Sleeping Beauties

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Faces look down on the streets from a brick apartment building on 9th Street, where clumps of schoolchildren gather on sidewalks and slowly make their way home. Laundry hangs in windows, catching the sun and gathering a thin afternoon breeze bearing Latin music that sweeps through Pico-Union.

It is a part of Los Angeles talked about primarily for its gunfire and gangs, for its alcohol and drugs, for the struggles of those who in many instances come to America with little money and desperate hope.

It is also a place of grace, says Mario Nugara, evident in the way that so many of the immigrant families invest wholeheartedly in their children's dreams, in the way that love flourishes and faith sustains.

Samantha Ortega, 9, walks this way three times a week with her 10-year-old brother, who sometimes races her to the corner, and her mother, who pushes a baby stroller. They walk more than a mile past blocks of gated doors and windows, razor wire coiled above fences, men pushing shopping carts. Their destination is the Red Shield Community Center of the Salvation Army, where Nugara, artistic director of the City of Angels Ballet, adds to the grace already present in their lives.

A 1991 Fulbright scholar, Nugara has taught and performed around the world. He danced with the New York City Ballet while training at the School of American Ballet and later danced with the Boston Ballet and Fort Worth Ballet.

In 1993, soon after having taught in Denmark and Sweden, Nugara came to Pico-Union with a unique and bold plan. Through an art form rooted in 17th century French royalty, he set out to build an inner-city program that would become an academy, and in his vision he saw the academy feeding dancers into a resident program for the city of Los Angeles.

"I know it's ambitious," he says. "I wanted to start in the inner city because I think everybody deserves a chance. There's incredible talent here, and it's largely untapped."

Samantha is in her second year of the program. Nugara came to her school one day, she says, and talked to students about ballet. He looked at her feet, which made her feel a bit awkward, and told her she should consider ballet.

She had seen a picture in a window once of a ballerina and was immediately taken by her beauty. Heeding Nugara's suggestion, she asked her mother, Rosa Avilez, if she could take lessons.

Of course, Avilez said. It is why she came here from Honduras in 1985. Here, she says, there are opportunities to learn. Samantha, who also studies the violin, already has assembled a fluid and far-reaching list of potential careers: nurse, doctor, ballerina, firefighter. They're all good dreams, her mother says.

They live in a small apartment and have no car. When Avilez was pregnant last year, even two days before giving birth, she walked her children to the Salvation Army because, she says, her children's lives mean everything to her.

Almost all of the students are on scholarships and pay nothing for lessons. They come from varied backgrounds and from about 15 different schools. It is vital, Nugara says, for the program to reflect L.A.'s diversity.

Aracely Gomez came to America from El Salvador. Her daughter Vannesa, 12, has been dancing 2 1/2 years. They take two buses to get to the center six days a week. Last year, Gomez had surgery, and Vannesa missed lessons for two weeks.

"When I was sick, I was glad Vannesa had her ballet because it makes her feel happy and loved," Gomez says through an interpreter. "She doesn't feel so much sadness."

Following the surgery, even when she was in pain, she would bring Vannesa to lessons, she says. "She loves it so much, I will do anything so she can dance."

Heather Ferguson, 15, is from Hacienda Heights. She met Nugara two years ago, when she was training at the Palm Springs Ballet Co., where Nugara was a guest instructor. Impressed by his knowledge and teaching sensibilities, she transferred to City of Angels.

Heather started lessons when she was 7 and has since qualified for highly competitive summer programs sponsored by the Pacific Northwest Ballet, School of America Ballet and San Francisco Ballet.

The bond she feels with the other students, she says, is built of a shared commitment to ballet, a shared stirring within that is expressed through dance.

Lydia Shook, 13, a third-year student, is from Hancock Park. Her mother, Lynne, is a psychotherapist; her father, Thomas, is a neurosurgeon and chairs the City of Angels Ballet Board of Directors.

"We come for two reasons, equally important," Lynne Shook says. "One is Mario. We think he's the best teacher in the city. The other reason is the other students. I think if you live in Los Angeles and you raise children in Los Angeles, it's really important that your children make contact with all other kinds of children in this city. I wouldn't live here if we didn't have the opportunity to do that."

It has to do with experiencing all that is good in the city, she says. It is not about doing charity work in a poor neighborhood.

"I really do not believe in the community service model, where you take kids into the community and you say, 'See these people? They don't have what we have, and we need to help them.' We are here for selfish reasons. This community has benefits that are incredibly valuable to us. The people who live here are, frankly, closer to the values we hold as a family. My grandparents came to this country from Lebanon, and I'm just more comfortable in an immigrant community."

The students arrive at the Salvation Army by bus, by Benz, by foot. It is not important where they come from or how they get here. What is important, they say, is what happens once they arrive.

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Nugara is setting up a caravan to transport his intermediate and advanced dancers to the Los Angeles Theatre Center for a run-through of a performance two days away. The program will include pieces from "The Sleeping Beauty," "Swan Lake" and "Raymonda Variations."

On Spring Street near skid row, the students get their first look at the stage, the dressing room, the red-cushioned seats that climb steeply to the top of the theater. It is the first time they have had such elaborate accommodations.

The performance is for the City of Angels annual fund-raiser. Most of its financial support comes from corporate, foundation and private donations, which total less than $100,000 a year. But the fund-raiser is critical in generating both revenue and interest in the program.

City of Angels has been built from the ground up. That, too, was part of Nugara's vision. Dancers were brought in at ages 7 and 8 and are now 12 and 13. The oldest dancers are only 15.

As they develop, ballet officials are hopeful that funding will increase, allowing the program to hire more teachers and transport students in from Chinatown, Koreatown, South-Central, and Russian and Armenian immigrant communities, Nugara says.

There is a long way to go to achieve their goals, and so the work must be taken seriously. Nugara is clear with students from the beginning that they are here to train. They have been chosen because they have been blessed with the requisite physical attributes, the feet, the legs and hips, to become ballet dancers.

"I explain to parents that this is not like Little League baseball where everyone who comes can play, and some of them may go into the major leagues but everybody's here to have a good time. They can do that at parks and rec programs, and there are very good programs for that purpose. I'm here to train them to be ballet dancers. It's very serious."

The dancers are not allowed to date, for there is no time for that. They must give up activities such as soccer. Parents are not allowed to watch practice because it is distracting. Unexcused absences are not tolerated.

"I don't have to put up with what the schools have to," Nugara says. "They can't just throw kids out, where I will and they know that, and I've done it in the past. If they don't toe the line, they can't take class."

On the theater stage, the dancers go through their performance, the little ones watching in silent awe as the older girls dance. Samantha stands in the wings, engulfed.

"They get to escape," Nugara says. "And the people who come to see get to escape for that hour or two hours. They get to leave everything else behind when they're in the theater. It offers children an opportunity to leave everything outside because they have to focus on what goes on in here."

They are captured by the magic.

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An hour before their performance, the older dancers are stretching, while the younger ones remain in the dressing room. Mothers have come early to help them with their hair, their makeup and costumes.

In a room with mirrors on every wall, Samantha carefully examines her lips, her eyes. They are on strict orders to not put on the delicate tutus until the program is about to begin.

At other times, with other performers, nerves would be taut in this room, but today there is only glee. The girls are sliding across the slick floor, bouncing off one another. They are paired off, slapping hands in an intricate and fast-paced game similar to patty-cake.

"My sailor went to I, I, I. To see what he could I, I, I. But all that he could I, I, I. Was the bottom of the ocean I, I, I. My sailor went to love, love, love . . . ."

Half an hour before curtain time, an announcement is made, "Last chance to go to the bathroom." Half of the girls quickly disappear.

Then, finally, the tutus go on. Instantly, the demeanors change. It becomes quiet, and the girls begin to focus. Nugara enters the room, and they fan out in front of him.

They stand in single file as they make their way up the stairs to the stage.

The lights dim, the curtains open, the music and dancing begin. Guadalupe "Lupita" Juarez's daughter leans over and asks whether those are the costumes Juarez made. There are tears in Juarez's eyes as she tells her yes.

"They're beautiful," the daughter says.

Juarez had never seen tutus until Nugara brought one to her and asked whether she could make them. She studied it carefully, then went to work, spending up to 11 hours a day sewing in the family's one-room apartment.

Today is her first time at the ballet.

"The girls are beautiful," she says. "They look like little dolls."

When the curtain falls, the audience stands. The young dancers are given flowers. Each year, progress is evident, Nugara says. They move a step closer, but there is still a long way to go, and some of the students must be willing to walk the full distance to their dreams. They bow to the audience with smiles, and with grace.

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