On a sunny hot day in Southern California, I made my way to the large sunlit studio of the Los Angeles Ballet Academy (LABA) in Encino just in time to interview Andrea Paris-Gutierrez, it’s Founder and the soul of this bustling dance environment.
As I soon discovered, upwards of 500 students move through LABA each week, and rightly so, considering the successful dancers they have produced, including Principal of Joffrey Ballet: Dylan Gutierrez, Pacific Northwest Ballet: Genevieve Waldorf, Smuin Ballet: Brennan Wall, Milwaukee Ballet: Alana Griffith, Kansas City Ballet: Goldie Walberg, Francisco Preciado: Freelance with Barak Ballet and former member of San Jose Ballet. Tory Trowbridge has gone on to Broadway, in American In Paris and recently starred in The Cher Show, and currently starring in the upcoming new Netflix series Tiny Pretty Things are among her many credits. LABA also is nurturing many young luminaries growing up through the ranks, like the extraordinary Darrion Sellman, Genee International Ballet Competition (RAD) Gold Medal (2019) First American dancer to win this award in 20 years, Music Center Spotlight winner (2019), and Youth Grand Prix (YAGP) finals winner in New York (2019). Darrion was awarded a full scholarship to train at the Princess Grace Academy in Monaco where he began his training Sept 9th.
I thought I’d start with a little overview of the future schedule of performances and activities that will be coming up for LABA.
JD: SINCE YOU HAVE PERFORMANCES THAT ARE SCHEDULED, PLEASE GIVE ME SOME INSIGHT INTO THE LA YOUTH BALLET AND WHAT YOU WILL BE DOING THIS YEAR.
APG: The L.A. Youth Ballet is the student’s outlet. They experience the joy of getting in front of an audience and performing and developing love of dance, story and theatre. We have 75 – 80 children involved. They do multiple performances throughout the year.
This year we’re so thrilled to be doing Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf choreographed by Conny Mathot and a World Premiere of Mixed Motions a Contemporary Dance Exploration choreographed by Cedric Dodd. It will be at the El Portal Theatre, Friday, September 27, 8pm, Saturday, September 28, 2pm & 7pm, and Sunday, September 29 at 2pm.
We’ll have a very full schedule, also doing two days of school outreach Thursday Sept. 26 and Friday Sept. 27.
For the holidays December 7 & 8 we are partnering with Aspen Santa Fe Ballet at the Soraya Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge and our children will be dancing the children’s roles in the Nutcracker, always a holiday favorite.
JD: BECAUSE YOU’RE THE SOUL OF LABA, PLEASE GIVE A BRIEF HISTORY OF YOUR OWN BACKGROUND IN DANCE AND HOW YOU BEGAN TEACHING.
APG: Born in Auckland, New Zealand, I started dancing at age five with my mother, Bernice McGough, the founder of the Ballet School of Auckland. I was trained in all forms of dance, Ballet, Tap, and Acro, but then we started doing Jazz! I thought it was amazing!
The British Ballet Method was an important base training for me and I was eventually awarded a full scholarship to the National Ballet School, ultimately joining the Royal New Zealand Ballet. After being there for one year, they decided I was too tall and my contract was not renewed. That was devastating. However, the wonderful Dolores Terry who worked with Roland Dupree, encouraged me to move to Los Angeles in 1979 where I trained not only with Dolores but Robert Rossoulatt and Stanley Holden, who also graced LABA as a Master teacher before he passed away.
JD: It was clear your move to L.A. helped flower an extensive and successful performing career, doing several National Tours; Sugar Babies, and LA productions of Anything Goes, My Fair Lady along with TV, Film and Commercials. You were also in the film Pennies From Heaven and danced on the Academy Awards and with the LA Opera. Where did you go from there?
APG: I then bridged to choreography, coaching and assisting. Merle Sepel, a colleague and mentor, has a school in Orange County. I remember going down to watch her teach ballet class to the little ones. I decided then to do the RAD (Royal Academy of Dance) training. I got certified to teach the Royal Academy of Dance which took two years of training and testing to attain the RAD Teachers Certificate.
I started teaching at the old Moro Landis studios on Lankershim when my son was about two years old. After a while I looked at the students and thought there’s gotta be more. The students can be better than this…they’ve got talent. I was ultimately inspired to start my own school, traveling to New York and London to further my education as a dance educator.
That was some years ago, now both my son and daughter are grown and have their own careers as dancers (Dylan Gutierrez – Principal with the Joffrey Ballet, and Veronica Gutierrez, a working singer/dancer who choreographs and is a certified Yoga instructor, choreographer, and teacher).
JD: WHAT KEEPS YOU GOING IN AN ENVIRONMENT OF RISING STUDIO PRICES, THE COMPETITION AND COMMERCIALIZATION OF EVERYTHING “DANCE”?
APG: Very difficult – many studios have been closing down in the past year due to high rents in the LA area. But I just love to teach. I helped my mom when I was growing up and I seem to have inherited that energy and drive to keep going. I happen to be in a classical environment, not a commercial one, and I didn’t plan on having the school get this big.
I believe that teaching ballet is an important contribution to my community. I feel that all children want to dance no matter what their social background. They should be able to walk to this beautiful place and learn something that is artistic, inspiring and requires dedication, patience and practice. I am dedicated to maintaining this special atmosphere where young people can learn ballet whether they aspire to professional careers or not, and if they do, we have the program in place to help them get there.
JD: YOU’RE WELL AWARE THAT TRAINING IS SO VITAL IN GETTING ANYWHERE NEAR THE BALLET WORLD…BUT TRAINING CAN MAKE OR BREAK A DANCER. TALK TO ME ABOUT STUDENTS, HOW YOU INSPIRE THEM, HOW YOU NURTURE THEM, OFTEN WITH THE PRESSURE TO PUSH THEIR YOUNG BODIES WELL BEYOND THEIR LIMITS.
APG: Learning ballet is a very slow process. It takes a tremendous amount of patience in order to get the product that you’re looking for in the end. In this society today, we don’t have a lot of patience. We want everything to happen right away. I think when you start to push little bodies too fast, even if they’re capable of doing the things that adults can do, it’s not good. When you hear about 13-year old having hip surgery…that shouldn’t be happening.
I’ve gone into a room with talented kids, and they say, oh can we have this or that in our dance because look we can do this or that; say Fouettés. And I say, Yes, but your little legs, knees or hips are not strong enough to do fouettés. If you keep doing that week after week, there’s going to be fall-out from that, be it now or 10 years from now. So, we must be patient and take the process slowly – but at the same time, those little dancers need to be inspired. And by doing choreography, by doing performances and having a chance to shine and having a sense of occasion, that’s what this is about. “this feels wonderful being out here on the stage. This is what I want to do.”
I do think commercial dance has helped create interest in dance. It shows young people what it’s like and what they may want to aspire to. It’s truly a fantastic career, and really there’s nothing like it. It’s great to seek a career when you’re young. But it’s also very difficult. I’m concerned about young people having a career before they’re ready. And, these days children are so busy that it’s hard to get the kind of steady commitment and patience it takes to build strength and longevity to fulfill those dreams.
In our conservatory program we work with dancers who are home schooled. They come 3 days per week in the morning hours from different studios and we offer additional training with some of the best ballet instructors in Los Angeles. (namely myself, Jose Carayol and Vera Ninkovic) We are working hard to support other teachers whose professional-track dancers are looking for additional support and coaching and are not ready to move away from home for ballet school, however, you can help challenge them because there’s more time. They work on technique and we help expand their understanding and experience.
THE LOS ANGELES YOUTH BALLET
The Los Angeles Youth Ballet and Theatrics Dance Company has a program with different aspects throughout the year, the older students participate in the Youth American Grand Prix and compete in the ensemble division as well as present solos by selected dancers. We also have a night of dance called Momentum where we bring in guest artists to perform alongside the students. It’s a mixed show where the students present different pieces by different choreographers.
We’re also participating in the International Dance Festival in Palm Springs. Finish out the year with our choreographic workshop. As a part of their Jazz Module classes we teach them how to start putting a choreographic work together we work to inspire our budding choreographers. We bring people in who can talk to them about how you start to come up with ideas, how you start putting things together. Then we do a workshop.
A unique and thrilling thing we do is our choreographic workshop. As a part of their Jazz Module classes we inspire young choreographers. We bring people in who can talk to them about how you start to come up with ideas, how you start putting things together. Then we do a workshop.
We usually get more applicants than we have space. They must pitch an idea. They write down what their music and concept is and what they would like to do and then they present it. We then choose between 12 and 15 choreographers. The students of the Youth Ballet can either choreograph, or they participate in someone else’s choreography. Then we bring three independent judges in. The students show the pieces and then the judges will choose two pieces that they think can be presented, and those students then perform it on the stage in our show.
If they are chosen for this choreography festival then they get to take the next step. They get to costume it, then put it on the stage, sit with the lighting designer and tell them what they want and they get to see what it’s like when it’s lit on stage.
Laura Berg who started Whyteberg Dance Company did her first piece here in our choreographic workshop and she always says that she started it here and didn’t even know if she could choreograph or not, but that she was interested in doing something.
It is a very supportive environment. They start to work on the piece, we go in and look at it, give them some input, some feedback, mentor them through the process and then they put it up. I love that part of the program.
My colleague and I got this idea coming back from New York because we wanted to have a choreographic element to be able to draw that out of some dancers who may have an interest in doing that. We just thought we’d try it and it was very well received by the students. They are always very excited to do it. Even Justin Peck, Anabelle Lopez-Ochoa, Christopher Wheeldon were beautiful dancers, but had interest in design and have a different story to tell. This is a safe space to fail and succeed. If it doesn’t turn out…it’s ok. I think that if someone does have the potential and the talent, then to take it on the stage is an interesting way for them to see how the process works. So, there are a few very nice choreographers who have come out of it.
JD: IF YOU WERE ABLE TO PREDICT THE FUTURE, WHERE DO YOU SEE DANCE/BALLET GOING?
Ballet is in an extremely good place right now. Companies are bringing in young choreographers, more women choreographers, having a broader vocabulary. Being in a company now, if you don’t understand Contemporary work, you’re going to have a difficult time either getting a job or moving up in your place in the company and getting the opportunities. If you don’t have other vocabulary other than classical ballet, you’ll have a difficult time. Plus, when the dancers having expanded vocabulary, other than ballet, it makes them healthier dancers. When you cross train, when you work in parallel, for a classical dancer, I think you maintain your body for longer period. A lot of training that’s trickling over from sports medicine is making for more longevity. Obviously injuries happen but it’s helpful to have a healthier outlook on it.
I think that more diversity in the body type and diversity in what we think a ballerina should look like is starting to move and change…not fast enough; but I think that it’s time that some of our stories get re-imagined.
JD: AND FINALLY, WHAT IS YOUR PHILOSOPHY OF DANCE?
My philosophy is that “A Crock Pot is better than a Pressure Cooker.” I have been laughed at for saying that, but when you cook something slowly, you take your time with it, you add lots of amazing ingredients, you don’t rush it and with more dimension, it ends up having so much more flavor. Dancers who are developed slowly and carefully and allowed to grow and mature at their own rate end up having more longevity and a better chance at a career if they want one, with more flavor.
The Los Angeles Ballet Academy performance takes place at the El Portal Theatre, Friday, September 27, 8pm, Saturday, September 28, 2pm & 7pm, and Sunday, September 29 at 2pm. To purchase tickets, click here.
To visit the Los Angeles Ballet Academy website, click here.
Featured image: Andrea Paris-Gutierrez teaching class – Photo by Iker Gutierrez