class throughout the season.”

“A hard working dancer is always rewarded,” said Willey, explaining that she was selected for the role of a big swan in the upcoming performance.

“Most people are familiar with the four little swans in Swan Lake, but there are also big swans (in this particular performance of Swan Lake, there are two),” she elaborated.

“I’m excited for this role, as it’s technically challenging, but also suited well to my height; I get to do some big jumps and beautiful, flying arm movements. It always feels good to really utilize the length in my limbs. I also get to perform in an ensemble Russian dance, which is a character dance. It is very fast paced and that’s also a challenge for me, but that’s why it is so exciting!”

The troupe has been training five to six days a week, typically 9:30 a.m. to 3:15 p.m., for months, with more time as needed and as they neared show day.

For Swan Lake, the women in particular began preparations back in December – to ensure all of the swans dance together, she said.

“Making 24 different dancers look exactly the same is no easy feat,” Willey addded. “As well, there is more to a performance than just dancing. Preparing costumes, props, music, and lighting takes so much time outside of the studio, and the staff at Coastal City Ballet have worked endless hours to perfect every detail. All of these things come together at the end to create a seamless experience for the audience.”

It’s a balancing act

Asked how all the preparations for next week’s show has fit in with a personal life, Willey admitted it’s difficult to balance time outside of dance – “especially when she’s working after her dance hours to support herself.

“I’ve always had the support of my family and friends, and as I get older I understand myself more and what I can keep on my plate without it being too much or too little,” Willey said. “Sometimes I feel sad when I run out of time at the end of the day and I haven’t reached out to an old friend, but I do my best to send my love to them when I can, and thankfully my friends understand how busy dance can be! I’m forever grateful for that.”

Fortunately for Willey, much of her family is engulfed in dance, too.

“My whole family enjoys dance. In fact, all three of my sisters dance, as well! My sister Emma is a professional dancer as well, and she focuses on the commercial aspect of dance. The two youngest sisters dance competitively in all styles. I love watching them all dance; they inspire me so much!”

Dancing since age three

So how did this all start for the dancing “swan?”

Her mother first enrolled her in dance at age three. “She felt I was musical in my movement,” Willey recounted.

“When I was younger I took many other extra-curricular activities, but dance has always been what I loved the most. After travelling to St. Petersburg, Russia, when I was 15 years old, for a two-week ballet intensive, I realized how passionate I was about ballet in particular!”

She continued training heavily in all styles of dance until she graduated high school and began with Coastal City Ballet a few years ago – then focusing specifically on classical and contemporary dance.

Fresh out of high school, she spent two years training with Coastal, then one year at Ballet Victoria – as an aspirant – before returning to Coastal this season.

Asked if she has any other performance talents, like acting or singing, Willey admits to being in a choir for a time when she was “little.”

“I love to sing, but I don’t think I’m very good at it,” she shared with the Langley Advance.

For now, she’s content to keep focused on dance – with this production, in particular, reinforcing her passion for ballet.

“The most rewarding part of this experience is realizing how much strength and growth I have achieved since the day we started,” she said.

“It is one of the most difficult ballets to dance as a female dancer. The amount of effort, focus, and stamina one must have to even make it through is tremendous. When the first performance ended, I felt really empowered. I thought to myself, ‘Wow! I really did this!’ and the best part is that I can take all of this improvement with me even after it’s over and continue to build. All of these feelings combined with the fact that Swan Lake is one of my favourite ballets… There really aren’t any words for how special this experience is to me.”

It’s a Canadian debut

Coastal City Ballet is celebrating its fifth anniversary season with the Canadian premier of Swan Lake, choreographed by Irene Schneider.

Schneider presents a modern twist on this timeless classic, at Surrey Arts Centre, that she insists the whole family will love.

Her Swan Lake explores the human emotion of a romantic love contrasted against a realistic and practical love of an arranged marriage. Odette (White Swan) comes to Siegfried in his dream, embodying the ideal of true love, while Odile (Black Swan) is presented to Siegfried by Rothbarth as the woman he is to wed. Schneider is able to give a story that is more able to relate to modern day while maintaining the tradition and essence of the Swan Lake we all expect to see.

“Audiences will not be disappointed to experience the classic second act with the beautiful swans in unison and the tragic ending of act four,” she said.

“The diverse talents of Coastal City Ballet along with the beautiful score of Pytor Tchaikovsky, glorious costumes and imaginative sets bring this heart-wrenching love story to life. This full-length ballet, enjoyed by young and old, is a masterpiece not to be missed,” Schneider added.

Irene Schneider’s first commission for Coastal City Ballet was in 2012, when she choreographed the world premiere ballet of Hansel and Gretel.

“A long friendship has kept me in touch with Li Yaming, and in the following years I came to choreograph A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Coppelia, and Cinderella. Coming back to Coastal City Ballet to remount Swan Lake is like coming home,” Schneider said.

Li Yaming, artistic director of Coastal City Ballet, is “excited” to stage this ambitious ballet in the company’s fifth season.

“I wanted to challenge the dancers and the company,” Li said, “and provide the audiences with a magnificent classic such as Swan Lake.”

This production first debuted at the Vancouver Playhouse in late May, and moves to Surrey this month.

Ticket information at www.surrey.ca or 604-501-5566.

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