A Legacy in Motion

TIMES STAFF WRITER

July 24, 1999: It is the last day--in fact, the last mile--of the Axelrad family vacation. Liza Bercovici and her husband, David Axelrad, Studio City attorneys, are bicycling in Grand Teton national park with their children, Gabriella, 13, and Jake, 8. It is an empty road, a gorgeous place, a perfect finale to the annual summer excursion. "We never took vacations without the kids," Liza would later say. "Maybe we should have."

A van appears. The young man at the wheel is changing a CD. In an eye-blink, he swerves and hits Gabriella at 50 mph. Her tall, slim dancer's body flies up off the bike and away. Her mother remembers almost nothing of the tragedy beyond that moment. The daughter whom she describes as "the light of our life" is dead.

June 16, 2001: On this humid Saturday night, 23 months after Gabriella's death, hundreds pack the rented auditorium of a school at First and Vermont. They are there to watch 300 children, their cherished children, dance. The audience is diverse--Asian, African American, European, South and Central American. They are all puffed up and expectant, these parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and siblings of children who study at a new dance academy that opened one year ago in the Wilshire district, across from LaFayette Park. It is a part of town not known for high cultural events, or for parents able to afford private lessons in the arts for their kids. The audience understands that the children who will perform are a very lucky few: They are recipients of a gift from a child who died, and who left her mother to fulfill the meaning of her life.

*

The performance is golden. Three hundred dancers, ages 4 to 14, scrubbed and shining, hair combed flat and back from their faces, in black dancer's garb and making impeccably elegant moves to the strains of Mozart, Enya, Madonna, Manhattan Transfer, the Mighty Blue Kings, to name a few of the selections.

The audience responds with awe and admiration. It knows excellence when it sees it. Observers might not realize that the five who teach jazz, tap, ballet, hip-hop and flamenco to their kids, free of charge, are some of the best children's dance instructors in the world. One trained with London's Royal ballet, all have danced professionally and taught privately around the globe.

The performance over, the room erupts in chants of " Liza, Liza, Liza."

Bercovici takes a quick, modest bow and heads for the lunchroom next door, where she sets out 90 pizzas she's purchased and desserts the parents have brought.

It is a celebration of achievement, an appreciation of art. It is a kind of Fellini-esque picnic, with the big tables jampacked with even bigger families, their plates piled high. Bercovici, 48, receives soulful thank-yous from parents who understand what she has endured and overcome--and given to their kids.

At evening's end, she, her husband and sons (Jake, now 10 and Joe, 19) tote huge plastic bags around the room to pick up the trash.

Nobody says it, but everyone knows: Gabriella was there.

*

The story of how this mother channeled grief into an extraordinary achievement in her daughter's name is just beginning to unfold.

There will soon be more than 1,000 dance students in the program, called Everybody Dance, which is expanding to three more locations near downtown Los Angeles--areas even poorer than the housing project where the program began. Students at several new charter schools--including one she helped launch--will also get free dance instruction.

Dance lessons are a fraction of what Bercovici might ultimately achieve under the umbrella of the Gabriella Axelrad Education Foundation, the nonprofit group Bercovici organized less than a year after her daughter's death.

She has already located funds and organized a community-based group to overhaul Lafayette Park itself, to build a stage and gymnasium where the 15,000 children who live within a square mile of the park will be able to study, perform, do sports, exercise and have fun.

But in the months right after her child's death, Bercovici said, she, too, "just wanted to die."

They returned home to Studio City on the day of the accident. "I was traumatized, on medication, the next few months were a blur. Not just me, of course, but our whole family. We were so close-knit, and Gabri was our center. Joe was older, finishing at Harvard-Westlake [High School], starting his own outside life. Gabri and Jake were still kids, still there. They were very close, and she was such a good sister. She was still at an age where she wanted to be with me a lot -- we were just crazy about each other. "

And Gabriella loved to dance.

"She would go into rooms by herself, turn on music and just dance. Eventually, she took classes--she was so graceful, had this natural sense of rhythm and movement. Dancing made her happy ....It was what really mattered in her life."

Bercovici recalls that her daughter had some big triumphs right before she died. She had applied to a special dance program at Harvard-Westlake -- one that requires an audition and a dance routine that the student has choreographed herself. "She'd had a tough year. But then she became an honors student, she acquired a nice social life -- and, best of all for her, she was accepted into this dance program she had wanted so much."

*

Bercovici returned to work in September, two months after the tragedy.

"I would go in and sit there. I did not have the energy or focus to deal with my clients," the family law specialist said. "It was clear that I needed to stop .... I started calling up lawyers I knew and asking them to take some of my cases. Everyone understood and helped out."

A friend of Bercovici's sent a series of stories that had run in The Times about the St. Joseph Ballet company--a dance program founded by former Catholic nun Beth Burns in a church basement in Santa Ana. "She had built it into a fabulous program that served a huge number of kids," Bercovici recalled. "I began to wonder if something similar could be done in L.A., I wanted to do something to memorialize Gabri's life and make it matter, something that would also give my own life meaning."

Still practicing law, she often had to visit the courthouse near Lafayette Park. It was near where her friend Rob MacLeod had an office. MacLeod, whom she calls "a brilliant developer," had found a way to save the elegant old Sheraton Townhouse hotel from demolition, turning it into low-income housing. Although city officials had not relished MacLeod's proposal, saying people didn't want to live in vertical housing, MacLeod had 5,000 applicants for 142 apartments. Most of the applicants had children. The building, with it's high ceilinged , light-filled public spaces, is now full of delighted tenants.

Bercovici noticed "a large, lovely, unused space" right next to the former ballroom that is now MacLeod's office . She asked if she could use it to offer dance classes to community kids. He said, "It's yours. Rent free." Bercovici was not a dancer and had no idea how to set up classes. She was not a nonprofit organizer, either. But she had lots of friends, and they had many connections and talents. Within months, her organization was set up, and had raised enough money to start offering classes.

She also solicited recommendations from the dance community for someone to serve as artistic director of the program. Multiple recommendations came in for the same person: Carol Zee, 30, a vivacious dancer who had stopped performing to complete her K-12 dance teaching credential. The two women met, Zee was obviously right for the job and she was hired on the spot.

Zee then recruited dance teachers for the various disciplines. When the team was complete, they put on performances at local schools , sending kids home with flyers so their parents could enroll them in the program.

Bercovici determined at the start that Everybody Dance would not serve as a substitute for day care or be a casual drop-in kind of place. Children would be asked to make a commitment, show up regularly or be dropped from classes. The classes would be free, but a $5 registration fee would be required every eight weeks.

She remembers that "we were cleaning the studio on Sunday, April 30, 2000, which was our first open house for parents to come and sign up their kids. I didn't think anyone would come. Then I look out the window at the gate, and I see this huge crowd of people waiting for it to open. I thought, 'They couldn't possibly be waiting for us.' But, of course, they were.

"We started with 35 kids in 12 classes in August. By September we were up to 26 classes a week. We still had wait lists. Now we are at 33 classes a week. And we still have wait lists."

Bercovici, a novice at all this, discovered she had great instincts for putting people together to do good works. Taking a step beyond dance, she linked experts who could create a charter school that would serve the children of the area. The ideal site for the school was right under their noses: the poolside lanai apartments at the former Sheraton Townhouse, now renamed MacLeod Townhouse.

With building owner MacLeod's blessing, the charter school group turned the lanai rooms into a K-5 charter school. Today, students sit in poolside classrooms overlooking beds of flowers. They take hourlong dance classes from Bercovici's teachers four days a week, during school hours, as part of their curriculum. Some are so enthralled with the idea that they also attend the after-school dance classes which serve the entire community.

Everybody Dance opens on school days from 3:30 to 6:15 and on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Most kids walk to class. The youngest take class Saturdays, when their parents can bring them.

In general, Bercovici said, jazz, tap and hip-hop are first choice for older kids; tap and ballet attract the mid-range kids. And everyone seems to like ballet. Even the boys.

"I do Tarzan from 'Storms in Africa,"' said Sal Aleman, 11. "I love jazz and ballet. My parents think it's cool. But they were worried about tight pants." Sal said he told them he wouldn't have to wear tights ... just black dancer's pants and they were happy."

Javier Gatica, 10, who had never heard of ballet before the school opened, said he'll be a dancer when he grows up.

The boys walk to class after school. Bercovici said many parents don't have cars, and for the recent big Saturday night show she rented buses so her dancers and their families would be sure to get there.

When new facilities open across the street in the park, she said, the entire community can come see the students perform.

MacLeod said Bercovici's success is remarkable.

"She has created a during-and-after-school dance program for inner-city children, persevering where others have let excuses stop them. The bureaucrats and politicians are toothlessly inept at accomplishing anything good for kids. What's needed is more private-sector angels like Liza."

Is he annoyed by the noise of dancing kids so close to his office? "It's enlivening. It brings a smile to my face. I hear the music, I see the kids dancing. I look at how they are so polite and orderly in their little uniforms ... and it makes me thankful."

The dance program will soon expand to share space in a storefront church near MacArthur Park, and will serve the community adjacent to it.

The students, many of whom have never been inside a movie theater, and most of whom have never taken any kind of lessons, will learn not only to dance, but all the things that dancing entails. They will learn to focus, to discipline mind and body, to work together to achieve a common goal.

They will soar to sounds and rhythms they may never have heard before, and discover themselves in the process.

They will also discover the legacy of Gabriella Axelrad, whose picture will be on the school wall, and whose name will appear on the back of their T-shirts.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°