Being a major influence in the competitive world of art is
difficult, but longtime Laguna Beach resident Lila Zali, 84, has been
able to make her mark in the world of ballet.
On Saturday, as part of the California Choreographers Dance
Festival’s Dance Day, a day celebrating the art of dance in many
forms, Zali taught a ballet class that was quickly packed body to
“She’s still teaching at 84 and I am personally grateful -- she’s
a positive role model,” said Kathy Kahn, who has taken over the
reigns of what was once Zali’s own ballet studio.
After her last words of instruction, Zali received several intense
rounds of applause, some bouquets of flowers and fans lined up to
talk with her or take a picture with their mentor.
All this adulation wasn’t just a result of her teaching talents
for the day. Her roots in ballet had been firmly planted even before
she opened her ballet studio in Laguna Beach in 1959 and started the
well-known Ballet Pacifica.
Kahn gave Zali many kudos.
“Lila has been an inspiration to so many dancers for so many
years,” Kahn said. “She is a legend in Laguna Beach and has trained
many professional dancers who come back to her classes and still find
her classes harder than anywhere.
Born in Russia, Zali came to the U.S. when she was three and soon
discovered that she wanted to dance.
“I think I was very little -- how I ever got the idea, I don’t
know,” Zali said.
“I think a friend taught me a Russian dance, and studying violin
and piano is something that pushed me into it somehow. I always
wanted to dance.”
Her official training started at age 7 in Washington, D.C. Later
she would graduate from the Kirov Ballet School, become a soloist
with the Imperial Russian Ballet and be accepted into what is now
known as the American Ballet Theatre.
Along with teaching and performing, Zali loved choreography.
“I organized a little group called the three Debs,” Zali said. “We
performed mostly around the West and in the USO.”
She started choreographing on a more serious level when she opened
the Laguna Beach Ballet Studio in 1959 and when she founded Laguna
Beach Civic Ballet -- now Ballet Pacifica -- in 1962.
“My pupils were not very advanced,” Zali said. “A lot of my
friends came from Hollywood and did the leading parts to supplement.”
Her husband, cellist Kolia Levienne, had already bought property
in Laguna before they were married.
“I fell in love with Laguna and I told my husband I want to live
here someday,” Zali said.
Between concerts, TV appearances and movies, she said that they
were both very busy and had to have an apartment in Los Angeles.
In Los Angeles, she, her husband and their partner started what
later became the Los Angeles City Ballet. Zali also performed as a
principal dancer on television, in musicals and in films such as “An
American in Paris” and “Limelight.”
Zali also worked with choreographers Frederick Ashton, Gene Kelly,
Roland Petit, Charlie Chaplin and Fred Astaire.
“My favorite choreographer to work with was Frederick Ashton,”
She worked with him on one of his movies and said he was a
wonderful person to work with as was Gene Kelly.
She decided Laguna would be her primary home in 1959.
“I told my husband I don’t want to live in Hollywood anymore and
made this full time,” Zali said. “I was still dancing, so it meant
commuting, but traffic wasn’t as bad then.”
Over the years she has helped a lot of professional dancers, at
least 35 who have made a career dancing. She has had so many positive
experiences that she said she can’t name a specific time or event in
her life as her favorite.
“It’s hard to tell with my age,” Zali said. “I’ve been through so
many experiences -- I enjoyed traveling with the USO and living in
“I enjoyed fishing in the early morning with my husband,” Zali
said. “We used to cart down to Victoria Beach and fish off the rocks
Despite some health issues, Zali still teaches as often as she can
and keeps her eye on the art community.
“I hope that it continues to be an art colony and supports the
arts,” Zali said. “We lost Ballet Pacifica because there was no place
to perform, we lost the chamber music, which was started by my
“My husband wanted to bring music back and me ballet,” Zali said.
“There’s ceramics, painting and sculpting but no music, no dance,”
Zali said. “We couldn’t stay -- that’s unfortunate.”
Laguna’s Steve Josephson, a master choreographer and dancer who
had been a huge part of the arts scene and helped with productions
such as “Lagunatics,” was Zali’s student.
“Lila and Ballet Pacifica have had a major impact on my dance
career,” Josephson said. “I started dancing 25 years ago at Laguna
Beach High School, as with many dancers -- she definitely had an
impact on my training.”
Through those she has touched over her lifetime, Zali will remain
a legacy that will forever be an influence in the world of dance.