Lila Zali, the feisty founder of Ballet Pacifica, Orange County’s most prominent ballet company, has died. She was 84.
Zali died Saturday of natural causes at South Coast Medical Center in Laguna Beach.
“She was truly an amazing woman who had a major impact on dance in Orange County and on everyone she taught,” said Molly Lynch, Ballet Pacifica’s artistic director. “She brought dance to Orange County at a time when it was ranching and orange groves. She had the foresight to found a studio and start a company. She left a tremendous legacy.”
A daughter of Russian opera singers, Zali was born in Tbilisi, Georgia. The family decided to head to the United States after the Russian revolution of 1917. Her father, a tenor, had a contract to sing with the Metropolitan Opera, but he died en route of typhoid fever. Zali and her mother settled in Washington, D.C.
Zali began studying dance, performing at the White House while still a tot. She went on to study at the American School of Ballet after graduating from high school. She began dancing in the New York-based Mordkin Ballet in 1938 and stayed for three years after it became the nucleus of American Ballet Theatre in 1940. She later joined the Colonel de Basil Ballet Russe, which disbanded in 1946.
She moved to Los Angeles, where she met her husband, cellist Nicholas Kolia Levienne, in 1945. During her years here, she danced in motion pictures, served as the prima ballerina of the Coronet Ballet and the Los Angeles City Ballet and taught at the studios of Adolf Bolm, a Russian expatriate who had partnered Pavlova, and then at the studio of former Ballets Russes dancer Michel Panaieff.
Her most famous student at Panaieff’s studio was Cynthia Gregory, who would go on to become a star at American Ballet Theatre.
Zali and her husband had fallen in love with Laguna Beach, which was already known as an artists colony, and moved there in 1959.
For all the music and visual arts events in Laguna -- Levienne founded the Laguna Beach Chamber Music Society -- there was no dance. Zali opened a school in 1959 and in 1962 founded a company called Laguna Beach Civic Ballet on a shoestring budget of $1,500. The name was changed to Ballet Pacifica a few years later.
Zali worked tirelessly choreographing, sewing costumes, running the school and raising money, all with the goal of creating a professional-level dance company. By taking no salary, she kept the company in the black. She stopped dancing in 1962.
“You can’t be thinking about costumes and how people are doing and about the lights and everything else and still be able to dance,” she told The Times some years ago. She added that, as a dancer, “You have to be selfish; you have to always concentrate on yourself.”
The company now has a budget of about $1.7 million and gives about 60 performances a year.
“We survived by persevering and not making the mistake most ballet companies make of starting too big,” Zali said in 1985.
“We started tiny, tiny, and have grown very slowly. But it’s stayed.”
Zali stepped down as artistic director in 1988, but remained as artistic advisor. She chose Lynch, a former student who once served as assistant artistic director, as her successor. The company moved into new studios in Irvine in June 1995. Its primary performance venue is the Irvine Barclay Theatre.
After leaving Ballet Pacifica, Zali continued to teach at the Laguna Beach Ballet Studio, which she had founded in 1959 and from which Ballet Pacifica had sprouted in 1962.
There are no survivors.
A memorial service will be held Saturday at 9:30 a.m. at Pacific View Memorial Park, 3500 Pacific View Drive, Corona del Mar.