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Photo courtesy of Madeline Engel

Alivia Martin, left, appears as Gretel with Grace Kraley, center, as Hansel and guest artist Kay Hansen as the Evil Witch in Bakersfield Ballet Theatre's production of "Hansel and Gretel," which will be performed Saturday at Harvey Auditorium.

It takes about a half-dozen driven, talented people to put on the show-stopping productions mounted every other year by the Bakersfield Ballet Theater.

And they're all named Martha Knight.

"She hasn't had anyone but herself (teaching) there for years and years," said Laura Engel, whose daughter Madeline will dance in the company's upcoming performance.

"She's the artistic genius, the perfectionist and she's really been amazing."

Engel said that Knight has written and choreographed a repertoire of more that 20 ballets in her 56 years as head of the dance company, located on 18th Street downtown.

"Hansel and Gretel," which features about 27 dancers, and the shorter program, "Rumanian Rhapsody," are Knight originals, first performed by the company in 1986, said Engel, who added that the family-friendly program is suitable for children as young as 4.

"Hansel and Gretel" is based on the familiar fairy-tale, though Knight has added her customary artistic flourishes, including the introduction of a corps of angels who look after the abandoned children, as well as an interesting special effect: a billowing "cloud" made of a silky off-white parachute-like material over which the children dance.

Knight said though the tale can be a little grim, there are many moments of levity, like the scene where a flock of birds eat the trail of breadcrumbs left by the brother and sister to mark their way home.

"Some are stork-like in their movement," Engel said. "It's a riotous scene and adorable ballet."

The evening begins with "Rumanian Rhapsody," which runs about 15 minutes.

The current program has been in rehearsals for about a year, Engel said.

"By the time she stages a ballet, she's out in the audience and the kids know what to do, and they do it," Engel said of Knight. "She doesn't have to direct them anymore. We don't have anyone giving cues. All the little kids are assigned to an older person for costume changes. It all works like a piece of machinery, which I've always thought was rather amazing. The kids know it cold."

Though a biennial public performance schedule may seem like slow-going, Engel said picking up the pace on the complicated choreography would be brutal for the children and parents alike.

"There was a time that there was a huge production every summer, in June," Engel said.

"It tied up your summers and there was extra rehearsal time. You lived and breathed ballet all year long and a break in August and then you were back. I personally am very happy with this."