Young Dancers Bring World Culture to Bay Area Kids

May 13, 2015 Updated: May 14, 2015

SAN FRANCISCO—About 3,000 kids from around the Bay went on a field trip on May 4, not just to the prestigious San Francisco Opera House but to some 12 different countries in a single morning. The Presidio Dance Theatre held its annual event called “Dancing Across Cultures.”

Under the distinguished guidance of Sherene Melania, artistic director of Presidio Dance Theatre, dance students, ranging in age from 6 through college level, presented various performances from around the world. They provided an artistic and emotional bridge to diverse worlds that audiences can easily understand, thus enriching their lives.

Adorned with flowers and wearing colorful aprons and red boots, a group of lovely girls opened the event with a dance from the Ukraine.

“I really liked the polka with the little children,” said Judy Bretschneider, the founder and executive director of the Presidio Performing Arts Foundation. “I just thought they were too adorable, and they looked so professional. Everything was in line, and they kept the rhythm. I was really proud of them.”

After a ballet solo from Hungary, guest students from Fei Tian Academy of the Arts, California, brought a glimpse of the Golden Age of ancient China to stage. In elegant moves, the long sleeves of the dancing girls conveyed a feeling of lightness and purity.

Everyone knows chopsticks, “but have you tried to dance with them?” the emcee asked the attentive children in the audience, when announcing the Mongolian chopstick dance by the Fei Tian boys. The sound of chopstick bundles, the unique, flowing shoulder movements, and the highly skilled flips of the dancers stopped time and brought the Mongolian grasslands to San Francisco.

“Those are just beautiful,” Bretschneider said. “We don’t really have the opportunity to see such highly classical Chinese dances, except from the Shen Yun dance company.”

Fei Tian California offers after-school and weekend dance classes and is fully accredited as a middle and high school by WASC, the Western Association for Schools and Colleges. “It’s a big privilege to have them here with us. They are our new collaborative friends,” Bretschneider said.

“Fei Tian’s students get invited to many performances year-round,” Fei Tian’s principal, Sherry Zhang, said. “It made them very busy, so we actually can only go to a few, considering they are full-time students as well, and they have to study many academic subjects.”

“We’re very glad that we took the opportunity to perform in the Opera House, as it is a fascinating venue—and the organization that is hosting the event is fabulous, so we are very glad to work with them,” she said.

A dance from Iran with its melancholic Middle Eastern music, a highly rhythmic dance from the Yucatan Peninsula in eastern Mexico, and a gentle ukulele dance from Haiti were further highlights of the program.

The Presidio Dance Theatre, a program of the Presidio Performing Arts Foundation, has been holding multi-cultural dance events since 2003, with up to 6,000 kids attending every year. “It’s such a highly educational performance, and I hope it inspires some new artists through the audience participation,” Bretschneider said.

Dance also comes in the form of storytelling. This year’s performance concluded with a ballet dance telling of three princesses who had received the gift of magical bells, as well as with a humorous Italian folk dance called Tarantella, with dancers in the national colors of Italy.

“Every year we add to our repertoire,” Bretschneider said. “We have the dances of about 40 nations now. And we have guest choreographers come every year and create new pieces. So it’s never the same show, always expanding.”

In its upcoming production, the Presidio Dance Theatre will present to the public “The Little Lantern Ballet,” by the Palestinian writer Kanafani (1936–1972).

“We loved it so much because of the story of collaboration and the power of people working together,” Bretschneider said. “We thought children could grasp it as well as adults.” Sherene Melania, the artistic director of the Presidio Dance Theatre, wrote the libretto and created the choreography.

It takes place in a fairytale kingdom. The king is ill, and he tells his daughter that before she can take the throne, she has to bring the sun into the palace. One day the king does die, and everyone tries to help the princess bring the sun into the palace. We’ll find out at the end of May whether they succeed or not.

The dance students of Fei Tian Academy of the Arts will give have their year-end recital soon, too, showcasing a variety of classical Chinese and ethnic folk dances.

“China has a lot of culture,” Zhang said. “There are many, many ethnicities in China, and you can see in our performance the ethnic culture. The Mongolian dance shows hospitality. Our students really show the spirit of that culture.”

Year-End Recital by the Fei Tian Academy of the Arts, San Bruno Skyline College, May 24, 1 p.m.

“The Little Lantern Ballet” by the Presidio Dance Theatre, at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, May 29, 7 p.m.