A personal discussion with Willy Shives, Ballet San Antonio’s new Artistic Director, about the staging of his upcoming Sleeping Beauty, his own life story, and his visions for the company’s future with his beloved corps of artists.
It’s the classic story we all know. Princess Aurora pricks her finger, falls into a deep sleep for 100 years, and can only be awakened by true love’s kiss. Ballet San Antonio has taken on this timeless tale, and I recently had the chance to sit down with Artistic Director Willy Shives and hear all about his plans for the production.
If you know anything about traditional ballets, you know that Sleeping Beauty is one of the big classics. As an Artistic Director, it is a significant undertaking to produce these big story ballets. For obvious reasons, the classics call for the big sets, costumes, and demanding choreography. But on more of an “art for arts sake” level, an Artistic Director is tasked with not only honoring the tradition of the original story and preserving the history of its iconic music, characters, and choreography, but because both your dancers and audiences are already familiar with the production, the task is also to balance out that historic preservation with something added to the work–their own stamp–that gives relevancy to the story in our world today. This is one of the elements of art and storytelling that enthralls me the most (staged arts especially): the notion of common emotional threads throughout humanity that keep certain stories timeless.
What are we to expect from Willy’s spin on the timeless tale of Sleeping Beauty? He has choreographed the entire ballet from start to finish, with his own vision that pays homage to the traditional technicalities of the work, but that also breathes new life and energy into the pure classic. From speaking with him, I learned that he loves character work and we can expect much of it in this production. Which is exciting, because aside from your jaw-dropping, heart-wrenching pas de deux (cue the passionate sounds of violins wailing in the orchestra pit), the characters are what make classical story ballets live on in your memory.
The love Willy has for his craft and his company of dancers is not only inspiring, but also contagious. After decades spent both dancing for and leading many world-famous ballet companies (he came to us from the famed Joffrey Ballet in Chicago), Willy has formed his own philosophies and teaching practices that are truly transformative in the studio, and that have created a loving environment that encourages the growth of dancers as artists. Which, if you grew up in a traditional ballet studio, you know that this coddling, experimental culture could not have been a more distant reality. He is a visionary, and San Antonio is *pinch me* -lucky to have him at the helm of this company.
What fascinates me most about Willy Shives is that his life story is much like the fairytales he brings to life on stage. He discovered ballet at eight years old, when he was tagging along on his babysitter’s newspaper route in Edinburg, Texas. He tossed a paper for her, missed the building’s front stoop, and she joked that as a result he had to take the paper to the front door himself. Except, it wasn’t just any front door. It was the door to a ballet studio. The door that would lead him on the path to becoming “one of the most astounding and charismatic dancers of his time.” He was mesmerized by what he saw, fell in love with the art form that day, and never looked back.
This fairytale is two-fold: not only did he fall in love with his art, but it was his art that led him to falling in love with his princess, Evie Pena-Shives. They met shortly after he started dancing, and their decades of on-stage partnerships led them to a lifelong off-stage partnership, and two beautiful daughters.
Prince Willy has awakened the professional and artistic potential of the Ballet San Antonio company with his “true love’s kiss,” and it is apparent in their work culture both on stage and off. Sleeping Beauty will no doubt be a memorable icon in this season’s offerings, and it is just the beginning of his ambitious plans for the company’s future.
Don’t miss the chance to experience the enchantment of Sleeping Beauty and to support Ballet San Antonio February 17-19 at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are available through The Tobin Center’s box office online, in person, or by phone at 210-223-8624.
Support the arts. Especially during a time in this country where we could all use a little extra love in our hearts.
Thanks for reading!
Thank you to Ballet San Antonio for sponsoring this post.