Go West

August 31, 2015

Southern California becomes a destination for world-class training.


Southern California gets a bad rap. It may be a destination for commercial dance careers, but when it comes to classical and contemporary dance, it’s long been overlooked. Former New York City Ballet star Jenifer Ringer sums up the prevailing myth: “In New York City, there is this sense that L.A. is where dance goes to die.”

In truth, Southern California has a long history of top-notch ballet training at independent studios like Southland Ballet Academy and Westside Ballet, which has trained stars like NYCB’s Tiler Peck. And more world-class dancers are sure to come, thanks to a trio of brand-new programs: pre-professional Balanchine training led by Ringer; American Ballet Theatre’s new school in Orange County; and a cutting-edge BFA program led by Jodie Gates and William Forsythe at the University of Southern California.

What lured these boldface names to the West Coast? It wasn’t just the sunshine. They found an enthusiastic dance community, as well as state-of-the-art facilities, cultural resources and the freedom to tailor their ideal programs from the ground up.


Ringer was free to custom-create Colburn’s syllabus. Photo by Rose Eichenbaum for Dance Teacher.

Colburn Dance Academy

When Ringer was contemplating retirement, she and her husband, fellow NYCB alum James Fayette, were considering offers to teach in New York. “But in New York, there’s a little bit more rigidity, the idea that you’re supposed to go forth with the existing model,” says Fayette. “We really wanted to make our own way.”

Benjamin Millepied’s invitation to head a Balanchine-based pre-professional ballet program he was helping to start at the Colburn School of Performing Arts in Los Angeles came at the perfect time. Colburn president and CEO Sel Kardan also made them an offer no teacher could refuse: carte blanche to create their dream training program. After retiring in 2014, Ringer became Colburn Dance Academy’s founding director, while Fayette joined as associate director and doubles as managing director of Millepied’s L.A. Dance Project. Although LADP is not officially affiliated with the school, company ballet master Charlie Hodges teaches many of its contemporary dance classes.

“There’s a giant love for dance that we’ve discovered here,” Ringer reports. The newly thriving concert dance scene includes not only LADP but also BODYTRAFFIC (for whom Kyle Abraham, Andrea Miller, Barak Marshall and others have created work) and former Batsheva dancer Danielle Agami’s Ate9 Dance Company. “Everyone wants to support good dance and great art, and be creative and try working together,” says Fayette. “That spirit of collaboration is really fresh here.”

To design the curriculum, Fayette polled high-profile company directors about what they look for when hiring. They unanimously said they need dancers who are adept at collaboration and well-versed in visual art, music and multiple movement styles. In response, Colburn offers contemporary technique, street, ballroom, tap, drama, music theory and piano, as well as outings to neighboring institutions like Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Of course, Balanchine technique is the main focus, with two daily technique classes led by the couple and adjunct instructors. Millepied, Justin Peck and Wendy Whelan also led master classes during the 2014 term. To ensure one-on-one guidance, the academy has a single class of 10 to 15 advanced students, ages 14 to 19.

The couple doubts they would have had the leeway to custom-create their program anywhere else but Southern California, with its unique creative resources and the freedom to combine them with traditional ballet training. Happily resettled, Ringer now believes L.A. is an ideal place to train the next generation of dancers: “It feels like all of the arts are at your fingertips.”


ABT William J. Gillespie School

Located an hour south of downtown L.A. by car, Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts has long enjoyed a close relationship with American Ballet Theatre, from the world premiere of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s Swan Lake in 1988 to that of Alexei Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty this March. The venue is also the new home for ABT’s Nutcracker.

As of this month, the partnership also encompasses the ABT William J. Gillespie Dance School, a ballet program for ages 3 to 14 that is modeled after the ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in New York City. Classes take place in the studios at Segerstrom Hall, steps away from the stage where Natalia Osipova, Diana Vishneva and David Hallberg perform.

ABT’s new school offers master classes with guests like Kevin McKenzie. Photo by Doug Gifford, courtesy ABT.


It’s a unique opportunity made possible by the spaciousness of Southern California: set on a 14-acre campus, the massive facility has enough studios, dressing rooms and offices to accommodate the school and touring companies at the same time. The program intends to incorporate those tours into the curriculum: local children performed in The Sleeping Beauty, and ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie and two of the company’s ballet masters led master classes for advanced students from the area.

When the school eventually expands through the pre-professional levels, it could also be a link to the big leagues, because principal Alaine Haubert also scouts nationwide for the company. “I choose the students who are going to train with us over the summer,” she says. “For super-talented students, that is something that can also transition them into ABT II.”


USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance

The strength of Southern California’s dance scene isn’t news to Jodie Gates, vice dean and director of the new Glorya Kaufman School of Dance at the University of Southern California. A former Joffrey, Frankfurt and Pennsylvania Ballet dancer, Gates watched the regional climate heat up during her decade on faculty at the University of California, Irvine.


Jodie Gates works with a student on a video collaboration with the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Photo by Ian Evenstar, courtesy USC.

“What makes L.A. a very rich environment for dance is contemporary thinking,” says Gates. That open-minded vibe has drawn numerous luminaries to USC’s faculty, among them choreographers William Forsythe and Patrick Corbin. Complexions Contemporary Ballet’s Desmond Richardson is an artist in residence. The school will also have a partnership with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, including residencies, master classes and workshops.

Funded by a significant gift from Beverly Hills philanthropist Glorya Kaufman, the dance program welcomes its first class of BFA dance majors this fall and will open its own purpose-built hall with five studios, a small theater and a wellness center in fall 2016. Degrees include BFAs with concentrations in Dance Performance; Choreography for Stage and Cinematic Arts; and Dance and Music; as well as minors in Dance and Dance in Popular Culture: Hip Hop, Urban and Social Dances.

Designed to cultivate innovative, cross-disciplinary dance artists, the program combines dance technique with academic rigor and the West Coast’s leadership in technology, film and music. “Students can go into a motion-capture studio or work with musicians, composers and animators,” says Gates. “They are going to be creative thinkers who can write their own grant and renegotiate their contract.”

Many of them will also learn to choreograph from Forsythe. As artistic advisor of the USC Choreographic Institute, the renowned dancemaker will lead research initiatives with students and visiting artists. Says Gates, “It’s an exciting time to be involved with dance in L.A.”

Claudia Bauer is a dance writer in Oakland, California.


LMU students will have workshops in Bill T. Jones’ rep. Photo by Paul B. Goode, courtesy New York Live Arts.


Bill T. Jones Goes Bicoastal

Established dance programs in L.A. are riding the new wave, too. Loyola Marymount University, located near Venice Beach, recently announced a four-year partnership with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. Led by assistant professor Rosalynde LeBlanc Loo, a former BTJ/AZDC dancer, the program will teach students company repertoire and offer intensives and summer workshops, as well as financial assistance for LMU students taking company classes in New York City.