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Young Dancers Takes Lessons From a Master

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Christine and Sonia Menendez, 14-year-old identical twins, love ballet. They take classes at St. Joseph Ballet school in Santa Ana five or six times a week, and in the summer they sometimes take two classes a day.

But Saturday’s ballet lesson, when the twins and 25 students from inner-city Santa Ana were led by ballet master Edward Villella, former danseur noble for the New York City Ballet and the artistic director of the Miami City Ballet, will always remain in a class by itself.

The Menendez twins and other advanced students from St. Joseph were invited to take the class with Villella as part of the Orange County Performing Arts Center’s ongoing effort to bring performing artists and young people together. After the class with Villella, the students watched him rehearse the Miami City dancers, and later in the day the performing arts center treated them to the company’s afternoon performance.

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The St. Joseph students had been amply prepared for Villella’s visit. They had seen famous photos of Villella when he danced with the New York City Ballet under George Balanchine. In the photos he floats in the air, legs out and muscles showing.

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And the young dancers had been told about Villella’s influence on American ballet--how Villella, 58, had been a boxer before becoming a dancer and how he had made ballet more athletic and popularized it for men.

“When I heard about it I couldn’t believe he was going to teach us,” said Christine Menendez.

“He’s like Baryshnikov,” Sonia Menendez added.

The St. Joseph students have had master classes with prestigious soloists before, but the class with Villella was meant to offer them a lifelong memory.

“They will always know that now they were led by a legend,” said Beth Burns, artistic director at St. Joseph.

“What we try to do at St. Joseph is be an intervention and prevention program for kids by showing them their artistic potential,” Burns said. “For them to have a master of the art form come and expect them to do their best is something wonderful. Often, growing up in an inner-city neighborhood tells you about your limits. They know all about limits. Now they see that they can do their best.”

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The girls, all wearing leotards and tights, tended to be the bravest of the group, standing in front where Villella could see them dance. The boys, wearing shorts and T-shirts, hung back a bit.

Throughout the lesson, Villella regulated the movements of the young dancers with gentle corrections and humorous explanations. Tapping his feet and moving from one side of the stage to the other, he always seemed on the verge of dancing himself.

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“Do you know what syncopation is?” he asked the group. He explained by catching and delaying his breathing. “We’re going to syncopate this step.”

Or: “We don’t really hold our arms out,” Villella said, as he noticed several ballerinas with arms incorrectly placed.

“Our arms are an extension of the position through the back,” he said. “You pull that elbow back and see what it does, it opens the chest up like crazy.”

The class, students agreed, was basic in scope, but Villella was a hit.

“He’s more open than any teacher I’ve had,” Christine Menendez said. “His dancing is very strong, very athletic. He makes you really present yourself.”

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“I thought it was a little bit easy, but you could see he didn’t know what we were capable of so he didn’t make it too hard,” said Thelma Macias, 13, of Santa Ana.

Bearing up under Villella’s scrutiny, however, required extra poise, they said.

After the St. Joseph students finished, the Miami City Ballet dancers warmed up for an hour, stretching, leaping and dancing to the same music that had been played for the students.

By the time Villella finished rehearsing, the professional dancers, the Menendez twins were day-dreaming out loud about auditioning for the company.

“Well, when you’re famous, just make sure you get me a good deal on tickets,” Macias said to them.

Villella’s hopes for the two-hour experience with St. Joseph, however, were more grounded.

“I’m not going to be able to present them with eight to 10 years of training in one class,” he said. “But I want to get them to see the fundamentals and understand the structure for each movement.

“Movement is something all humans enjoy,” Villella said. “And in dance, we have extended all the normal possibilities. Ballet teaches about relationships. It introduces art and beauty and the conversation between music and movement into their lives.”

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