by Wanda Hennig
Photography by: Anthony Pidgeon
Ten years ago, a pregnant Abra Rudisill and her husband, Gail Foster, were looking for somewhere to ride their bikes. A friend directed them to Crown Beach. At that point in her life, Rudisill had never had a chance to feel part of a community. "As a dancer, you're a gypsy and a vagabond. You go where the work is," she says.
A prima ballerina and ballet mistress with Oakland Ballet, Rudisill had been living in Oakland for about 13 years when she and Foster took their first Island bicycle ride. Little did they realize it would set in motion a chain of events that would lead all the way to opening night, Dec. 10, 2005, of Alameda's own full-length classical ballet production of The Nutcracker at Kofman Auditorium.
With Alameda, it was pretty much love at first sight for Rudisill and Foster. "The Victorian buildings and architecture inspire the artist in me," she says. They explored the Island on their bikes, loved what they discovered, and within a matter of weeks, she and Foster had found a rental. "Our son [Walker] had his first birthday here. By a stroke of luck we were able to buy the house we were renting, right at the beginning of the [housing market] insanity."
As it turned out, it was a stroke of luck not only for them, but also for Alameda. In 2002, Rudisill retired from Oakland Ballet after serving 20 years. She'd been teaching part time at Dance Arts Project for five years-modern/improvisation and ballet at a very basic level. "It was geared toward young kids having a positive experience dancing."
She was certified as a New York City Ballet Workout instructor and also had been using this popular dance-inspired exercise regimen to teach ballet-for-fitness to adults. She started teaching her modified adult classes in February 2002. She hadn't been running them for long when she realized there was a need for a ballet school in Alameda. "Parents were driving children every day to San Francisco Ballet to take dance." She knew that other local schools focused more on jazz, tap and other forms of dance than the classical ballet she had 28 years experience performing and teaching professionally.
Rudisill found she loved running a school. "The most enjoyable part of being self-employed is that I don't have to jump through hoops. I can just make things happen. It was the first time I'd had the opportunity to develop a syllabus for different age groups and see the progress."
In February 2003 she formed Alameda Ballet Academy (her for-profit school) and Alameda Civic Ballet (ACB, the nonprofit performing company). "I started the company at the same time as the school. I feel it's important to train dancers to perform at a young age, because ballet is a performing art. How I see it is that the school is the foundation-the root. The company is the flower, where students get to bloom into performers."
There's also a bigger-picture side to a company. "Performing live, the dancers learn some very good life lessons about things like discipline, prevailing when the going gets tough, and how to express themselves. Having the company [on top of the school] also gives students a broader view of what ballet dancing is. I can tell them I danced eight hours a day; I can tell them about the bus tours - but here, they get to experience it. They come in expecting it to be about beauty and costumes. They learn that through discipline and work comes freedom. They also get to contribute to the community. When the community is exposed to the arts, an appreciation develops and with this comes support of the arts. You can't expect it to happen if you just leave people to watch TV."
ACB debuted at the Kofman Auditorium on June 30, 2003, four months after the company was launched. Rudisill directed the original work, the Degas Dancers ballet, inspired by the art of Edgar Degas. ACB was invited to perform the ballet again in November 2003 at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, to coincide with a Degas sculpture exhibit. By popular demand they performed it a third time the next month, along with the first of two presentations of excerpts from The Nutcracker.
Last year, Rudisill did a second sold-out version of Nutcracker highlights. Next month, with opening night Dec. 10, Alameda audiences will get their own full-length version of The Nutcracker. "In Nutcracker, I saw a fabulous opportunity to give to the community by starting an Alameda holiday tradition. My dream is that people will enjoy it for many years to come. Performing Nutcracker is what I have done with my life in December for over 25 years. I just can't imagine Christmas without it." She estimates she's personally danced in at least eight different Nutcracker productions and in total, she's probably danced about 500 performances and appeared in all the principal roles-Sugar Plum Fairy, Snow Queen, Rose Queen and Marie/Clara.
Earlier this year, Rudisill invested $20,000 and purchased an entire Nutcracker production. "I didn't want to go into Kofman without sets. I found a production to buy from another company that comprises all backdrops, legs, borders, props and sets for acts one and two, as well as a matching floor. The production was painted years ago in the San Francisco Opera scene shop." It will form the perfect backdrop for the dancers as they perform under Rudisill's direction and to Tchaikovsky's evocative and well-known score.
So much talent, so much commitment, so much experience - all from someone who never had the dance fantasies common to so many of the little girls who crowd into her classes. "You know how some people will say 'I dreamed of being a ballet dancer?' Well, I never did and I still don't. I didn't picture myself in a tutu and tiara dancing Swan Lake. I think what drew me was the challenge."
Rudisill's spacious ballet headquarters is at 1402 Park St. - upstairs from a watch hospital, an orthopedic shoe service and a toy store, and across from Subway. You could miss the doorway if you weren't seriously looking for it. Once inside, you face a steep flight of stairs clad in ancient mustard carpeting that saw better days many hundreds of pirouettes ago. The light- and music-filled rooms upstairs are in stark contrast.
In January 2005, Rudisill signed a five-year lease on the studio, with an option to renew twice. Think 15 years. "I wanted a home for the company," she says. From the first time she walked in, "I felt I could breathe in here. As a ballet dancer you train yourself to fill the space, and you need space." She also needs breathing space because hers is a long-term project. "I think the company will be where I want it in 10 years. I would like Alameda to have a professional performing company and a strong pre-professional training company. I think we've got the support and we have a beautiful theater to perform in."
She rents out studio space at the school to other groups-salsa, belly dancing, hip-hop, karate, Pilates and theater. For productions, the studio turns into a black box theater that seats 150. After five sold-out performances of her Nutcracker excerpts last December, she realized the company's first full-length Nutcracker needed to be in the 80-year-old, 2,000-seat Kofman Auditorium.
On a typical afternoon, she teaches a class of small girls, each of them dressed either in pink or in blue. She's dressed in a black leotard, a tiny chiffon practice skirt and ankle warmers. With her hair in a bun and her perfectly proportioned compact frame, she looks no older than the four teenage apprentices helping her.
"Now watch my feet," Rudisill tells her class. "And everyone, clap with me. This is a waltz beat. One two three, do-re-mi, one two three." They count and copy her and little giggles turn into big giggles. "Parallel feet, hands on your hips, belly buttons pulled right in. One, two, three. Point your hoof! Point your hoof!"
Rudisill is not fazed. "When I first started teaching, I tried to give them everything I know in a week, but then I realized it's OK if they don't get it all at once," she says when the children are gone and the room is quiet. "With the older dancers and apprentices, I have different expectations than with the little ones. I expect them to really work at their art form not just when they're here, but also when they're out of the studio. It's not about just doing steps. It's also about understanding the art, the history. I stress concentration and focus at the school. I believe it is the key to learning everything. Some struggle-but I want to lay a foundation for anyone who might want a professional career. There is a way to have discipline and enjoyment, and they learn discipline is not punishment."
Rudisill started dancing when she was 6 years old in Altoona, Pa. She and her mother and stepfather then moved to New Mexico, where she trained at Ballet Del Monte Sol in Santa Fe. "I decided when I was 12 that I wanted to be a ballet dancer," she says. By 16 she had outgrown New Mexico "and it was a case of 'pick a coast.'" She came west and auditioned for San Francisco Ballet, "but they felt I was very small, and not up to speed with pointe work for my age. I got a scholarship to the San Francisco Dance Theater on Van Ness."
She then won a scholarship to the Joffrey Ballet summer program in San Antonio, Texas. She tried for the Joffrey Ballet company. "I had the right body, but they felt I was too small. Different companies look for different body types. You can't put me in the corps de ballet because you need dancers to be of similar height. You can take someone not the right height as principal dancer, but how do you get there without going through the ranks?" Rudisill is 5 feet, while most dancers average 5 feet, 4 inches.
Rudisill toured nationally and internationally with the Pavlova Celebration, a company dedicated to the works of Anna Pavlova. Then, in 1982, at the invitation of artistic director Ronn Guidi, she joined Oakland Ballet, where she became a prima ballerina. "It was a good place for me as an artist. I got to do world-class ballets with world-class artists and choreographers. I got to develop as a ballerina. The advantage of staying with a company is that you get to repeat things and develop an in-depth knowledge."
"Abra is a wonderful artist," says Guidi of the woman he hired sight unseen out of New York and who, he says, was "a great muse for me. Her professionalism, when she worked for me, was above reproach. She had a great and illustrious career. She became a stunning artist. I think what she is doing now is significant and important, and good for Alameda. Abra is a hard-working person with drive. But to do what she wants to do, you have to have money. Funding is the key."
Angela Lazear, president of the board of Alameda Civic Light Opera, concurs. "I would say that getting an arts-based company up and running in today's financial climate is a challenge. The road to success lies in good management, reasonable and realistic goals, and taking advantage of all the wonderful community resources. I can say that the city [of Alameda] has been generous to ACLO and is very supportive of the arts in general."
To be a dancer, Rudisill says, takes steely resolve. "I always had a laser-like focus. If I set my sights on something, I achieve it. If there is a problem to solve, I say to my husband-let's focus on the solution, not the problem."
Rudisill says that for her, the challenge of dancing was not just physical. "I also felt mentally challenged. I felt I was using all of myself. To me, ballet is the ultimate mind-body connection."
To the dismay of many of her fans, Rudisill made a decision last year to no longer dance with the company. "I was wearing too many hats. Besides, I don't want to dance unless I can do it at the level I want, which involves me taking class two hours a day, and I would rather spend that time directing and choreographing. And these days I'm also doing the admin."
Alameda Civic Ballet company became a nonprofit in 2004, which has meant establishing a board and fund-raising committee, getting the word out, making contacts and looking for corporate sponsorship. When Nutcracker opens Dec. 10, Rudisill will be in the front of the house making sure the production looks exactly as she wants. When the curtains close, no doubt to thunderous applause, a new Alameda tradition will have been established.