Off to a fly­ing start in arts

The Mu­sic Cen­ter’s Spot­light ini­tia­tive pro­pels tal­ented teens to an­other stage.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Jef­frey Fleish­man

In a stu­dio where wal­l­length mir­rors laid bare im­per­fec­tions, a young bal­le­rina floated in de­cep­tive grace. “Bal­ance,” said her teacher. “Open shoul­ders, round the arms.” The dancer wiped the sweat away. Mu­sic cued, a slipper scraped like a whis­per across the floor. She spun in pirou­ettes, again and again, to get it right.

Genevieve Wal­dorf has been danc­ing since she was 2. She ac­cepts crit­i­cism and praise with an un­wa­ver­ing stare. A se­nior at El Camino Real Char­ter High School in Wood­land Hills, where she is

class vale­dic­to­rian, Wal­dorf, 17, dances up to 20 hours a week and stud­ies just as long. She is in­trigued by bio­engi­neer­ing and has learned not to mind the cal­luses on her feet.

“You have to be a per­fec­tion­ist if you’re a dancer — oth­er­wise, you miss the de­tails,” said Wal­dorf, who has ap­peared in pro­duc­tions of “Giselle” and “The Sleep­ing Beauty.” “When I’m on my game, my mind is clear and I sense the en­ergy of the au­di­ence. I’m kind of a re­served per­son, so it’s hard for me to be ex­pres­sive. I’m work­ing on that.”

Wal­dorf was one of 14 stu­dent fi­nal­ists from across South­ern Cal­i­for­nia who per­formed Tues­day evening in Walt Dis­ney Con­cert Hall as part of the Mu­sic Cen­ter’s Spot­light pro­gram. Fam­i­lies car­ried bou­quets, and the fi­nal­ists, dressed in tu­tus, se­quins and mod­ern dance at­tire, took the stage for num­bers that in­cluded clas­si­cal pi­ano, jazz, so­lil­o­quies and a song from “Funny Lady.”

Their tal­ents were big, some re­mark­ably so, but they were teenagers with pref­er­ences for YouTube, ti­dal pools and cof­fee ice cream. One had a fish named An­drew Jack­son. They filled the hall — it was the first time Spot­light was pre­sented at Dis­ney — with friends and rel­a­tives who cheered from the cheap seats to the orches­tra sec­tion. One woman com­mented to her friend about a 14-year-old bal­le­rina: “She looks like she be­longs on the top of a cake.”

“Can you be­lieve the tal­ent on stage tonight?” said Jenna Elf­man, star of the TV se­ries “Dharma & Greg,” who hosted the evening. “Doesn’t it give you hope for the fu­ture?”

The 27-year-old Spot­light arts ed­u­ca­tion ini­tia­tive has reached more than 40,000 high school stu­dents and handed out more than $1.5 mil­lion in schol­ar­ships. Its alumni in­clude Misty Copeland, a dancer at the Amer­i­can Ballet Theatre; singer Josh Groban; and Michelle Kim, a vi­o­lin­ist with the New York Phil­har­monic.

Spot­light’s mu­si­cal train­ing helps com­pen­sate for years of arts cut­backs in public schools. Be­tween 2008 and 2013, the Los An­ge­les Uni­fied School Dis­trict trimmed arts fund­ing by 41%. The dis­trict has since in­creased fund­ing from $19 mil­lion to $22.7 mil­lion in fis­cal year 2014-2015. Two years ago the non­profit Los An­ge­les Fund for Public Ed­u­ca­tion an­nounced $750,000 worth of grants to strengthen arts ed­u­ca­tion.

The Spot­light pro­gram holds 70 days of au­di­tions each year for stu­dents of all skill lev­els in ballet, non­clas­si­cal dance, clas­si­cal voice, non-clas­si­cal voice, clas­si­cal in­stru­men­tal, jazz in­stru­men­tal and act­ing. Those who made it to Dis­ney Hall went through pre­lim­i­nary and semi­fi­nal rounds and mas­ter classes where judges cri­tiqued artis­tic in­ter­pre­ta­tion and tech­nique. They also re­ceive tips on build­ing con­fi­dence in au­di­tions, cop­ing with the emo­tional rig­ors of per­form­ing and pre­par­ing for col­lege and job in­ter­views.

“A lot of the fo­cus is to pre­pare stu­dents for those mo­ments when we have to take a risk on our­selves,” said Jeri Gaile, an actress and for­mer ballet dancer, who heads Spot­light, one of a num­ber of arts ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams spon­sored by the Mu­sic Cen­ter. “The thrust of the pro­gram is not just on the ex­cep­tional kids. I’m more in­ter­ested in the 1,600 kids who sign up [each year] and go through our classes.”

“The schools don’t do any­thing like this,” Stormy Sacks, a vo­cal coach and mu­sic teacher at Ramón C. Cortines School of Vis­ual and Per­form­ing Arts in down­town, said of Spot­light. “This is the only way kids can get a real au­di­tion sit­u­a­tion with real judges. It raises their abil­i­ties ex­po­nen­tially. It’s a bril­liant pro­gram, and I hope noth­ing hap­pens to it.”

Hannah Song glided across the stage in a blue gown, her long hair pulled back, vi­o­lin at her chin. She per­formed Polon­aise Bril­lante No. 1, Op. 4 by 19th cen­tury com­poser Hen­ryk Wieni­awski.

The daugh­ter of a pe­di­atric den­tist, Song, 14, who lives in Irvine, be­gan play­ing the vi­o­lin eight years ago. She is home-schooled — tak­ing classes on­line — so she can spend more time prac­tic­ing. Days be­fore her per­for­mance, Song spoke of Men­delssohn and Bach as if they were un­cles and cred­ited Beethoven’s “many mu­si­cal va­ri­eties and dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties. It’s beau­ti­ful, melodic and kind of dev­as­tat­ing some­times.”

She said her train­ing, in­clud­ing in­struc­tion at the Col­burn School’s Young Artists Academy, was teach­ing her to “re­ally sing the note, to make each note spe­cial.” But, like many chil­dren her age, Song, who has a self­knowl­edge be­yond her years, was ret­i­cent about her gift and ex­plained that it was dif­fi­cult at times to connect with the au­di­ence.

“I’m in­tro­verted,” she said. “I’m fo­cus­ing too much in what I’m do­ing, but I need to be more con­ver­sa­tional with the au­di­ence. I need to show them what I feel when I play. I’m an en­ter­tainer, and they need to see that.” This was her first sea­son in Spot­light, and she said she was in­spired by the tal­ent around her: “I learn from peo­ple my age to make me a bet­ter mu­si­cian.”

When asked if she ever thought about do­ing any­thing else, Song, an hon­or­able men­tion in Spot­light who per­formed Tues­day night to fill in for a fi­nal­ist who couldn’t at­tend, ap­peared puz­zled.

“I’ve ded­i­cated pretty much ev­ery­thing to this,” she said. “I gave up public school and so­cial­iz­ing with friends to spend more time with the vi­o­lin. I’d like to go to a con­ser­va­tory and be­come part of a Phil­har­monic.”

Shortly af­ter Song took her bow in Dis­ney Hall, Wal­dorf, her tall frame lithe and fluid, danced the role of the black swan from “Swan Lake.” It was her fourth year in Spot­light, and her poise, much of it in­stilled by her teacher An­drea Paris-Gu­tier­rez, whom Wal­dorf calls “Miss An­drea,” was ev­i­dent.

Wal­dorf re­hearsed the dance a week ear­lier in Paris-Gu­tier­rez’s Los An­ge­les Ballet Academy in En­cino. Head straight, back arched, Wal­dorf draped one arm as if a wing; she pirou­et­ted and lifted into flight. She stopped, breath­ing hard.

“Weight for­ward. You got be­hind the mu­sic,” said Paris-Gu­tier­rez, adding that her stu­dent was rush­ing the fi­nal bit. Then she added: “You have a bal­ance that’s so beau­ti­ful.”

Wal­dorf stood still and lis­tened. “Some days you feel you just get crit­i­cized and you’re no good,” she said later. “But as I’ve got older, I re­al­ized the teach­ers are fo­cus­ing on the small things so I must have the big things right. I’m al­ways look­ing to im­prove my tech­nique. It’ll never be per­fect. I can al­ways get my leg higher than it is.”

She has the same at­ti­tude to­ward aca­demics. The daugh­ter of soft­ware en­gi­neers, Wal­dorf will grad­u­ate with hon­ors next month and en­roll in col­lege as an en­gi­neer­ing ma­jor. What uni­ver­sity to at­tend will be pred­i­cated on how close it is to a pro­fes­sional ballet com­pany. “I want to dance on stage while I’m get­ting my de­gree,” she said, not­ing that since she was a first­grader she has learned to bal­ance books and ballet.

“I never dreaded go­ing to ballet class,” she said. “My pas­sion has grown as I’ve got­ten older.”

Lawrence K. Ho Los An­ge­les Times

GENEVIEVE WAL­DORF , 17, in the role of the black swan from “Swan Lake” at the Spot­light pro­gram at Dis­ney Hall. This is her fourth year in Spot­light.

Pho­to­graphs by Lawrence K. Ho Los An­ge­les Times

IT’S THE FIRST Spot­light sea­son for Hannah Song, 14, who says she draws in­spi­ra­tion from the pro­gram’s other ac­com­plished youths.

GOLDA BERK­MAN is one of this year’s 14 stu­dent fi­nal­ists in the Mu­sic Cen­ter’s arts ini­tia­tive, show­ing her tal­ent in clas­si­cal voice at Dis­ney Hall.

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