In a studio where wall-length mirrors laid bare imperfections, a young ballerina floated in deceptive grace. "Balance," said her teacher. "Open shoulders, round the arms." The dancer wiped the sweat away. Music cued, a slipper scraped like a whisper across the floor. She spun in pirouettes, again and again, to get it right.
Genevieve Waldorf has been dancing since she was 2. She accepts criticism and praise with an unwavering stare. A senior at El Camino Real Charter High School in Woodland Hills, where she is class valedictorian, Waldorf, 17, dances up to 20 hours a week and studies just as long. She is intrigued by bioengineering and has learned not to mind the calluses on her feet.
"You have to be a perfectionist if you're a dancer — otherwise, you miss the details," said Waldorf, who has appeared in productions of "Giselle" and "The Sleeping Beauty." "When I'm on my game, my mind is clear and I sense the energy of the audience. I'm kind of a reserved person, so it's hard for me to be expressive. I'm working on that."
Waldorf was one of 14 student finalists from across Southern California who performed Tuesday evening in Walt Disney Concert Hall as part of the Music Center's Spotlight program. Families carried bouquets, and the finalists, dressed in tutus, sequins and modern dance attire, took the stage for numbers that included classical piano, jazz, soliloquies and a song from "Funny Lady."
Their talents were big, some remarkably so, but they were teenagers with preferences for YouTube, tidal pools and coffee ice cream. One had a fish named Andrew Jackson. They filled the hall — it was the first time Spotlight was presented at Disney — with friends and relatives who cheered from the cheap seats to the orchestra section. One woman commented to her friend about a 14-year-old ballerina: "She looks like she belongs on the top of a cake."
"Can you believe the talent on stage tonight?" said Jenna Elfman, star of the TV series "Dharma and Greg," who hosted the evening. "Doesn't it give you hope for the future?"
The 27-year-old Spotlight arts education initiative has reached more than 40,000 high school students and handed out more than $1.5 million in scholarships. Its alumni include Misty Copeland, a dancer at the American Ballet Theatre; singer Josh Groban; and Michelle Kim, a violinist with the New York Philharmonic.
Spotlight's musical training helps compensate for years of arts cutbacks in public schools. Between 2008 and 2013, the Los Angeles Unified School District trimmed arts funding by 41%. The district has since increased funding from $19 million to $22.7 million in fiscal year 2014-2015. Two years ago the nonprofit Los Angeles Fund for Public Education announced $750,000 worth of grants to strengthen arts education.
The Spotlight program holds 70 days of auditions each year for students of all skill levels in ballet, non-classical dance, classical voice, non-classical voice, classical instrumental, jazz instrumental and acting. Those who made it to Disney Hall went through preliminary and semifinal rounds and master classes where judges critiqued artistic interpretation and technique. They also receive tips on building confidence in auditions, coping with the emotional rigors of performing and preparing for college and job interviews.
"A lot of the focus is to prepare students for those moments when we have to take a risk on ourselves," said Jeri Gaile, an actress and former ballet dancer, who heads Spotlight, one of a number of arts education programs sponsored by the Music Center. "The thrust of the program is not just on the exceptional kids. I'm more interested in the 1,600 kids who sign up [each year] and go through our classes."
"The schools don't do anything like this," Stormy Sacks, a vocal coach and music teacher at Ramón C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts in downtown, said of Spotlight. "This is the only way kids can get a real audition situation with real judges. It raises their abilities exponentially. It's a brilliant program, and I hope nothing happens to it."
Hannah Song glided across the stage in a blue gown, her long hair pulled back, violin at her chin. She performed Polonaise Brillante No. 1, Op. 4 by 19th century composer Henryk Wieniawski.
The daughter of a pediatric dentist, Song, 14, who lives in Irvine, began playing the violin eight years ago. She is home-schooled — taking classes online — so she can spend more time practicing. Days before her performance, Song spoke of Mendelssohn and Bach as if they were uncles and credited Beethoven's "many musical varieties and different personalities. It's beautiful, melodic and kind of devastating sometimes."
She said her training, including instruction at the Colburn School's Young Artists Academy, was teaching her to "really sing the note, to make each note special." But, like many children her age, Song, who has a self-knowledge beyond her years, was reticent about her gift and explained that it was difficult at times to connect with the audience.
"I'm introverted," she said. "I'm focusing too much in what I'm doing, but I need to be more conversational with the audience. I need to show them what I feel when I play. I'm an entertainer, and they need to see that." This was her first season in Spotlight, and she said she was inspired by the talent around her: "I learn from people my age to make me a better musician."
When asked if she ever thought about doing anything else, Song, an honorable mention in Spotlight who performed Tuesday night to fill in for a finalist who couldn't attend, appeared puzzled.
"I've dedicated pretty much everything to this," she said. "I gave up public school and socializing with friends to spend more time with the violin. I'd like to go to a conservatory and become part of a Philharmonic."
Shortly after Song took her bow in Disney Hall, Waldorf, her tall frame lithe and fluid, danced the role of the black swan from "Swan Lake." It was her fourth year in Spotlight, and her poise, much of it instilled by her teacher Andrea Paris-Gutierrez, whom Waldorf calls "Miss Andrea," was evident.
Waldorf rehearsed the dance a week earlier in Paris-Gutierrez's Los Angeles Ballet Academy in Encino. Head straight, back arched, Waldorf draped one arm as if a wing; she pirouetted and lifted into flight. She stopped, breathing hard.
"Weight forward. You got behind the music," said Paris-Gutierrez, adding that her student was rushing the final bit. Then she added: "You have a balance that's so beautiful."
Waldorf stood still and listened. "Some days you feel you just get criticized and you're no good," she said later. "But as I've got older, I realized the teachers are focusing on the small things so I must have the big things right. I'm always looking to improve my technique. It'll never be perfect. I can always get my leg higher than it is."
She has the same attitude toward academics. The daughter of software engineers, Waldorf will graduate with honors next month and enroll in college as an engineering major. What university to attend will be predicated on how close it is to a professional ballet company.
"I want to dance on stage while I'm getting my degree," she said, noting that since she was a first-grader she has learned to balance books and ballet.
"I never dreaded going to ballet class," she said. "My passion has grown as I've gotten older."