Graceful Girl Dances Onto Larger Stage
Jazz rhythms filled the warehouse-sized dance studio as 5 1/2-year-old Elisabeth (Lissa) Moss twirled and leaped in her tiny ballet slippers.
“Get your legs higher!” Natasha Middleton, Lissa’s coach and dance teacher, called out. The diminutive dancer began the routine again, this time raising her legs a little higher.
At an age when most children are struggling to remember which is their right foot and which their left, Lissa can execute a perfect arabesque on command, according to Middleton. The almost-first-grader has been taking ballet lessons for about a year, and already has some impressive credits.
She stars in a video, “Eternal Child,” in which she dances classical ballet to a Chick Corea jazz composition. “Eternal Child,” which is shown on various cable services around the country, including MTV, is from the six-time Grammy winner’s latest album, “Eye of the Beholder.” The video was filmed at Andrei Tremaine’s Academie of Dance and Related Arts in North Hollywood, where Middleton, the choreographer, teaches. It features adult professional dancers as well as cameo appearances by John Travolta, Karen Black, and Al Jarreau.
In June, Lissa, who lives in Studio City with her parents and 4-year-old brother, Derek, danced the same part at the Greek Theater and at New York’s Beacon Theater with Corea, his band, and Herbie Hancock.
Her mother, Linda Moss, a country music songwriter, said Lissa wants to dance from the time she gets up in the morning until she has to go to sleep.
“She gets tired, but she never gets whiny,” said Moss. “During a show, especially in New York, where it was quite hot, I’d come and pick Lissa up after rehearsals of a couple of hours, and she and Natasha would be dripping with sweat. And the rehearsals were very late, from 9:30 to 11 p.m. sometimes.
“When she’d get home, she’d go right to the ballet barre to work on things she’d been corrected on. I’d tell her it was time to sleep, and she’d say, ‘No, no, Natasha says I have to get my arabesque higher.’ ”
Even when she plays with her friends, she pretends to be Middleton. Her mother has heard her say to a couple of 3-year-olds, “OK, don’t stick those tushes out. Come on. I don’t want to see a bunch of dumb ballerinas.”
But Linda Moss emphasizes that Lissa is “just a normal kid.”
“When she stays up late at night, she sleeps in in the morning. If she knows she needs some sleep, she takes a nap. Since she goes to a private school, they understand. Students go at their own pace, and she can always catch up. She’s an excellent student. It would never, ever get to where her academics were suffering, since we’re all so concerned about that.”
Divona Lewis, director of Mace Kingsley Preparatory Academy in North Hollywood, where Lissa is a student, echoes Moss’ assessment. “Lissa is an extremely normal, well-adjusted child. She’s a real good student; the other children love her, and she’s very social. She just happens to love dancing and be very good at it.”
Although formal lessons are a recent development in Lissa’s life, show business routines are not. Her father, Ron Moss, is a trombone player, manager (for Corea, among others), and record producer. Lissa has moved and danced to music since she was 3.
‘A Lot of Jazz’
“We played a lot of jazz, country, and good rock around the house,” said Linda Moss. “Lissa and her brother have always been in studios, on tours, and at rehearsals. So for them it’s, you grow up and you either dance or do music. That’s what Mom and Dad do.”
Corea was seeking a young dancer after he conceived the “Eternal Child” story line, in which a very young ballerina grows up and eventually passes on her slippers to another young girl. Meanwhile, Lissa had started taking lessons, so her father suggested Corea give her a try.
“I’ve known Ron Moss for 20 years,” said Corea, “and I’ve known Lissa since she was born. Our relationship before we did the video was like big ol’ Chic and little Lissa.
“My first experience with her was when she sat down before the cameras one early morning to do some shooting, not the dancing part. She picks up the dance slippers at the beginning of the video, and the amazing thing was her poise in front of the camera and her ability to just comfortably be there.
“And that quality turns out to be what people call charisma, or presence. And all of a sudden, it was real interesting that no longer did I have this relationship with her as big ol’ Chick and little Lissa, but now she was a teammate making this film.”
Corea said: “The 5-year-old, all of a sudden, kind of in the snap of a finger, turned professional. And then when she danced, she elicited spontaneous applause from the cameramen and everybody there.”
Lissa, while enjoying the applause of others, is critical of her own performances. In fact, when she dances at home, she becomes angry if her mother claps at a piece that is less than perfect.
“She’ll tell me exactly what was wrong,” Moss said. “She’ll say, ‘My turnout was awful on my arabesque.’ ”
When she watches a copy of her video, according to her mother, Lissa usually says something like, “Oh, did you see that? I couldn’t get high enough on my saute de chat"--a type of leap--"because of that cigarette butt on the stage.”
When Linda Moss was younger, she studied ballet and jazz dancing for seven years, and she knew that if she had a daughter she would have her learn ballet “for the poise.” A daughter of a friend was studying with Middleton and recommended her.
Middleton’s students, including Lissa, learn folk dancing, as well as ballet. To prevent injuries to her charges’ vulnerable bodies, she teaches the children at an early age what each of their muscles is called and what they do.
“We work very carefully to get exact placement,” Middleton said. “Lissa is trained to not overdo anything, and learns how to land properly to prevent knee injuries and shin splints.”
Ballet prodigies of this magnitude are quite rare, according to Middleton. Cynthia Gregory, who is one of the top names in the field, studied with Tremaine, who is Middleton’s father, between the ages of 13 and 16 and went on to dance with the San Francisco Ballet and the American Ballet Theater. (Tremaine used to dance with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and was the artistic director of his Pacific Ballet Theatre.)
“Lissa is going in that direction,” said Middleton, “if she continues to improve the way she is. Now she improves noticeably per week.”
A large percentage of young ballerinas drop out between the ages of 13 and 15. Middleton said she has seen “fantastic talent just go right through my hands.”
“Others don’t care about school activities and peer pressure and just continue dancing. Nowadays they have to be superb, excellent, by the time they’re 16, or they have to hang up their shoes,” she said.
Lissa attends ballet classes four times a week for an hour. According to her mother, she is so disciplined she won’t even eat ice cream. Lissa says she’s worried about it “ruining her line.”
Nonetheless, her mother said, “She’s a happy kid. She never gets stressed out.”
Lissa begins a Midwest tour with Corea Sept. 15. She has also played roles in productions at the dance studio, and is preparing for a part in “The Sound of Music,” to be performed there in the winter. Talks are under way about a part in a motion picture to be filmed in Yugoslavia, in which she’d play a Russian ballerina.
Also in the talking stages are a children’s video about ballet, and a Soviet tour with Corea.
And what does Lissa say she likes best about dancing? “The lights and the people and the clapping. I like Chick Corea, and I like dancing with Chick Corea. And I like being the Eternal Child.”