MORNINGS are quiet on the residential stretch of College Avenue in Berkeley, where Julia Morgan's elegant Craftsman-style theater rests under shady trees. From the outside, it seems impossible to imagine the few dozen dancers who are inside sweating up a storm in Sally Streets' morning ballet class.

Sometimes sharp, sometimes funny, but always plain-spoken, the 73-year-old Streets presides over the class -- a mix of regulars and drop-ins, older and younger, professional and non-professional -- with equal measures of earthy common sense and inspiration.

Nothing seems to escape her notice, from the tip of a head to the angle of a toe, but then, this is doubtless what has made her one of the Bay Area's most sought-after teachers. Perhaps her best-known student is her own daughter, Kyra Nichols, who in June will retire from after an unprecedented 33-year career in New York City Ballet.

Midway into the class, she stops all the action to give a correction to a dancer -- and it seems she's given this correction before. The young dancer is respectfully attentive, but obviously hesitant, and Streets goes on.

"You know," she says quietly, "you might just want to take what I say seriously. After 70 odd years or so, I think I know a thing or two."

Indeed, in the course of a rich career, Streets has been associated with a dizzying array of ballet companies, including New York City Ballet, Pacific Ballet, Oakland Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Diablo Ballet, and her own Berkeley Ballet Theater, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this season.


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Streets took her first ballet classes though at Dorothy Pring's Berkeley studio, only steps away from where she now teaches. "It was on Forest Avenue, just two blocks away," she says with a laugh. "I guess I've come full circle."

A professional from a young age, Streets joined the legendary company of Mia Slavenska's Ballet Variante right out of high school and toured with them for a couple of years.

"It was on an old school bus," she recalls, "with the costumes stored in the back of the bus in wicker baskets. When we got to our destination, we all had to help bring the costumes in, set up ironing boards, steam the costumes, then have class, then do the performance, then get back on the bus. Sometimes we had to ride all night to the next place or late at night to get to the next place. Oh it was all over the United States. For a year you were on the bus!"

After a few years, however, Slavenska's company planned a tour to Japan and Streets learned that she would not be taken along. "Oh, I was furious. I thought, 'I'll show you!' And I went and auditioned for New York City Ballet." She laughs in amazement, "And they took me. It was just luck, because someone had hurt themselves the night before and they needed a corps person. So I just dropped into New York City Ballet."

The young company was then under George Balanchine's careful development, but Streets saw a golden era marked by stars such as Maria Tallchief, Jillana and Tanaquil LeClerq. Even so, the pragmatic young dancer only stayed for a few years, giving ballet up when she met and married her husband.

Dance was never quite out of the picture. Even after Streets had her first two children, she ran a ballet school out of her basement. Nevertheless, after eight years away from the stage, when Alan Howard called her to say he was forming a company called Pacific Ballet, she still felt compelled to sneak out of the house without telling her husband where she was going. "I just knew he'd be very upset that I was going back to this thing that consumes your whole life," she says. "But once I got back to the barre, that was it, I became hooked again."

Under the direction of the charismatic Howard, Streets came back to the stage full force, starring in exotic ballets made for the company by Mark Wilde and John Pasqualetti and honing her teaching skills under ballet masters such as Richard Gibson, who now runs the Academy of Ballet in those same studios. When Pacific Ballet closed, she turned to the Oakland Ballet, dancing for another seven years under the direction of Ronn Guidi.

With the founding of Berkeley Ballet Theater in 1981, Streets finally began a career as choreographer and full-time teacher. For Diablo Ballet alone, she's choreographed 17 new works (she's the company's artistic advisor), and she's taught all over the world.

"You ask about it, I've been there," she observes. "It was a very rich time in ballet."

Reach Times dance correspondent Mary Ellen Hunt at mehunt@criticaldance.com.

PREVIEW

  • WHAT: Berkeley Ballet Theater's spring season: "Cinderella" and "Nonet" by Sarah Marcus, "Le Cirque Magnifique sans Elephants" by Sally Streets, "But Not Forgotten" by Brian Fisher and "Heartfelt" by Damara Vita Ganley

  • WHEN: 7 p.m. May 18, 2 and 7 p.m. May 19, 2 p.m. May 20

  • WHERE: Julia Morgan Theater, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley

  • HOW MUCH: $15-$20

  • MORE INFO: www.berkeleyballet.org, 510-843-4689