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Sleeping Beauties

In a Neighborhood Not Known for Its Ballerinas, the Dreams and Talents of Young Dancers Blossom Under the Disciplined Training of Mario Nugara and the City of Angels Ballet


Faces look down on the streets from a brick apartment building on 9th Street, where clumps of schoolchildren gather on sidewalks and slowly make their way home. Laundry hangs in windows, catching the sun and gathering a thin afternoon breeze bearing Latin music that sweeps through Pico-Union.

It is a part of Los Angeles talked about primarily for its gunfire and gangs, for its alcohol and drugs, for the struggles of those who in many instances come to America with little money and desperate hope.

It is also a place of grace, says Mario Nugara, evident in the way that so many of the immigrant families invest wholeheartedly in their children's dreams, in the way that love flourishes and faith sustains.

Samantha Ortega, 9, walks this way three times a week with her 10-year-old brother, who sometimes races her to the corner, and her mother, who pushes a baby stroller. They walk more than a mile past blocks of gated doors and windows, razor wire coiled above fences, men pushing shopping carts. Their destination is the Red Shield Community Center of the Salvation Army, where Nugara, artistic director of the City of Angels Ballet, adds to the grace already present in their lives.

A 1991 Fulbright scholar, Nugara has taught and performed around the world. He danced with the New York City Ballet while training at the School of American Ballet and later danced with the Boston Ballet and Fort Worth Ballet.

In 1993, soon after having taught in Denmark and Sweden, Nugara came to Pico-Union with a unique and bold plan. Through an art form rooted in 17th century French royalty, he set out to build an inner-city program that would become an academy, and in his vision he saw the academy feeding dancers into a resident program for the city of Los Angeles.

"I know it's ambitious," he says. "I wanted to start in the inner city because I think everybody deserves a chance. There's incredible talent here, and it's largely untapped."

Samantha is in her second year of the program. Nugara came to her school one day, she says, and talked to students about ballet. He looked at her feet, which made her feel a bit awkward, and told her she should consider ballet.

She had seen a picture in a window once of a ballerina and was immediately taken by her beauty. Heeding Nugara's suggestion, she asked her mother, Rosa Avilez, if she could take lessons.

Of course, Avilez said. It is why she came here from Honduras in 1985. Here, she says, there are opportunities to learn. Samantha, who also studies the violin, already has assembled a fluid and far-reaching list of potential careers: nurse, doctor, ballerina, firefighter. They're all good dreams, her mother says.

They live in a small apartment and have no car. When Avilez was pregnant last year, even two days before giving birth, she walked her children to the Salvation Army because, she says, her children's lives mean everything to her.

Almost all of the students are on scholarships and pay nothing for lessons. They come from varied backgrounds and from about 15 different schools. It is vital, Nugara says, for the program to reflect L.A.'s diversity.

Aracely Gomez came to America from El Salvador. Her daughter Vannesa, 12, has been dancing 2 1/2 years. They take two buses to get to the center six days a week. Last year, Gomez had surgery, and Vannesa missed lessons for two weeks.

"When I was sick, I was glad Vannesa had her ballet because it makes her feel happy and loved," Gomez says through an interpreter. "She doesn't feel so much sadness."

Following the surgery, even when she was in pain, she would bring Vannesa to lessons, she says. "She loves it so much, I will do anything so she can dance."

Heather Ferguson, 15, is from Hacienda Heights. She met Nugara two years ago, when she was training at the Palm Springs Ballet Co., where Nugara was a guest instructor. Impressed by his knowledge and teaching sensibilities, she transferred to City of Angels.

Heather started lessons when she was 7 and has since qualified for highly competitive summer programs sponsored by the Pacific Northwest Ballet, School of America Ballet and San Francisco Ballet.

The bond she feels with the other students, she says, is built of a shared commitment to ballet, a shared stirring within that is expressed through dance.

Lydia Shook, 13, a third-year student, is from Hancock Park. Her mother, Lynne, is a psychotherapist; her father, Thomas, is a neurosurgeon and chairs the City of Angels Ballet Board of Directors.

"We come for two reasons, equally important," Lynne Shook says. "One is Mario. We think he's the best teacher in the city. The other reason is the other students. I think if you live in Los Angeles and you raise children in Los Angeles, it's really important that your children make contact with all other kinds of children in this city. I wouldn't live here if we didn't have the opportunity to do that."

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