Arts & Culture

Ballet Theatre SLO’s ‘Birth to Earth’ uses Tom Waits’ music to tell powerful family story

Ballet Theatre SLO fundraiser to feature original performances set to the songs of Tom Waits

Choreographer Theresa Slobodnik explains the story of "Birth to Earth," a performance by Ballet Theatre San Luis Obispo. The show premieres Saturday, April 8, 2017, at the Blackbox Theatre as a fundraiser for the dance company's upcoming opera pro
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Choreographer Theresa Slobodnik explains the story of "Birth to Earth," a performance by Ballet Theatre San Luis Obispo. The show premieres Saturday, April 8, 2017, at the Blackbox Theatre as a fundraiser for the dance company's upcoming opera pro

Choreographer Theresa Slobodnik didn’t have to search far for the inspiration behind her new ballet.

“Birth to Earth,” which premieres Saturday at Ballet Theatre San Luis Obispo, deals with the bond between a mother and her daughter. The concept came from Slobodnik’s own daughter, singer Hannah Slobodnik.

“It’s amazing where your art takes you,” mused Theresa Slobodnik, artistic director and founder of Ballet Theatre San Luis Obispo.

Saturday’s “Birth to Earth” event — an intimate evening of dance, music, food and wine at Ballet Theatre San Luis Obispo’s cozy BlackBox Theatre — will serve as a fundraiser for the dance company’s upcoming production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera “The Medium.”

Guest performers include Hannah Slobodnik, pianist Bob Harway and dancer Rodney Ware. Serving as a chamber orchestra are Rose Hall, Shea Kelly and Alexandra Wenzl of local rock band Hot Tina, joined by Cassandra Tarantino on penny whistle and Theresa Slobodnik’s son, Aksel, on cello.

At the center of Saturday’s fundraiser is “Birth to Earth,” which follows the complicated relationship between the Woman (Katie Scofield) and her daughter through three stages of the girl’s life. We see the daughter as a child (Aspen Taylor), a troubled teenager (Gemma Campbell) and a young adult (Erica Best) trying to reconnect with her mom.

Theresa Slobodnik and her daughter said “Birth to Earth” deals with the idea of undying love.

“When you love somebody, it’s a roller coaster ride,” Slobodnik said, “but if you can stay committed, you’re going to be there for that person, no matter what.”

The ballet is set to songs by Tom Waits, including “Lullaby,” Never Let Go” and “Green Grass,” which were selected by Hannah Slobodnik for their “potent storytelling.”

Her mother’s contemporary choreography matches the power of the music.

“It’s very physical,” Theresa Slobodnik said. “It’s just very raw. It’s very emotional.”

Also on Saturday’s program are a pair of social dances set to the music of Kurt Weill — the duet “Speak Low” between Slobodnik and Ware, and “Youkali,” a pounding tango number about a couple (Asael Picasso and Kate Fisher) shipwrecked on an island occupied by a fairy (Scofield). (Hannah Slobodnik will sing those songs, plus “Pirate Jenny” and “My Ship.”) Audience members will then have a chance to cut a rug as Harway performs songs by Cole Porter.

“We want the people who are attending to get up and dance,” Hannah Slobodnik said. “We want them to be engaged.”

In addition, eventgoers will get a sneak preview of Menotti’s “The Medium,” a two-act chamber opera that premiered in 1946. Ballet Theatre San Luis Obispo plans to stage “The Medium” with the help of Build an Opera Productions in the fall of 2018.

“It’s a very twisted opera” dealing with alcoholism, madness and murder, explained Hannah Slobodnik, who first encountered “The Medium” while studying at UC Santa Cruz. “It helped me develop as a performer and singer.”

Madame Flora, also known as Baba, performs fake séances assisted by her daughter, Monica, and Toby, her mute servant boy. During one such session, she feels a phantom hand on her throat.

“She goes, ‘Oh my god, there might actually be ghosts,’ ” Slobodnik said. “She freaks out. … She basically has a mental breakdown.”

Although “The Medium” belongs musically to the grand opera tradition, the contralto said, it tells a contemporary story with characters recognizable to modern audiences.

On Saturday, Slobodnik, playing Madame Flora, will sing a duet with soprano Ashlynn Emerson as Monica.

According to Slobodnik, “The Medium” is a good fit for Ballet Theatre San Luis Obispo because it features a non-singing supporting role — Toby, typically played by a dancer — and lends itself to unconventional staging and casting. “He leaves a lot of room for interpretation,” she said of Menotti.

“It’s really exciting to be able to do projects like that,” her mother, Theresa Slobodnik, said.

Birth to Earth

7 p.m. Saturday

Ballet Theatre San Luis Obispo, 3566 S. Higuera St., Suite 207, San Luis Obispo

$75, $100 at the door (includes wine, appetizers and desserts)

805-440-1439 or www.bt-slo.org

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