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Martha Knight brought the gift of ballet to her adoptive city

Those who adored her, and there are many, say Martha Knight was the dancer they aspired to, the artist they admired, the taskmaster they obeyed and the mentor and friend they grew to love.

A ballet teacher for six decades, Knight took on the roles of choreographer, set designer, producer, director and costume designer to create a string of local ballet productions that introduced the art form to thousands in her adopted city. Knight died June 2 at her home of complications from Alzheimer's disease. She was 89.

"Martha was a treasure in Bakersfield," said Lisa Maxwell, who studied ballet under Knight for several years

"She brought a lot of art to this city."

In a written tribute to Knight, Peter DeArmond, a former editorial page editor of The Californian, remembered watching his own daughter blossom under Knight's instruction before, somehow, being convinced to dance as well.

"I was hooked on the challenge, but it turned into a commitment during which I learned how difficult and painful ballet could be," DeArmond remembered. "To this day I believe the best way to appreciate this art form is to try learning it under a teacher like Martha Knight. Not only is ballet the most unusual art form in the world — relating stories through the movement of the human body in precise, specific detail, synced perfectly to musical beats and rhythms — but it often requires incredible balance, strength and stamina."

Born on March 21, 1932 in Oakland, Martha took ballet classes as a girl at Oakland Civic Ballet. The demanding art form soon became her passion. According to a family obituary, as a teenager, Martha began teaching young girls at her home in the Berkeley hills.

After graduating from El Cerrito High School, Martha enrolled at UC Berkeley, where she met John Knight, an optometry student who hailed from Bakersfield.

The couple married in 1955 after Martha graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in education. They settled in Bakersfield where her husband set up his practice.

Knight tried the teaching profession for a few years, but ballet was calling, and there was no ignoring it.

"Her passion was contagious," remembered Kay Hansen, who began taking ballet classes from Knight in 1962 when Hansen was just 8.

"It's hard to express exactly what she meant to me," Hansen said of her lifelong mentor and friend.

"She taught us not only to love ballet, but the poise and confidence that comes with it," she said. "We learned about perseverance, what commitment means."

All of Knight's students learned the meaning of hard work and sacrifice, Hansen said. They learned that striving for excellence was expected.

It's what Knight expected of herself as well.

"She didn't put on little recitals for the parents," said former ballet student and longtime friend Layne Smith.

"These were full-blown productions."

"Alice Through the Looking Glass," "The Emperor's New Clothes," "Aladdin," "Consider the Lilies." "Sleeping Beauty." These were just a few of the productions that were staged at some of the city's most popular venues: The Fox theater, The Doré at Cal State Bakersfield, the indoor and outdoor theaters at Bakersfield College, and more.

But it was "The King of Glory" in 1973 that was Knight's most ambitious production. Accomplished with help from Phil Dodson as musical director and top musicians from the Masterworks Chorale and the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra, the production was three years in the making and told the story of the life of Christ in dance and music.

Bakersfield had never seen anything like it. And every performance sold out.

"She was a taskmaster," Smith remembered with a chuckle.

"It could have been 12 o'clock at night. Martha would say, 'Let's get it right. Let's do it again.'"

And they would do it again. Until they got it right.

Knight was preceded in death by her son Jim Knight. She is survived by her husband of 65 years, John L. Knight, and by sons Doug Knight and Larry Knight. The Knights were blessed with five grandchildren.

Reporter Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.