By David B. Feldman
What does Kathy Mata Ballet, a small San-Francisco-based community dance company, have in common with the great cellist Yo-Yo Ma and world-renown operatic tenor Placido Domingo? Soon, all three will be able to boast appearances at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. That’s because, in late September, the dancers of Kathy Mata Ballet will grace the stage of this stunning venue for the first time. Though not quite as acclaimed as some others who have appeared there in the past, the company’s artistic director, Kathy Mata, promises a performance that will appeal to audience members of many tastes.
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“I enjoy creating contemporary as well as classical-style works and pride myself on producing programs with multi-cultural dance styles and music,” says Mata. “This is our big annual performance, so we’ll be presenting many of this year’s highlights.”
The performance, titled Autumn Showcase, will feature ballet as well as modern, jazz, and belly dance. Although the program will include many tried-and-true classics, the group also will present newly choreographed works by some of the company’s own dancers. Weidong Yang’s Metal, The Fourth Element, for instance, is sure to thrill audiences. This 9-minute contemporary ballet piece with both Western and Eastern themes, features an unusual all male cast and explores themes of aggression and reconciliation. Special guest, the Gnosis Dance Collective, will present a new work titled The Green Chair. Choreographed by Paco Gomes, this piece harkens back to German choreographer Kurt Jooss’ 1932 ballet, The Green Table, which dramatized social and political issues including corruption, economic instability, crimes against humanity, and the threat of war. San Francisco choreographer and teacher LeeWei Chao, whose works have been performed by the Milwaukee Ballet Company, Ballet Nouveau of Colorado, and Ballet Pensacola, among others, has also choreographed a world premier pas de deux for dancers Sachiko Kwan and Vin Eiamvuthikorn. The show will include live musical accompaniment by pianist Lucy Hudson, flutist Khalilah Alston, violinist Keegan Dwyer, bassist Colin Williams, vocalist Robin Yukiko, and musical group The Verms.
Although relatively unknown, Kathy Mata Ballet has been around for quite a while. “Kathy Mata Ballet began in 1987, though we didn’t officially call ourselves that until 1988,” says Mata.
Mata recalls why she founded the company, “I wanted to give talented adults from non-dance professions a chance to perform. When I was a little girl, I had a dance teacher who taught adult classes in the evenings. And, one of her joys was to make fun of them. I became so appalled. I was eight years old and knew I wanted to make sure nobody else would be treated like that.”
For the last quarter century, Mata’s message has been simple: Dance is for everyone, no matter who you are, what age you are, what your background is, or what body you’re blessed with. The company consists of a surprising array of working professionals, including accountants, teachers, scientists, and designers, among others. Until recently, the company even boasted its very own Superior Court Judge.
Dawn Ma, an architect who recently opened a branch office in Hong Kong, reflects on how she felt when she joined Kathy Mata Ballet as a dancer in 2000. “I was thrilled by the idea that non-professional adult dancers could perform for the public with the same level of dedication as the pros,” says Ma. “I continue to marvel at the rising level of production quality Kathy puts into every performance since then.”
Mata hand selects especially talented dancers to join the company from the classes she teaches at the Alonzo King LINES Dance Center in San Francisco. Nonetheless, she is careful never to discourage any aspiring dancer and is open to being surprised. “One of my favorite students had a severe lung condition,” Mata recalls. “I remember when she had her first ‘attack’; she couldn’t breathe. The first time she tried to get a lung transplant, the lungs didn’t match her body. But, the second time, it worked. And, with a lot of work and dedication on her part, she ended up dancing in one of our biggest performances. That was one of my favorite memories.”
Audiences also appreciate this inspiring message. Vin Eiamvuthikorn, who has danced with Kathy Mata Ballet since 2005, remembers a particularly poignant moment after one show. “A woman came up to me and said, ‘I stopped taking dance classes many years ago and never thought I’d get back to it, but today you inspired me to dance again.’ She must have been in her fifties. There’s something really good in that. It’s an important purpose that our company serves,” says Eiamvuthikorn.
The message that dance is for everyone often influences the company’s choice of audience. “I wanted to do community service through dance,” says Mata, again reflecting on why she founded the company. “Being with my parents as they aged and being with other seniors throughout my life, I saw that it was hard for them to get out and see things like dance performances. When I would talk about dance, they would say things like, ‘Gee Kathy, I wish we could watch somebody dance.’ So, it just clicked in my brain that we could bring joy to people’s lives.”
Unlike most dance companies, almost all of Kathy Mata Ballet’s performances are offered free of charge. The company regularly brings performances to assisted living communities and senior centers. And, they often develop lasting relationships with their audiences. Mata beams as she explains, “I think of Maria at the Sequoias retirement community; she’s 104! I remember the first time I met her, seeing her smile and enjoy the show. Now she brings a couple of her friends—the young ones are around 100.”
In fact, there are five residents over age 100 at the Sequoias Senior Living Center in San Francisco’s Japantown district, a fact that prompted the company to throw a centenarian birthday celebration in July. After an hour of dance, a cupcake for the nearly fifty seniors and family members in attendance, a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday to You,” and a few photos, Maria Canonica, now age 105, shared her excitement. “It was such a surprise! I didn’t expect all this. I have such a nice feeling for this group; they’re wonderful. Everybody is such good dancers,” says Canonica. The newest Sequoias centenarian, Irma Roth, echoed Maria’s surprised sentiments. “I liked the show very much! It’s wonderful. I’ve never had this happen before,” says Roth, who turned 100 only two months before.
This dedication to community service extends to Kathy Mata Ballet’s upcoming September performance. Members of the company have been busy calling assisted living facilities all over San Francisco to organize transportation for their residents to the free performance. But, Mata and the dancers want readers to know that this performance is for everyone. “Last year’s big performance attracted people of all ages, from little kids and families, to seniors. It’s great to share the joy of dance with so many people,” recalls Mata.
This performance is their most ambitious yet, and, with almost 350 seats, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music is the largest venue in which the company has ever performed. “We’re looking forward to a large and diverse audience,” says Mata. “We want everyone to come! It’ll be a great way to spend a Friday evening.”
You can catch Kathy Mata Ballet’s Autumn Showcase performance at 8pm on Friday, September 21st at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, 50 Oak Street. Admission is free, though donations are encouraged. Complimentary tickets can be reserved through the company’s web site (www.kathymataballet.org). And, if you happen to have connections to Yo-Yo Ma or Placido Domingo, Mata says you should feel free to bring them along!
David B. Feldman is the company manager of Kathy Mata Ballet. He has been involved in the company on a volunteer basis since 2008. Professionally, Feldman is an associate professor of counseling psychology at Santa Clara University.
Photos from top:
San Francisco Conservatory of Music, courtesy of the artist
Kathy Mata with Maria C anonica, courtesy of the artist
Kathy Mata Ballet Dancers Claire Vlach & Indie Stan by