Blue Ribbon Children's Festival keeps kids in step

It's one of the oldest one-liners in showbiz: "How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice."

Los Angeles has a more populist answer to the equivalent question, and it's being played out this week at the Music Center. How do you get to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion? Enroll in the fifth grade.

The Blue Ribbon Children's Festival is back for its 41st annual running, and Tuesday morning's opener offered a perspective on what it means to devote three days to busing in more than 18,000 10- and 11-year-olds from all over L.A. County so they can get a taste of big-time performing arts.

The festival comes courtesy of Blue Ribbon, a Music Center support group that covers the $200,000-plus annual cost of hiring a professional ensemble to give six housefuls of children a free performance.

"We want you to come back. This is your home," said the morning's onstage greeter, Blue Ribbon President Constance Towers Gavin (herself a performer, as a cast member of TV's "General Hospital"), pithily encapsulating the point of an undertaking whose logistical challenges make it far from kid stuff. It involves the arrival and departure of two armadas of buses for back-to-back shows; while the first audience exited stage right, the second trooped in. Blue Ribbon members, decked in red aprons, some brandishing cheerleaders' pompoms, are the volunteer guides who ensure that the Pavilion's lobby and plaza don't turn into Sig-alerts.

Volunteer Judy Tallarico knows from experience how to accessorize: Having been a Blue Ribbon member and children's festival bus-greeter since the mid-1980s, the gold whistle on a chain around her neck was de rigueur.

"Let's put it this way — the majority of the kids are hyper" when they arrive, she said, and a sharp toot helps get their attention. "But they are so well-behaved in the show. They watch it very attentively."

But not passively. When the lights went down, the high-pitched decibels were such that you'd have thought Justin Bieber was in the house. There was no sign of disappointment when a lone, derby-topped, trench-coated member of L.A.'s Diavolo dance company appeared instead of a teen idol, shrouded in stage smoke on a 10-foot wooden staircase. Ooohs, whoas and cheers ensued regularly as the 10 dancers performed a concert that combined contemporary dance with aerial acrobatics, much of it carried out high above the stage on a succession of ladders, hanging globes and swaying contraptions. "A cross between Alvin Ailey and Cirque du Soleil" is how Tallarico sees it, and it's no wonder that Diavolo was back for its second consecutive festival — a rarity according to Michael Solomon, the Music Center's managing director for education. "If you're a fifth grader, it's the coolest thing in the world."

But perhaps the most distinctive and remarkable feature of the Blue Ribbon Children's Festival is that after the stage show is over, a plaza show commences. The kids filed outside, formed circles all over the pavement and confirmed that, with a little preparation and coordination, you can assemble 3,000 youngsters for a recently learned activity in an unaccustomed place and have order rather than chaos ensue.

Diavolo and Susan Cambigue Tracey, a retired Music Center educator who comes back to work the festivals, had devised some simple steps for the masses to perform, to the same music the dancers had used for a piece called "Atom," but minus the hanging atomic symbol-cum-trapeze. Demonstration DVDs had gone out to the 245 schools whose students will attend this year's festival, and Tuesday's contingent from Towne Avenue Elementary School in Carson had taken their preparations seriously. They had all the right moves, as tall, ponytailed Trinity Sanchez had confidently predicted they would before the dancing began, explaining that they'd practiced daily for three weeks after lunch in the school auditorium.

Their teacher, Keith Nakano, turned the morning's events into a life-lesson in staying calm and persisting, reminding the kids afterward that what had begun in stress and disappointment — their bus had arrived late, and they'd missed part of Diavolo's performance — had ended in triumph with an ace performance on the plaza and high-fives from celebrity guest Harry Shum Jr., who plays dancer Mike Chang on the TV show "Glee."

Within minutes, the plaza was empty, the sea of fifth graders having evaporated onto yellow buses. That left Thelma Houston, co-chair of this year's festival (and not the R&B singer of the same name), a moment to pause and relate one of her favorite memories from about 20 years as a Blue Ribbon volunteer.

"A little boy walked in the door. He looked up at the chandelier and said, 'Miss, does the queen live here?' This is something they'll always remember."

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