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Life and Arts

Ballet studio evolves while maintaining tradition of storytelling

Ballet studio evolves while maintaining tradition of storytelling
70 dancers from Media City Dance, from age 3 to 70, perform Atlantis at Burroughs High School in Burbank.
(Tim Berger / Staff Photographer)

Natasha Middleton’s ballet studio and company are evolving in their second decade, but she said she stays true to her main philosophy — perpetuating the tradition of the Ballet Russe while training young dancers for the professional spotlight.

Middleton is a third-generation ballet dancer. Her grandmother Elena Wortova danced with the Ballet Russe, a premier dance company that began in Paris in 1909, and her father Andrei Tremaine performed with the off-shoot company the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Both companies aimed to produce performances that showcased “total theater” — bringing stories to life through dance, pantomime and facial expression accompanied by exciting music, lavish costumes and beautiful sets.

The Ballet Russes brought magic to the stage, Tremaine said. The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo continued the tradition of performing the great ballets from Russia and the choreography was taught by the finest teachers, he said.

“All of this magic was portrayed in one night of the Ballet Russes,” he said. “There were other very good companies but the legacy and tradition — this is what Natasha has tried to keep to. When she works with these young children, the background is always there — a feeling that comes in like osmosis and penetrates, and she wants to get all of that feeling and that strength and history into all of the productions in every way she can.”


After her own dance career was cut short by a physical challenge, Middleton started her school, Media City Dance, in Burbank 12 years ago and two years later created the company Media City Ballet. The company grew from three Sunday afternoon mini-recitals a year at the Burbank studio to a full-length show in 2002 at the Alex Theatre in Glendale.

In 2003, the company began traveling across the Valley, producing shows at the Northridge Performing Arts Center, and in 2007 it performed a salute to “Men of the Ballet Russe” on the Westside at the Wilshire Ebell Club in Los Angeles. Last year, it drew 850 people when it presented its first performance at the Ford Amphitheatre in Hollywood.

As she starts the second decade of her legacy, Middleton has changed the name of her company to Pacific Ballet Dance Theatre, and the first performance under the new name is set for Aug. 17 at the Ford Amphitheatre. “Dance in the USA” will encompass dance styles in the United States that have been influenced by multi-ethnic populations over the decades from the 1920s to today. A special segment will be dedicated to Michael Jackson.

“About 60% of the ballet company’s future shows will be a mixed dance production meshing ballet with other styles,” she said. “And the other 40% will remain in the classical ballet style.”


In keeping with the Ballet Russe philosophy, Middleton wants to raise the bar in the entertainment value for audiences by adding surprising elements to the productions, she said.

“I would like to bring a Broadway aspect to our shows,” she said. “I want to bring in different choreographers to create dances for the shows and work with them on mini-collaborations as well as performers like live singers integrated into the dance performances.”

There were touches of contemporary dance styles in the ballet studio’s annual recital June 29 at Burroughs Auditorium. The two-act ballet titled “Atlantis,” based on the lost city, featured 90 students who ranged in age from 3 to 70.

Middleton, handed the reins of directing the annual show to longtime student Stephanie Pease while Middleton concentrated on the ballet company’s August performance. Pease, 26, not only directed the show, but wrote the story, created the choreography, selected the music and worked with the costume designer on getting what she wanted.

The story revolves around a young girl, played by Lauren Santia, who works in the coal mines. She reads the story of Atlantis to children of the town, including her brother, played by Peter Yedgarian. One day he goes off looking for Atlantis and she tries to find him. In their separate journeys they encounter a dragon, an octopus and schools of fish.

The multimedia production incorporated recorded music by such composers as Philip Glass, John Williams and Sergei Prokofiev along with lighting effects and changing backdrops that were projected on a rear screen. Jazz choreography was created by Allan McCormick in the segment for Octavia’s Lair and wind choreography was that of Grant Tovmasian during the Storm scene.

Middleton likes for her shows to be original material that tell a story. Pease was able to write a story that was brought up to the high-quality standard Middleton wants while keeping the entertainment value high, Middleton said.

“It is not easy to illustrate the Ballet Russe process and because the Ballet Russe philosophy is not only storytelling but really bringing out the characters,” Middleton said. “Each character has to have its own story and she was able to do that.”


From the Ballet Russe tradition, Pease said she utilized the method of collaboration.

“We took people from all of the different fields and they collaborated together to make a single unit and a single production,” she said. “We tried to come up with choreography and scenes [that were] unique and a little bit strange, but not so strange that the audience was completely disillusioned by it. I wanted something entertaining for the audience and that is what Ballet Russe is all about,” she said.

The professionalism of the dance recitals has continued to impress Cindy Pease, the choreographer’s mother, over the years her daughter has taken classes there, she said. Stephanie Pease started with Middleton when she was 5.

“Natasha maximizes the talents of the younger children and she really puts on a themed professional show and this is the training they get so when they get older — I’d say at least one-third of Natasha’s students go on to professional dance companies — they are then qualified to perform in shows because they have realized the experience of working with a company in a professional manner,” Cindy Pease said.

The Media City Dance training takes them from the school level to the junior ballet company and later to the professional ballet company, she added.

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