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A Legacy in Motion

When her daughter was struck and killed by a van, Liza Bercovici committed to memorializing the 13-year-old's love of dance by founding programs for underserved youths.

June 27, 2001|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

July 24, 1999: It is the last day--in fact, the last mile--of the Axelrad family vacation. Liza Bercovici and her husband, David Axelrad, Studio City attorneys, are bicycling in Grand Teton national park with their children, Gabriella, 13, and Jake, 8. It is an empty road, a gorgeous place, a perfect finale to the annual summer excursion. "We never took vacations without the kids," Liza would later say. "Maybe we should have."

A van appears. The young man at the wheel is changing a CD. In an eye-blink, he swerves and hits Gabriella at 50 mph. Her tall, slim dancer's body flies up off the bike and away. Her mother remembers almost nothing of the tragedy beyond that moment. The daughter whom she describes as "the light of our life" is dead.

June 16, 2001: On this humid Saturday night, 23 months after Gabriella's death, hundreds pack the rented auditorium of a school at First and Vermont. They are there to watch 300 children, their cherished children, dance. The audience is diverse--Asian, African American, European, South and Central American. They are all puffed up and expectant, these parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and siblings of children who study at a new dance academy that opened one year ago in the Wilshire district, across from LaFayette Park. It is a part of town not known for high cultural events, or for parents able to afford private lessons in the arts for their kids. The audience understands that the children who will perform are a very lucky few: They are recipients of a gift from a child who died, and who left her mother to fulfill the meaning of her life.

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The performance is golden. Three hundred dancers, ages 4 to 14, scrubbed and shining, hair combed flat and back from their faces, in black dancer's garb and making impeccably elegant moves to the strains of Mozart, Enya, Madonna, Manhattan Transfer, the Mighty Blue Kings, to name a few of the selections.

The audience responds with awe and admiration. It knows excellence when it sees it. Observers might not realize that the five who teach jazz, tap, ballet, hip-hop and flamenco to their kids, free of charge, are some of the best children's dance instructors in the world. One trained with London's Royal ballet, all have danced professionally and taught privately around the globe.

The performance over, the room erupts in chants of " Liza, Liza, Liza."

Bercovici takes a quick, modest bow and heads for the lunchroom next door, where she sets out 90 pizzas she's purchased and desserts the parents have brought.

It is a celebration of achievement, an appreciation of art. It is a kind of Fellini-esque picnic, with the big tables jampacked with even bigger families, their plates piled high. Bercovici, 48, receives soulful thank-yous from parents who understand what she has endured and overcome--and given to their kids.

At evening's end, she, her husband and sons (Jake, now 10 and Joe, 19) tote huge plastic bags around the room to pick up the trash.

Nobody says it, but everyone knows: Gabriella was there.

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The story of how this mother channeled grief into an extraordinary achievement in her daughter's name is just beginning to unfold.

There will soon be more than 1,000 dance students in the program, called Everybody Dance, which is expanding to three more locations near downtown Los Angeles--areas even poorer than the housing project where the program began. Students at several new charter schools--including one she helped launch--will also get free dance instruction.

Dance lessons are a fraction of what Bercovici might ultimately achieve under the umbrella of the Gabriella Axelrad Education Foundation, the nonprofit group Bercovici organized less than a year after her daughter's death.

She has already located funds and organized a community-based group to overhaul Lafayette Park itself, to build a stage and gymnasium where the 15,000 children who live within a square mile of the park will be able to study, perform, do sports, exercise and have fun.

But in the months right after her child's death, Bercovici said, she, too, "just wanted to die."

They returned home to Studio City on the day of the accident. "I was traumatized, on medication, the next few months were a blur. Not just me, of course, but our whole family. We were so close-knit, and Gabri was our center. Joe was older, finishing at Harvard-Westlake [High School], starting his own outside life. Gabri and Jake were still kids, still there. They were very close, and she was such a good sister. She was still at an age where she wanted to be with me a lot -- we were just crazy about each other. "

And Gabriella loved to dance.

"She would go into rooms by herself, turn on music and just dance. Eventually, she took classes--she was so graceful, had this natural sense of rhythm and movement. Dancing made her happy ....It was what really mattered in her life."

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