"I've always thought the reason I gave up violin and piano and voice was that my (opera singer) mother was always saying, 'That wasn't right, That wasn't good.' " Ballet Pacifica founder Lila Zali's throaty alto rumbled over the roar of a vacuum in the company's Laguna Beach studio. "But she knew nothing about dancing, so I think it was self-defense!"
A slight, tense woman with luminous brown eyes, Zali is the driving force behind Orange County's oldest resident ballet company, celebrating its 25th anniversary tonight with a gala event at Westin South Coast Plaza Hotel.
"(My) board says, 'When you can no longer make costumes and do choreography when necessary, what's going to happen?' I keep telling them, 'You just have to find sources of money because nobody's going to do what I do.' "
For Zali, who takes no salary from Ballet Pacifica ("I'm criticized for this," she says), the company's "greatest accomplishment" is the guaranteed 50-week contract it offers its 10 dancers, an unusually long period for a regional troupe.
Paid $125 or $150 a week, they are obliged to work at another job to make a living. (Rehearsals are scheduled for weekends to accommodate the dancers' other commitments.) But this modest payroll accounts for by far the largest proportion of the company's roughly $200,000 annual budget. And Zali's awareness of the bread-and-butter issues of the terpsichorean life extends to offering three company dancers housing at reduced rent in property she owns.
Talk of money surfaces fairly often in Zali's no-nonsense reminiscences. Her own career began in the 1930s, when she performed in the Mordkin Ballet, created by a celebrated Russian dancer who was at one time Pavlova's partner. As a "minor soloist" in the touring company, she was paid a "terrific" $50 a week in the days when good hotel rooms cost only $1.25 a night. Even so, "we used to love one-night stands (because) it would save us a night's hotel expense--we had our Pullman waiting for us."
A brief stint with the Original Ballets Russes, a spinoff of the famous Diagihilev Ballets Russes , ended when Zali's mother refused to let her 19-year-old daughter tour South America with the company.
But the '40s offered the lure of the fledgling days of television. Zali danced on a CBS show called "Balleretta" that had two dancers, three harpists playing show tunes and a singer.
"Kind of an all-girl thing," Zali remarks dryly. "It was wild. I remember one time when my mother came in the studio to watch and she practically fainted because I wore an almost black lipstick--it was such a dark purplish brown that it looked black--and makeup the color of that couch." She gestured to the orangy-brown studio couch. "It looked fine on the tube because the lights were so strong they washed everything out, but it looked terrible (in person), like a Halloween monster."
Later, she appeared on the CBS Colgate Comedy Show with Tony Martin in a ballet about toys that came to life. One of the toys was Harpo Marx. ("He played, and I danced.") Martin and wife, Cyd Charisse, both members of Ballet Pacifica's star-studded honorary ball committee, whose chairman is Gene Kelly, is expected to attend the anniversary celebration.
Zali met Kelly on the set of her first film, "An American in Paris." Wearing a striped dress and a little straw hat, she danced in one scene with six other girls and co-star Leslie Caron ("I think I'm the one closest to her").
Although she enjoyed working with Kelly and loved the bountiful salary--especially in comparison to a dancer's meager income--Zali found film making maddeningly discontinuous and hedged with rigid protocol.
As Caron's double in "Gigi," Zali was sent out to a park every day for two weeks to try to attract a flock of recalcitrant swans so Gigi could be filmed feeding them. Zali had to wear Caron's own costume because "some bright character decided (the swans) would be able to tell the scent."
Every day for two weeks, she went out to the lake with the required cortege of chauffeur, hairdresser, makeup person and the assistant director. They sat around and played cards while she offered food to the swans and finally coaxed them to eat from her hand.
"Then came shooting, and the whole crew came--all these technicians, hundreds of people--and the swans took off to the other side of the lake and never returned."
But she was not one to bank her future on small dancing parts in films, however lucrative they might be. Diversifying with the aplomb of a one-woman corporation, Zali became a co-founder (with former Ballets Russes dancer Michel Panaieff) of Ballet Musicale, a forerunner of Los Angeles City Ballet.