“If a seam is crooked or a tiara is slipping, I am waiting in the wings with needle and thread, to fix it,” said Janet.
My ambassador-guide, Christine Cordova, was bringing performers out to meet me, one by one, in the lobby of the Downey Theatre. It was the Friday night dress rehearsal before the performance of the Southern California Dance Academy’s theatre production of “Sleeping Beauty,” the immortal ballet set to Tchaikovsky’s music.
Tonight was Part I of my initiation into the ballet world, and Janet was the first cast support person I met, after Cristina who is the mother of two of the Downey dancers in the production, Blake and Kevin.
Blake, 12, plays a sly Puss in Boots in velvet breeches, a character from Act III, and his older brother Kevin is the Wolf who stalks Little Red Riding Hood. Both have the opportunity to leap and bound.
Janet, a vivacious redhead, works with her daughter, Megan, who designs the costumes her mother sews. What comes first, the idea or the material, I asked and the answer was, it could be either. Megan goes to the garment district in downtown LA for inspiration and supplies.
“It began when I designed Megan’s costumes when she was ice skating,” Janet said. This is how so many show-business stories begin. “And then when she wanted me to change the details, I knew she should be a designer.”
“For this production, we’ve created all-new costumes for the Fairy Godmothers in Act III,” said Megan, who works in Disneyland’s costuming.
The Southern California Dance Academy (SCDA), located in nearby Long Beach by the airport, is a family-oriented dance school, and the feeling of community, working together to pull off this wonderful production, came across strongly. The dancers are at different ages and stages, and some are equal to professionals in the parts.
Next to join me was a lovely young ballerina in a black and emerald tutu with a black wand and sinister dark sable lipstick. “I’m Carabosse, the evil fairy,” she said. “This ballet is about good and evil, and the Lilac Fairy has to defeat me. She represents the good, so in Act II, I have to die. It’s great fun to act out the character.”
As Gabriel Fellingham in real life she continued, “I just graduated from high school, and my family is moving to San Diego, so, this is my last time dancing with the SCDT company.”
Next, in a blinding diamond tiara and pale pink embroidered tutu, was Princess Aurora herself, her hair pulled back in the classic dancer’s bun high on the back of her head. With her was the poised Prince who awakens her with a kiss, Jestini Dagdag, who looked on, smiling.
Where did you go to school? I asked, and was delightfully surprised with the answer.
“I just graduated from high school and I’m from Japan.” “Your English is so good,” I said. She blushed and said she learned it all here.
Marin Asano is her name, and she said she does stretching exercises for two hours daily, plus practicing three or four hours at the Academy. “I was nine when I went en pointe,” she said, “and I love it.”
The Rose Adagio in Act I, Marin admitted, “is a challenge.” One of the most celebrated pieces in ballet, the dancer stands en point on just one leg, the other leg curved and extended, and her hand in the air, a classic “attitude.” She maintains her stand while dancing with each of four separate suitors, who turn her about.
They each offer her a rose, and how they help her balance shows how well they will match up for life. Since stage time has to compress real time, Aurora’s dancing has to show when the pairings are wobbly.
I asked her dancing partner Jestoni Dagdag, Prince Florimond, who marries Aurora in ACT III, how he trains and he said not only with stretching exercises, but he likes to hike.
“Cross-training is good for both,” he said. Jestoni graduated from UC Irvine and has many years of dance experience.
Because we were in the lobby and not on stage, I was able to get relaxed pictures that show how these young dancers are able to assume their poses no matter where they are. Instead of the bare stage, the lobby walls were littered with bags of souvenirs and costume bits, for sale the evening of the performance. That made no difference to these young dancers. The training they had learned so well allowed them to go immediately from informality to a classical pose.
Now a young girl in a lavender and pale green gauzy skirt said hello. She dances in the Waltz of the Floral Garland in Act I, another of the famous set pieces in the ballet.
With her was one of Christina’s sons, Blake, 12, dressed for the same peasant waltz, but also ready to become the Puss in Boots of Act III. Mother Christine is an educator, principal with the Los Angeles Unified School District, in East LA, at Amanecer Primary Care Center, where she has kindergartners to 2nd graders. She looked after me so well, I felt like one of her children.
There are over 100 dancers in the performance, some of them doubling in roles, and there are many opportunities to showcase their abilities.
“I love ballet because it gives everyone a chance to be their best,” said 12-year-old Vivienne. That feeling of inclusiveness, and generosity of opportunity, was in the air.
“What makes this different from other dance studios,” said Christina, “is Miss Paula.” That would be Paula Vreulink, founder and director and impresario of the Academy, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. I looked forward to meeting her, but so far she was kept busy with rehearsal.
Next to my lobby perch came the King and the Queen, dressed in royal blue velvet, ostrich plumes and a diamond brooch for the King’s hat.
“I am a fourth-grade teacher in Long Beach,” said Salvador Ureno, the King. “I have been with the SC Dance Theatre productions for six years now. I got into it because two of my students danced here and liked it so much, I followed.”
The Queen is Maureen Chen, with a diamond choker that the Queen of England would be proud to wear. Maureen volunteers on the Board of Directors, does the publicity and arranges public relations for Paula. The courtly bows and graceful flourishes of the King and Queen made me wish for such graceful civilities in everyday life now.
The four dancers from Downey gathered around me, two of them Christina’s boys, the other two the Medina sisters, Luisa and Tania, who have been dancing since they were three and six. All are students at Doty Middle School in Downey, and love dancing. “It keeps me fit,” said one. They represented the Amethyst fairy, the Wolf, a White Cat and Puss in Boots.
Blake and Kevin also are in the Doty Marching Band, playing the flute and the alto sax. They are excited about going on to Downey High’s band program.
By now a number of other costumed dancers were watching us, enjoying seeing their friends in the spotlight. That is what struck me, the generous spirit.
These Downey kids go to Doty Middle School which was called East when my own kids went there but now is named for Wendy Doty, retired superintendent of the Downey Unified School District. Other dancers are in school in Bellflower, Bell Gardens and Long Beach. Some come from Riverside to study with Miss Paula. Everyone agreed that dancing was a hard discipline, but they all loved doing it, and wanted to continue if only as a hobby.
The age range of the theatre productions, which draws from the Academy, starts at 3 and includes college and just graduated from college young people. UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton were represented.
A young dancer named Michael Mendoza played a suitor, Prince Charming, and had had some important partnering and then a big Act III solo. When we met in the lobby, he said (after we talked and I was turning away), “And I’m Mexican, if that matters.” Of course it did, and I turned back and asked him where. His parent, he said, were from Guanajuato, and I could tell him I’d been there. It’s a lovely old colonial town in the central highlands, and he was pleased I knew it. My 35 years as a travel professional had not gone to waste.
I had been invited to meet the dancers, see the costumes and watch the dress rehearsal run-through, so from the lobby we went backstage to the Green Room, now used as a girls and women’s dressing room. Young women were lacing each’s costumes, beautifully designed in vintage Fairy Tale Style. Bravo, Megan.
Being in the family of dancers means sharing. Backstage, this is show biz, inclusive and egalitarian, where the glamourous make-up and spectacle is added, that is such a major part if the enjoyment for the audiences.
By now I had met so many princes, fairies and fluffy white cats that I was beginning to mix up names, but Christina was always there to help me out.
From back-stage the dancers on stage looked more two-dimensional than from out front. Funny what illusion can do.
I watched as the music rose and fell, and the dancers rehearsed their curtain calls. First some tiny rose buds, or maybe sweet peas, ran on stage, watching the teacher just offstage, and then gradually the other soloists came in, each making a deep curtsey or bow, even though there was no applause from the empty theatre. They heard it, in their minds. Every gesture is rehearsed ahead, even the seemingly spontaneous moments.
I had still not had a chance to meet Miss Paula, busy directing. Then here she was, a slim tall woman with a firm gaze.
“I was born in the Netherlands,” she said. “And for as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a ballerina.”
“Over there, you enter into dancing professionally, not just as a hobby or a sport,” Paula said, and yes, I thought, Europeans are more serious and formal about the arts, and they support them more vigorously than we do here.
“Our dancers come from a diverse ethnicity, age and technical levels,” Paula said. “SCDA is a family friendly dance theatre company, where the local community can participate in classical ballet performances. We also offer jazz and lyrical dance, but we specialize in ballet, pointe and pas de deux dancing.”
I watched from the darkened theatre as Act III came to an end, with Red Riding Hood and Christina’s son the Wolf, in fur and a silver–snouted mask, acting their parts with glee.
Tchaikovsky’s glorious music washed over me. I thought of all the talent that had to come together for this production: first Tchaikovsky was commissioned in 1890 to compose the music to order, for the new ballet. The dances were choreographed by Marius Petipa, the greatest of his kind, whose directions are still followed by purists like this school. No 21st century updating to the story.
Just to do this one performance, dancers had trained for years, seamstresses had sewed for hours, pairs and pairs of dancing slippers had been worn out, as their owners readied for this moment.
And tonight was only Part I for me. On the day of the performance would come the Victorian tea, held for aspiring ballet dancers and their mothers, and ballet lovers, on the theatre patio at 5 in the afternoon.
That is tomorrow’s story.
And now it is tomorrow, back in the lobby, where there is no inkling of the activity that is beginning to take place behind the red curtain. The dancers who had stood so sprightly before me and told me their names and school and aspirations were now backstage getting made up for the real show.
Out on the patio, tables were laid with Lavender Fairy linen cloths and tea cups, and tiered plates held savories and sweets from Porto’ Bakery. Their real strength is in their pastry: Cubans are the patissery artists of the Caribbean. Best dessert to me was a delicate glass pot of raspberry mousse with a base of chocolate fondue.
Costumed dancers were there, to pour our tea and offered us dainties, “turkey or ham?” To my disappointment, my granddaughter Lawren could not come, but I invited Downey artist Roy Shabla at the last minute, and he appeared at the tea splendid in a tail coat with satin lapels. Roy is a long-time devotee of the ballet – he saw Baryshnikov dance after he defected and joined the American Ballet theatre. Ashley, the theatre house manager, managed the complex ticket and seat substitution professionally.
I was introduced as “the distinguished journalist.” We were seated with another distinguished artist, Jia Lu, who trained in Beijing. She met her Canadian husband in Toronto, where he was a translator for the Chinese delegation, and “I fell in love with her,” he said. Her painting, Fairy Tale Garden, was the theme for the Tea.
After the tea, Steve the technical stage manager took us on a backstage tour of the Downey theatre. We saw the booth high behind the balcony where the two spotlights are housed. They looked like small cannons, for making such a dainty effect. We saw the 55 foot-high stage ceiling, admired the many ways the Downey stage offers so many options.
“If only we could get a 99-seat theatre here,” I said. “Alistair Hunter could run with that, and bring Little Theatre and the theatre arts to Downey.” “We’d love to do it,” said Steve.
It was 6:30, and in the empty auditorium, dancers were warming up to a Chopin tape. Many were on stage, and the overflow stood at the bar by the orchestra pit. Some found space in the flies by the ropes that haul up and down the many curtains. Everyone was already “in the zone.”
At 7:30, the chimes sounded, the buzzing crowd left the lobby to be seated, and the red velvet curtains parted. Everything went like clockwork. The company was radiant. The Good Fairies danced their parts and executed their turns. The evil fairy Carabosse came in with a clap of thunder and lightning, accompanied by a black-feathered flock of ravens. Everyone loves to hate a good villain.
This ballet was staged as a theater piece. No one for an instant paid much attention to the story, no one was caught in the emotional waves of the fairy tale, as they are in Swan Lake. This version delighted in presenting the performers one after the other, as they executed their classic manoeuvers, the pirouettes, tours jetés, the fluttering dance steps en pointe, and the audience applauded abundantly, as they do around the world.
One imagined how at the Paris Opera House or St. Petersburg in old Russia, flowers are tossed on the stage in approval of the ballerinas’ grace. At the curtain call here, little rosebud dancers brought out bouquets: carnations for the characters, roses for Aurora, big sunflowers for the Prince.
As Princess Aurora, Marin Asano equally charmed her suitors and the house, her smile as radiant as her tiara. Her prince, Jertoni Daghdag was handsome and athletic, and the Bluebirds wowed the house with their lifts and entrechats and fouettés. Good triumphed over evil. Little Red Riding Hood finally beat the Wolf away with her basket, applause coming steadily at every well executed leap, spin or fish-form catch. Tchaikovsky ruled.
Happiness is performing in Downey to a full and appreciative house. For those who missed this production, the company returns in December with “The Nutcracker.” The old is young and new again.