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Fledgling Ventura Ballet Troupe Keeps Girls on Their Toes

Ensemble learns the meaning of the word 'practice.' The group, as well as In-Motion and Plexus companies, will dance at annual festival.


A small herd of dancers flits across the polished plywood floors of the Performance Studio in downtown Ventura, their toe shoes thudding at a volume disproportionate to the girls' diminutive size.

If the years from 11 to 14 are awkward, these eight girls--members of a year-old company, the Young Dancers Ensemble--don't show it. They perform plies, releves and arabesques with grace and precision.

The troupe is instructed by Linda Strangio-Hedberg, who also runs a dance instruction program called Ballet in the Schools. The Young Dancers Ensemble represents the creme de la creme of the roughly 60 kids enrolled in her classes at two Ventura County elementary schools.

Though the young dancers have performed a handful of times around Ventura, the ensemble will make its official debut Saturday at the Festival of Dance at the Ventura College Theatre. Now in its third year, the festival also will include performances by Los Angeles Classical Ballet's principal dancer, Anton Labuschagne with partner Sarah Dinmore, Moorpark College's In-Motion Dance Company, and Plexus Dance Theatre with its new apprentice company, Plexus II.


Between the ballet classes--which concentrate on form--and rehearsals and focus on specific pieces--many of the young dancers work with Strangio-Hedberg about five days a week. During the week, the sessions have to be an hour here, an hour there, tucked in among homework and the other activities that keep these girls busy. They make up for that on weekends, said Strangio-Hedberg, who used to rehearse up to six hours a day as a member of the Munich National Ballet.

Life as a professional dancer requires long, laborious hours, of which the young dancers are just getting a taste. "Ballet has to be one of the most difficult art forms. You have to take classes every day of the week. You have to work hard," said Hallie Drake, 13, of Ventura. "You can't accept that no one's perfect. You really have to make yourself think that you have to be perfect."

Even though some of the dancers have only been en pointe--performing in toe shoes--for a little over a year, they also know that the road to a professional career is a long one. You might go to a five-hour rehearsal but perform for just five minutes, said Jennifer Whalen of Ventura. "You just have to be patient," she said. "It's a slow process becoming a good dancer."

Some members of the Young Dancers Ensemble are on their way. Six of them auditioned for the highly competitive Joffrey Ballet Summer School--and all were accepted. In their uniform black leotards and white tights, hair pulled back into buns, they indeed look like a little piece of Joffrey.

Eleven-year-old Whalen, too young for the Joffrey program, is going to Vail, Colo., this summer for a Bolshoi-affiliated dance camp. At the barre for a solo in "Somewhere in Time," the neoclassical piece the Young Dancers will perform at the festival, Whalen looks to be mostly legs en pointe. When she breaks away from the barre, it is not with the tentative steps you'd expect from such coltish limbs, but with confident strides and positions.

The five movements of "Somewhere in Time" explore the relationship between up-and-coming dancers. One section, for example, shows the ever-shifting boundary between friend and rival. The girls push one another to the floor, then help pull one another up. They pair up in an embrace, then break apart.

Strangio-Hedberg, who choreographed the ballet, said the piece isn't about her experience as a budding professional dancer. Rather, it's inspired by the Young Dancers themselves, how they've become confidantes while being competitors.


Another movement reflects Strangio-Hedberg's hope that the girls will maintain these friendships. The dancers pass a letter from one to another, each treating the page as a partner, dancing with it in a different style. In the end, the letter is dropped, left behind, forgotten.

The Performance Studio at the Livery in Ventura also is home to another dance troupe, this one preparing some older teens. Pamela Pilkenton, artistic director of 10-year-old Plexus Dance Theatre, started an apprentice company last December. The six dancers who make up Plexus II all have ballet training, but are now taking a stab at modern dance.

There are no recitals per se for dance students at the Performance Studio. It has been Pilkenton's philosophy instead to use the dancers in specific projects. Last December, six dancers were chosen for Plexus' "Clara Cries Nuts!" That group became Plexus II. Because these dancers may be heading off to college soon, Pilkenton said, it is important for them to be performance-minded and ready for auditions.

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