The Westside Ballet of Santa Monica’s school has been in existence for 56 years and its performance company is celebrating a 50th Anniversary. A celebratory Spring gala event of two days of performances will be set on the Broad Stage in Santa Monica on Friday, May 17th, 2024, and Saturday, May 18th, 2024. The Spring showcase on Friday’s two shows are called, “Masters of Movement,” and it will exhibit a tribute to the founders and an evolution of ballet. The Spring Gala benefit held Saturday evening is devised to honor the work of legendary ballerina Patricia Neary, who will also be receiving a lifetime achievement Bravo! Award. On Saturday there will be celebrated guest artists which will include American Ballet Principals Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside and Westside notable alumni. The program will include works by George Balanchine, a pas de deux by Yuri Possokhov’s Bells, Ben Stevenson O.B.E.’s Prelude duet and other performances by creative choreographers.

Rosemary Valaire, Yvonne Mounsey

Rosemary Valaire, Yvonne Mounsey – Photo courtesy of Westside Ballet

The Westside’s two organizations have proven to provide artistic growth and a solid training ground for achievement. Through the years the school has helped produce talent with an impressive alumnus that includes New York City Principal Tiler Peck, New York City Principal Jack Soto, Broadway artist Ashley Griffin, and Artistic Director of Los Angeles Ballet Company and choreographer Melissa Barak. Yvonne Mounsey of New York City Ballet and Rosemary Valaire of the Royal Ballet, both former professional soloist ballerinas, founded Westside Ballet now run by Ms. Mounsey’s daughter executive director Allegra Clegg. For over ten years Artistic Director Martine Harley has been leading the school and pre-professional division. This diversified establishment offers a variety of classes including those for babies up through adults.

For many families, for numerous generations, Westside has been their home studio. In sitting down and interviewing three past and present Westside students, I got the chance to see their eyes light up when talking about their time in the Westside studios. The Westside Ballet is an essential training ground in the community of Santa Monica and Los Angeles that encourages individuals to find their dedication, cultivation, self-love, and personal success.

Westside Ballet - Spencer Collins - Photo by LK Studio (@thelkstudio).

Westside Ballet – Spencer Collins – Photo by LK Studio (@thelkstudio).

This performance celebration marking 50 years will bring in steadfast educators, rising pre-professionals, and notable alumnus. From the Westside Ballet office via zoom Adrian Blake Mitchell and protégé Spencer Collins joined me for a morning conversation before their full Saturday schedule of classes and rehearsals. Spencer Collins is an adorable 11-year-old whose responses are gleeful yet confident. Spencer rejoices, “My hardest class is Adrian’s boy’s class. I really like learning all different kinds of jumps and turns. My favorite jump that I am learning is a double saut de basque en dedon. This jump is in the beginning of the Don Quixote male variation!”

Westside Ballet - Spencer Collins - Photo by LK Studio (@thelkstudio).

Westside Ballet – Spencer Collins – Photo by LK Studio (@thelkstudio).

Westside took Spencer to the finals of the Youth American Grand Prix Competition 2024, where he won 1st place in both classical and contemporary ballet in his age group category. He is placed in level 6 at Westside, a high level at the school that is usually reserved for older students. It is evident that Spencer carries the opportunities with ease, confidence, and excitement. At first, he said he was shy but now in his second year at Westside he seems to have settled in with a full weekly class and rehearsal schedule. Adrian coaches Spencer on the Flames of Paris variation he will be performing at The Broad. Adrian professes, “With every fiber of my being I know Spencer will become a dancer. I see a lot of talent in him, but I appreciate that there is no ego involved. He is pleasant to work with and that his human being shows through.”

Westside Ballet - Adrian Blake Mitchell coaching Spencer Collins - Photo by Sarah Madison Photography.

Westside Ballet – Adrian Blake Mitchell coaching Spencer Collins – Photo by Sarah Madison Photography.

Adrian Blake Mitchell graduated from the Vaganova school in Russia and is a former soloist with the Mikhailovsky Ballet. He and his wife Andrea Lassakova left Russia when the war broke out with Ukraine. Adrian continues to dance and will be performing with his wife Andrea in the Balanchine pas de deux from the ballet Agon staged by Patricia Neary. He often teaches company class at the Los Angeles Ballet Company, and educates Westside’s upper division trainees which include technique, pas de deux, men’s class, variations, repertoire and coaching. Adrian remarks, “We have a beautiful community here at Westside. I love the trajectory that we are on.”  He speaks about top Westside students being accepted at major company school’s such as San Francisco Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and the Royal Ballet in England. Also an alumnus of Westside, Adrian started training at Westside at thirteen years old through to fifteen. He was then sent to Houston ballet school because at the time Westside did not have a men’s or young boy’s division. Adrian responds, “When I came to Westside, I wanted to revamp the men’s program. That is why I take pride in the school now having around thirty young boys in the dance program.”  He continues, “We have been working together with Los Angeles Ballet on a trainee program that is run between both organizations because Melissa Barak is an alumna. Three dancers will actually be going into the Los Angeles ballet company.” The trainee program has the dancers training all day for a chance to work as a professional dancer. Adrian resumes, “We are very much about the kids, and we encourage them to explore what they are looking for and then they always come back.” He projects, “For me it’s the nostalgia of coming back here, the school that I grew up in, the smell and you can still imagine Yvonne Mounsey walking the halls and teaching classes.”

Adrian Blake Mitchell and Andrea Laššáková - Photo by Ira Yakovieva

Adrian Blake Mitchell and Andrea Laššáková – Photo by Ira Yakovieva

Westside alumni Joy Womack took the time to chat with me via Zoom from Paris, France where she has been busy working on a ballet-based television production. Joy comes across heartfelt as she recalls her time and moments with the teachers at Westside. At three, almost four years old, Joy began her ballet journey at the Westside ballet school. “Westside was always the place where I sought refuge,” Joy relays. “It is a place with no judgement and even as a former student they always welcomed me back with open arms.” She added.

Joy Womack - Photo by Robert Palka.

Joy Womack – Photo by Robert Palka.

This very fact explains how the school helped her in her career, a ballet studio she can call home. Joy reminiscences, “I had so many wonderful teachers who have been there for a long time.”  Her ballet mentors included Yvonne Mounsey and Patricia Neary. “Patricia Neary would often visit the studio and give class,” she recalls. Joy went on to talk about multiple occasions where she received career guidance from various instructors at Westside. “They didn’t start me on pointe till I was ready, and I believe I was around 11 and a half, maybe 12 years old?”  She adds, “Even when I went away on scholarships or summer programs, I would catch up with their summer program.”

Joy Womack in "Don Quixote" - Photo y Karolina Kuras

Joy Womack in “Don Quixote” – Photo y Karolina Kuras

Joy’s lessons took a turn when her family moved to Austin, TX. “Yvonne Mousey said to my parents, “She has to dance!” she proclaimed. So, at thirteen she began to study at the Kirov academy in Washington, D.C., and at 15 years old to seventeen, she was scouted by the Bolshoi Academy in Russia where she graduated with a red diploma. “The red diploma is similar or the equivalent of a valedictorian.” Joy remarked. She was then offered a soloist contract with the Bolshoi ballet. She left the Bolshoi and joined a variety of companies including accepting a principal contract with the Kremlin Ballet and the Universal Ballet in South Korea. She is now in Paris, France working on the ballet show, guest artist engagements, and the inclusion of her own non-profit endeavors. Joy Womack will be flying in from Paris where she will be performing with Maté Szentes in Ben Stevenson’s section for the gala. “Westside Ballet is building a legacy that is multigenerational,” she said. Joy went on to recall a variety of students that moved through the Westside ballet system and became professional dancers, attended universities, or turned out to be doctors. “Throughout my life I have always returned to Westside, and I see generations of well-educated well-articulated men and women that I am connected to. I am always excited to go back home to Westside,” Joy said.

Spencer Collins and Adrian Blake Mitchell at YAGP - Photo by LK Studios.

Spencer Collins and Adrian Blake Mitchell at YAGP – Photo by LK Studios.

Westside Ballet of Santa Monica has affected so many people’s lives in a profound way. It nurtures artists and cultivates opportunities for its community. It is apparent how the organization offers life changing experiences and artistic motivation. The teachers and mentors care about the students and try to do what is in the pupil’s best interest. Adrian Blake Mitchell declares, “We pride ourselves at never turning anyone away, there is a class for everyone. There is an amazing adult program, a great little kids’ program and we develop so many incredible humans.”  He continues, “We teach in the upper school division different styles of ballet to prepare the students for company work. Always our motto here at Westside is, “raising the barre.”

The Westside Ballet of Santa Monica’s 50-year celebration of their performance company runs May 17th – 18th, 2024 at the Eli and Edythe Broad Stage (The Broad) in Santa Monica, California.

For more information about Westside Ballet, please visit their website.

Written by Alice Alyse for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image: Westside Ballet – Spencer Collins – Photo by LK Studios.