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Stepping Up to the Challenge

Performing arts students will display talents at showcase.


Would-be ballerinas and dance devotees can get a stage full of inspiration Saturday when the Van Nuys Performing Arts Center puts on its Spring Showcase at Cal State Northridge.

Students in the program train with teachers who have extensive performing careers--and Emmys and American Choreographer Awards to boot. Artistic director and center co-founder Joe Malone has performed in more than 100 television shows.

"We are a training facility, not a performing facility," said Malone. "Our emphasis is on training artists to develop the skills they'll need to have a long and wonderful professional career. Of course, performing is part of this, but developing themselves and laying a strong foundation is the important part."

Darlene Dirstine, 21, said she has been taking classes at the center since its opening in 1992.

"It's my home away from home," said Dirstine, who won a scholarship to the Alvin Ailey Dance School in New York, where she now teaches.

She said the center's instructors are devoted not only to teaching, but also to the students themselves.

"It's very rare to find a studio that can train a dancer in all disciplines so that when they do ballet they look like a ballet dancer, when they do jazz they look like a jazz dancer, and when they do tap they look like a tap dancer," she said.

A veteran of several Spring Showcases, Dirstine said she benefited from the friendly competition, long hours of rehearsal and knowledge that the hard work would be rewarded. "It made learning and working more fun," she said.

With nearly 600 students, the center provides scholarships to children whose families cannot afford the tuition. An apprentice program is available for aspiring professionals between the ages of 18 and 25, and all students are asked to sign a contract pledging their commitment to attendance and teamwork.

Cara Walsh, 29, a teacher and choreographer, has been working with a core group of dancers for what she and many others hope will be the foundation of an L.A.-based ballet company.

Her recent premiere performance of "Break Away," is a contemporary and sometimes witty ballet that features dancers wearing backpacks and tutus. Her choreography blends ballet, jazz and a bit of the martial arts, reflecting her skills as a black belt in Tang Soo Do.

Trained in classical ballet by center co-founder Louise Mandel, many of the dancers in "Break Away" study at advanced levels.

Some have been chosen as semifinalists and finalists in the Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Awards.

To raise interest and support for an L.A. ballet, an encore presentation of "Break Away" will be performed June 17 at the center.


Spring Showcase, Saturday, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. at CSUN's Performing Arts Center, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge. $10 general admission. Call 346-4447. "Break Away," June 17, 8 p.m., at the Van Nuys Performing Arts Center, 15934 Strathern St., Van Nuys. Free. For reservations, call (818) 346-4447.

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