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Los Angeles, CA

An internationally acclaimed ballerina fueled by giving back. This is the story of City Ballet of Los Angeles. 

How do we move? By foot. By bicycle or car. By plane or train or roller skate. We’re always in motion. Propelled. Hurtled. Catapulted around the sun in a galaxy moving about a million and a half miles an hour through infinite space.

We’re moved by diesel, E-85, two-stroke, rocket and Top Tier 91 octane unleaded fuel. And in that kinetic momentum, we’re also surrounded by the very thing that keeps us moving. It’s all around us — surprising petroleum-based products that unlock our potential energy. Often, these are about more than just how we move but also what moves us. Our shoes and tires and little rubber baby buggy bumpers. The stretch in a pair of tights. The sheen on a mirror. The strings of a violin in the delicate beginnings of a sonata just before it makes the turn into a powerful crescendo. In ways big and small, these are all fuel-based things that fuel our passions.

So the greater questions are these: why do we move? With what purpose and aim? Newton’s third law of motion (that we all know and love so well): For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. It’s pretty cut and dry. But what if we take the big unknown why of our motion, our untapped personal potential energy blasting along through the universe, and create a much greater and complementary reaction for good?

That’s what City Ballet of Los Angeles strives to achieve. More than just movement, more than simply dance — but a movement in and of itself.

“Our mission is to sustain a dance institution that reflects the economic and racial diversity of Los Angeles, giving those kids the opportunity to learn classical dance.”

Robyn Gardenhire is the artistic director of City Ballet of Los Angeles. This is their mission statement. But the truth in what they really do is so much bigger.

But first, a little background on Robyn. 

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Robyn Gardenhire was born in Lynwood, California. At that time it was a primarily African-American community tucked in a corner between Watts and Compton. This area was notoriously devastated with racially divided riots in the '60s and then tragically again in 1992. But at just 3 years old, in a neighborhood not necessarily known for the classical arts, Robyn’s single mother decided to put her in a ballet class.

“I started with Margaret Lynn Columbus in Compton, a white woman in a completely black neighborhood,” remembers Robin. “She had a studio, and I went there until I was about 9 years old.”

The school saw the potential in this young inner-city kid and gave her the opportunity to audition for (what was then) the Los Angeles Ballet. The company also recognized her potential and gave her a job in The Nutcracker.

It’s worth pausing here for a second: again, this is a kid from the inner city at a local ballet school. She didn’t come from a long line of dancers. She didn’t go to all the best studios and seminars and camps. She just had a parent who wanted to give her the chance to dance and a teacher who recognized what she was capable of.

So when she accepted the role, they asked her to come to the school and gave her a full scholarship. At the time, the L.A. Ballet was in partnership with the New York City Ballet, which opened up even more possibilities all over the country and then all over the world. It was living that journey and experiencing those opportunities firsthand that led Robyn to the core idea of City Ballet — a safe place where young people in the area, who may not have the pathways to classical dance readily available, can learn ballet but also learn how to take it to the next level.

Our mission is to sustain a dance institution that reflects the economic and racial diversity of Los Angeles, giving those kids the opportunity to learn classical dance.
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“Well, you know I never saw myself as a teacher. I was always a dancer, seeing what was going on in the dance community at large,” Robyn says. “It’s a very expensive art form, and in my growing up, I always had scholarships. I would have never had a career had it not been for scholarships.”

Pathways are different for different people. Exposure, opportunity, hard work. It’s often about being connected with the right people at the right time. Robyn’s experiences — where she came from, what she accomplished, everything she learned — illuminated a new way for her to give back what she was given.

“I saw that kids who didn’t have money were given dance programs that were great but not making dancers,” she explains. “So my idea was to reach out to a community that did not have the economic ways to support a ballet career.”

In 1999, Robyn set out to create a dance school. A real school. Something that would bring ballet to aspiring young dancers who may not be able to afford it otherwise. At first, she set up shop in the basement of a local church. There were about 10 kids, and they paid what they could afford. Five bucks. Sometimes nothing at all.

Eventually the program and expenses outgrew the small church basement. Then by some fortunate gravitational pull of chance, Robyn was introduced to a woman who knew of a ballet space in Pico-Union, which was an area not dissimilar to the kind of neighborhood she grew up in. It was there in the youth and community center where she saw possibility unfold. This was an area without a dance program, but here was a studio with sprung dance flooring, high ceilings, and dressing and waiting rooms. It was perfect and it was free. Yes, free. A community center that welcomed a dance program seemed more like a calling than a gift. It was as if the room was just there waiting for her.

“It’s crazy,” she remembers. “I felt like this was what I was supposed to be doing.”

I’m fueled by being able to give back to dance.

The greater Los Angeles area is a tangled web of cities within cities connected by crowded highways. And in a city as vast and busy and sprawling as Los Angeles, it’s not always easy for parents to get their kids to after-school classes. Let’s be honest, it’s not easy anywhere, but L.A. adds a degree of difficulty that other cities don’t have to wrestle with. Then scroll deeper into a low-income neighborhood in which school, unfortunately, isn’t always a priority for everyone. A neglected area. An area where gangs and drugs and poverty and crime are an everyday reality. An area where finding the time to get to a classical dance class — or even thinking to enroll — may have to take a back seat to getting by.

This is the reality that many of Robyn’s students face every day. It’s where they live and are growing up. Often, for different reasons, the students struggle to get to class. So Robyn gets in her car and picks up these students herself. From Compton and Watts. From Pico-Union. From Lynwood. These are not places along her way, but the students are never too far. The students come first.

Because as much as it’s about beauty and grace, ballet is discipline. Ballet is practice. Ballet is repetition and perfection. And to Robyn, City Ballet represents more than just a school where people can learn classical dance. She sees it as more of an institution — a place bigger than an individual or a school — where people can transcend. Robyn set out to build a place where students can learn to make a living through dance.

In the elaborate and precise movement of her dancers, she sees where she came from. In their every accomplishment, she sees where she went throughout her journey. Some of her young dancers have moved on to careers. Some are in rigorous rounds of auditions for university dance or company programs. And some are just getting started — young kids from the city who were brought there by a parent who wanted to give them a chance to dance.

“I’m fueled by being able to give back to dance,” Robyn says. “I’m fueled by being able to give of myself as a dancer, as a teacher.”

From someone who has had a career, who has made a living through art, who has met a million people that she may not have ever met before, who has traveled and done what she loves to do — the lessons that the aspiring dancers at City Ballet learn from Robyn Gardenhire are far more moving than a few steps. They create a movement.

This may not overtly answer the question of how or why we move, but this movement certainly floats with grace in front of the mirror and barre of human aspiration and expression. It’s here at City Ballet of Los Angeles that we witness momentum in its full and pure form — a greater and complementary reaction for good, rotating around the sun in an ever expanding universe. Both kinetic and potential energy. Here we are treated to an elaborate and compelling dance that empowers and propels these young people to go as far as their imagination and ability can take them.

To learn more about Robyn and the dance program at City Ballet, visit www.cityballetofla.org

Petroleum science en pointe

Throughout the years, ballet slippers have evolved to much more than a satin slip-on. Today, these extremely specialized shoes are highly technical in their construction, utilizing petroleum-based materials to enhance performance and comfort. Thermoplastic elastomers in the shank and toe box provide structural rigidity. Elastics and high tech polyester fabrics provide a custom-sized, dry, non-slip fitting. While urethane foams work to absorb impact and even dull the sound they make on the floor.

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