There's nothing quite like a glimpse into the abyss to reorder one's priorities. After this past winter's turmoil seemed to threaten Ballet San Jose's status as one of California's premiere dance companies, the organization has recommitted to fundamentals.
In its latest dramatic gesture, the ballet hired Emmy award-winning music director and conductor George Daugherty, while announcing that every performance this season will feature live music by Symphony Silicon Valley.
On Saturday, music takes center stage at the ballet's gala fundraiser to support live music as a central element in every production and for "Music and Motion," an outreach program teaching dance and music to underserved Santa Clara County elementary school students.
Among Saturday's featured artists are violinist Rachel Lee, a rapidly rising star and protégé of Itzhak Perlman; San Francisco Opera soprano Kristin Clayton; the Golden Gate Boys Choir; and Symphony Silicon Valley under Daugherty's baton.
The evening is designed to make an irrefutable case for why "live music is so crucial to ballet and to dance," says Daugherty, 57, from the lovingly restored Victorian "painted lady" near San Francisco's Alamo Square neighborhood that he shares with his life and producing partner David Wong.
"If you have recorded music, by very definition, every night is the same thing. But the dancers perform differently every night, sometimes more lyrical, more energetic, more balanced, and the conductor has to pick that up and adapt."
The gala program includes "Waltz of the Flowers"; a preview of the company's world premiere of Karen Gabay's "Nutcracker" (Dec. 8-23); the solo from "Lacrymosa" by Edward Stierle set to the "Lacrimosa" movement from Mozart's Requiem Mass in D minor (K. 262); and the final movement from Stanton Welch's "Clear," set to the music of J.S. Bach's Violin Concerto in G minor, second movement, performed by Rachel Lee.
She also performs as soloist on Max Bruch's Violin Concerto no. 1 for a full-company work choreographed by Clark Tippet. Altogether the gala features more than 250 performers.
"In my opinion, Rachel Lee is the next violinist about to break on the scene, the next Sarah Chang or Joshua Bell," Daugherty says. "We also have Kristin Clayton, an amazing lyric soprano, with the Golden Gate Boys Choir.
"It's not your average ballet gala, with 10 pas de deux and then you go to the party. If audiences have yet to discover Ballet San Jose, this is a perfect way to do it."
Daugherty comes to Ballet San Jose with a dauntingly expansive resume. Born into an Irish-American family in Pendleton, Ind., he studied cello and conducting at Butler University's Jordan College of Music and Indiana University, landing his first baton duties at 20 when the Fort Wayne Philharmonic Orchestra appointed him as assistant conductor under conductor/composer Thomas Bricetti.
Small-town life seemed to fuel his ambition, and he founded his own orchestra in 1975, before he turned 21. With the support of a National Endowment for the Arts grant, his Pendleton Festival Symphony became a respected summer festival orchestra, and it attracted accompanying principal dancers from American Ballet Theatre, the New York City Ballet, the Royal Ballet, and the Joffrey Ballet.
"I really understand dancers," Daugherty says. "In those early years when I was starting, I even took dance classes so I really understood some bit of the dance world and where it was at, and what dancers have to go through."
In the first years of his career, he worked in numerous ballet settings, holding down a series of music director positions with the Chicago City Ballet, the Louisville Ballet, Ballet Chicago, and working extensively with top European ballets and the American Ballet Theatre. But in the late 1980s he started moving away from dance when he relocated to Los Angeles and became the regular guest conductor for Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. He started a fruitful relationship with Warner Bros., developing a series of family multimedia programs.
He drew on his own seminal experiences as a young television viewer in creating 1990s "Bugs Bunny on Broadway" (and its 2010 sequel "Bugs Bunny at the Symphony"), which features a live orchestra performing the original scores for classic "Looney Tunes" cartoons. He collaborated with "Looney Toons" mastermind Chuck Jones again when his "Peter and the Wolf" production for ABC featuring live-action and animation won a Prime time Emmy award in 1996.
"One of my passions has always been to create symphonic concerts that bring in people who don't normally come," Daugherty says. "The Bugs Bunny cartoons were a real natural for me to use as a vehicle to remind people how they first heard classical music. That first 1990 production has toured around the globe at least 20 times."
He and Wong moved to San Francisco in 1999, drawn by Daugherty's deepening relationship with San Francisco Symphony. While continuing to collaborate with orchestras around the world, he has long sought an opportunity to return to his first love, conducting for ballet. The offer from Ballet San Jose hit his sweet spot, offering a manageable schedule close to home with a widely esteemed company.
"I've had a number of invitations over the years but with my other commitments conducting for a company with an immense schedule wasn't possible," Daugherty says. "Ballet San Jose offered an extraordinary company with world-class dancers and productions, and a schedule that allowed me to still do my other concerts.
"It really worked quite beautifully."
BALLET SAN JOSE INAUGURAL GALA
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: San Jose Center
for the Performing Arts,
255 Almaden Blvd.
Tickets: $45-$125, 408-288-2800, www.balletsj.org.