Spring Arts Review 2023: City Ballet’s Elisabeth Wistrich prevails through the pandemic

As co-founder and resident choreographer of City Ballet, Elizabeth Wistrich is accustomed to the demands of a dance career.

She flourished as both a dance artist and choreographer despite a competitive environment that had an abundance of talented ballerinas but few female artistic directors or choreographers.

Her forte, she said, is creating something that will “take the stress out of other people’s lives.”

For 31 years, Wistrich choreographed for the City Ballet of San Diego, a family organization. She and her husband Steven Wistrich met as dancers and are veterans of the Boston and Stuttgart ballets. Their daughter Ariana Gonzalez is a lead dancer and their son-in-law Jeff Gonzalez is a dancer and choreographer.

City Ballet School serves more than 200 students and its professional company includes over 30 artists.

This spring, three years after the pandemic halted performances around the world, Wistrich looks back on how the lows helped her family and City Ballet bounce back stronger than ever.

Over the years there have been challenges to overcome: a limited budget, a ballerina injured before a big performance, a teacher who fell ill. But the stay-at-home and social distancing order in 2020 was a serious threat.

Physical interaction is at the heart of ballet training and performance, and there was also the frightening prospect of not knowing when the restrictions would end.

“We thought we were dead in the water,” Wistrich said.

“We immediately bought computers and held Zoom classes. We lost some students, but not many. Do you know what these kids did? They found ways.”

City Ballet’s dedicated students held classes from home using portable bars or rolls of vinyl flooring.

Zoom classes have become a necessary teaching tool, but due to their time lag, they have proven to be less than ideal.

“Music is very important to a class,” Wistrich explained. “I remember saying to our teachers, ‘Why are the students so late, they’re not listening to the music.’ It was frustrating.”

The Mad Nutcrackers

Elizabeth “Betsy” Wistrich dances during a photo shoot Monday, Feb. 13, at Kate Sessions Park in Pacific Beach.

(Brittany Cruz-Feyeran)

Financially, The Nutcracker is usually the highest grossing show of the year due to its universal popularity. Audiences were used to seeing Wistrich’s choreographed version of the holiday production staged at the Spreckels Theater Center for more than two decades.

So in the winter of 2020, the company shot a virtual version of “The Masquerade Nutcracker.” Audiences could stream the holiday production for a fee in the safety of their homes.

Later in December, a company contacted City Ballet about staging The Nutcracker on an outdoor stage at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

Giant screens would allow audiences to watch from their cars.

Wistrich agreed, even though she was the only one in her family who thought fighting the cold in tights would be a good idea.

At the very least, she thought, the company’s dancers would have an opportunity to perform in front of an audience again.

“I thought it was important,” Wistrich said.


Elizabeth “Betsy” Wistrich of San Diego City Ballet.

(Brittany Cruz-Feyeran)

“But it was the strangest experience. It was cold, so the company members had changing rooms outside with heaters. Feedback? It was great. There were all these cars coming in and the parking lot was just full. When a variation ends, they blow horns. I will never forget it.”

Although the company adhered to all health protocols, both Wistrich and her husband contracted the COVID-19 virus a few months later.

“We tested positive on Valentine’s Day,” she said with a wry smile. “It was our gift of love to each other. But even when I was at my sickest, I wanted to get back in the studio. I always thought about choreography.”

Wistrich grew up in Massachusetts and first took dance lessons from her mother, who had a studio in her basement. When she was accepted to the Boston Conservatory of Music, she learned to create dances in an undergraduate choreography program.

“Dance has been so close to me since I was a kid,” Wistrich said. “But growing up in the 50s and 60s didn’t have the opportunities that dancers have today. I had to work my way up, step by step.”

In 2021, cases of coronavirus increased and City Ballet was still struggling.

Son-in-law Jeff Gonzalez worked with principal dancer and videographer Jaroslav Richters to create the “Dark Room Series” streaming virtual ballet productions.

“We did what we did to survive and we were able to keep the company on payroll,” Wistrich said. “That was the most important thing for us. Our board of directors has been great. During this time they would have an online fundraiser. Fortunately, donors were helping us.”

If the pandemic problems weren’t enough, City Ballet lost the ability to continue operating in the historic 1,500-seat Spreckels Theater, which was sold in 2021 to real estate investors.

“This was our home,” Wistrich said. “The Lyceum also closed for renovations. We’ve never played the Balboa Theater or the California Center for the Arts, Escondido, but when we did our Nutcracker there in 2021, we were shocked at how well it was received. We have been able to expand our audience in this area.”

Although now past retirement age, the Wistriches enjoy a richer and more varied work life than ever before.

City Ballet now includes the Conrad Prebys Center for the Performing Arts in La Jolla as one of its venues. That’s where audiences can see Wistrich’s choreography in “Inspiration in Motion” today, before the show travels to the California Center for the Arts, Escondido, on Wednesday.

“Preserving what we’ve built has been a personal thing from the beginning,” Wistrich said.

“We started with two students to build a company that now has a budget of $1.5 million. We were able to attract really good dancers. And we’ve just got permission to do a Christopher Wheeldon ballet, which we’re excited about.’

The takeaways from the pandemic?

“Persistence,” Wistrich replied.

“We’ve always had tough times, but it’s been a test of sticking with it and thinking we’re going to make it happen no matter what.”

San Diego City Ballet: “Inspiration in Motion”

When: 2 pm today

Where: Baker-Baum Concert Hall, Conrad Prebys Center for the Performing Arts, 7600 Fay Ave., La Jolla

Tickets: $38 to $102

telephone: (858) 459-3728

Online: theconrad.org

When: 19:30 Wednesday

Where: California Center for the Arts, Escondido, 340 N. Escondido Blvd., Escondido

Tickets: $41.50 to $81.50

telephone: (800) 988-4253

Online: artcenter.org

Luttrell is a freelance writer.

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