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One Step at a Time, Dream of Ballet Company Takes Shape

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Once upon a time there was a little girl from Lynwood who wanted to become a ballerina.

The little girl trained at a ballet school in Compton, then she trained in New York. She trained and trained and trained until she became so good that a major ballet company hired her. And she lived happily ever after--until she returned home to Los Angeles.

What she saw here would sour any dancer’s storybook ending.

“I came back to L.A. and I couldn’t believe we don’t have a major world-class ballet company,” said Robyn Gardenhire.

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So Gardenhire, a former member of the renowned American Ballet Theatre, has launched an effort to develop a first-class Los Angeles-based ballet company and school. Armed with the same determination and love of dance that carried her from a school in Compton to a company with Mikhail Baryshnikov, she is hoping to give the city what others like New York, Boston and Cleveland have.

Last month her nonprofit City Ballet of Los Angeles opened a dance school in Pico-Union. It operates in the Salvation Army Red Shield Youth and Community Center at 11th and Union streets.

Gardenhire’s dream is an old and familiar one within this city’s classical dance community. That she is treading a path strewn with failed attempts--and that some better-known dance organizers have similar aspirations--does not trouble her or her supporters. Nor does the fact that she has virtually no money aside from private donations.

“We’re small, but we’re hoping to get very grand,” said C. Alex Datcher, an actress who serves as City Ballet’s executive director. “We’re doing it slowly. We’re building up people.”

Through a partnership with the Los Angeles Unified School District, selected students will study with City Ballet in free classes as early as this fall. Teachers will include a former member of the Bolshoi Ballet, Gardenhire said.

The new school is a welcome boost to the district’s effort to ensure an education in the art form, said Leah Bass-Baylis, the district’s dance advisor.

“It’s important that as a school district we develop meaningful partnerships with the dance entities in town that can offer quality instruction,” Bass-Baylis said.

Since opening the school, Gardenhire, who is six months pregnant, has been hard at work, teaching young children in the predominantly Latino neighborhood to love ballet even before they can spell the word. And she has exposed the children to other professional groups they otherwise would not see.

“She has just brought this whole new community into our center; it’s wonderful,” said Irene De Anda Lewis, executive director of the Red Shield Youth and Community Center.

One recent day at the studio, Gardenhire offered her last class of the summer session to about 12 students ages 6 to 11.

Outside the door, a few parents stood watching, beaming as their children warmed up to Chopin’s “Les Sylphides,” beaming as they moved through first and fifth position, through plies, grands plies and tendus.

But the children were watching Gardenhire, imitating her straight-backed grace and elegance, flexing and pointing, and being the ballerinas they have seen on film and television.

‘It’s Something That She Always Wanted’

“It’s something that she always wanted,” said Lucila de la O as she watched her daughter, 8-year-old Cecy Arias. “It’s good for her development because she’s exercising. She’s not watching TV.”

The group included 9-year-old David Barkley, whose friends simply cannot understand why he dances ballet.

“I tell them because I want to and it’s fun,” he said, jubilant after class. “I don’t listen to them. I want to dance on stage.”

In the lives of her young students, Gardenhire sometimes sees her own past. She got her start at about 4 at a primarily black ballet school in Compton in the 1970s.

Her mother, Margaret Gardenhire, loved dance as a child, but her own parents had 14 children and no money for extras. The only stage she danced on was the one in her mind.

“I used to pretend that I was a ballerina,” said Margaret Gardenhire, who lives in Los Angeles. “Pretend school was free.”

Margaret Gardenhire and her husband, Robert, were not wealthy either. They lived in a working-class community in Lynwood, but they supported their children’s passions.

They took Robyn to the ballet, signed her up when she wanted to dance and took her to auditions.

The landscape for dance was different when Gardenhire was a child. The Los Angeles Ballet was still performing and the Los Angeles Junior Ballet offered young, talented dancers an apprentice-type experience.

She has memories of older girls at the school taking her under their wings, of having professional ballet dancers sign her ballet shoes after a performance (the equivalent of catching a home-run ball and having a major league player sign it) and of falling in love with dance deeply and profoundly at an early age.

At 9 she performed a small role with the New York City Ballet and later joined the Los Angeles Junior Ballet.

“I wanted to dance,” she said. “I must have been a ham as a kid. I really did love it.”

At Lynwood High School, sometimes friends teased her about being a ballerina. But ballet gave her a chance to shine.

“At every assembly they’re asking you to do ‘Nutcracker,’ ” she said. “I was the ballerina in school.”

As a teenager, she studied at the American Ballet Theatre School and also the School of American Ballet, under the New York City Ballet. At 16 she danced with the Joffrey II Ballet Company. Over the years she also danced with the Cleveland Ballet, the Karol Armitage Company, the American Ballet Theatre under the direction of Baryshnikov, and later with his own company, Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Project.

On stage she was often the only black dancer--and people noticed. Little girls in Cleveland sent her letters each time she danced the “Nutcracker.”

“‘We saw you and we never saw a black ballerina before,”’ she said, recalling the letters. “That was touching.”

At the American Ballet Theatre, Gardenhire helped establish a diversity committee because of her concerns about representation and exposing all young people to the arts.

“Ballet has always been a primarily Caucasian art form,” she said. “That’s only because our kids are not pushed toward that. If you don’t see yourself in it, you don’t emulate it. Once you see yourself, you say, ‘I can do that.’ ”

In 1998 Gardenhire returned to a different Los Angeles: The Los Angeles Ballet folded in 1985. The Los Angeles Junior Ballet was gone as well. The reasons to create something like City Ballet kept adding up; but then so did the reasons not to.

Before launching, she talked to dancers and teachers in the city about ballet’s poor standing in the nation’s second-largest city. The reasons offered run the gamut: the cost associated with ballet, lack of an audience, a preference for dance rooted in other cultures, and the influence of Hollywood.

While there are professional, quality schools and companies in Los Angeles, the climate is not comparable to that in some other major cities, Gardenhire said. Serious ballet students often end up leaving the city.

Others, most notably John Clifford, have embarked on efforts similar to what City Ballet hopes to do--and have failed.

Stanley Holden, a former principal dancer of the Royal Ballet in London and a highly respected ballet instructor now retired in Southern California, understands Gardenhire’s dream.

“I had it too when I first came here 31 years ago,” Holden said. “Of course it got squashed.”

After seeing so many attempts fail, including his own, he resigned himself to teaching and sending his students “on their merry way” to other cities like New York. “I wish her good luck,” he said. “Maybe she can do it. I don’t know anybody who has been able to do it yet.”

Gardenhire’s comrades in ballet warned her that it would be difficult. She still saw possibility and enlisted the help of her longtime friend, Datcher.

Plans for a Full Season of Performances

“What I’d like to see happen is to have a need in Los Angeles fulfilled,” said Executive Director Datcher, who has appeared in film and on stage and television, including the UPN comedy “Good Behavior,” and has a long history of volunteering with youth programs in the city.

Under City Ballet’s umbrella will be a school with classes for highly talented youths and others who simply want to dance. There will also be an adult company that will offer audiences a full season of performances and dancers a chance to make a living in ballet. The school will keep the company supplied with trained professional dancers of all ethnicities.

“That’s my major goal here: to create a company that looks like Los Angeles,” Gardenhire said.

So far, the only aspect of her vision that has become a reality is the school, but it is the first step.

Gardenhire sees it all clearly--even though the budget is nowhere near the millions of dollars that City Ballet needs. For now, Gardenhire has a core group of supporters, including her husband, Ralph Nelson Gibson, a communications contractor and jazz musician. The two are the parents of 20-month-old Nola.

So why does Gardenhire think she can succeed where others have failed? Listen to her tell her story and it becomes clear: Because she has succeeded. Because everything about her experience in ballet, from childhood until now, has equipped her. Because the pen is in her hand and she’s writing this chapter.

“Even though I didn’t know I was preparing myself for this challenge,” she said, “I unknowingly prepared myself.”

She thought a moment, then added: “This is what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m a native Californian; I’m supposed to be doing this for L.A.”


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